By: Atlee Hargis
There are many cliché phrases that rarely live up to their intended meaning, but for the Rivers Crew of the Ames, Iowa branch of Conservation Corps, the statement, variety is the spice of life, is without a doubt the most apt description of our eight day spike in South Dakota.
Our journey to Lacreek merits some mention. As a Midwestern native, I've spent the majority of my life surrounded by corn and soybeans fields. In what was once vast swaths of prairie interspersed with wetlands, now is the same monoculture crop selection for miles. It's no surprise the Midwest has been dubbed the flyover states.
As we neared the end of our drive out to Lacreek from Ames the landscape changed dramatically. Rather than the typical flat, farmlands we began to drive through rolling yellow hills that went on as far as the eye could see. If the Arch at St. Louis is the Gateway to the West, then the Sand Hills are the driveway. It was as though we had fallen into a Spaghetti Western film. As we gawked out the windows of our truck, the navigation assistant squawked at us to turn off Route 20 onto a small, paved road that rolled over the hills heading north. At this point I would offer a word of advice to anyone traveling to the more sparsely populated areas of America: your GPS is often wrong.
For the next hour we slowly worked our way along the boundary of Lacreek's many burn units. It became immediately obvious when we arrived in South Dakota as the road turned from minimally maintained pavement to barely discernible dirt tracks. One might have seen this as an unfortunate turn that cut into our unpacking time, but serendipity intervened and we took the chance to collect an overview of the refuge we would spend the next week working on.
As the sun sunk slowly into the horizon, the brilliance of the Western sky unraveled in front of us. By the time we had arrived at our bunkhouse there was just enough time to unload our personal belongings and get setup for the night. With mere moments to spare, Jake and I made our way to the top of Lacreek’s observation tower to get a real good look at the refuge as the sunset blanketed the weaving prairie in a warm glow. It was at that moment when I took a breath and thought to myself how fortunate I was to be able to not simply experience such a magical moment, but to do it while serving with the Conservation Corps. Our work hadn't even begun, but it seemed immediately obvious just how exciting and enjoyable the next seven days would be.
Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge, one of more than 560 wildlife refuges in the United States, sits comfortably between the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Badlands in South Dakota. Approximately eight miles from the nearest town of Martin, SD is the interior of Lacreek. Here you will find a modest visitor's center that doubles as office space for the refuges permanent staff and a simple museum and history area. Of par note, the wall of the reception area is covered in examples of some of the many species of birds found at Lacreek, along with a curious bobcat, one of the larger predators found at Lacreek.
It was here, the next morning, that we were introduced to Todd, our main project host and the refuges assistant manager, Brian, the primary manager of the refuge, and Shilo, the staff biologist. After exchanging our own introductions we hopped into our truck to follow Shilo out to a unit that had been burned a week prior. There we got our first chance to experience the other side of prairie management. While our initial hope and expectation was to spend most of our week doing prescribed burning, the wind had other plans. Once again, serendipity gave us our silver lining. Tuesday was our chance to begin the rebuilding process for a prairie and wetland unit.
Our crew, along with Shilo, spread barrels full of seed throughout a burn unit over the course of the morning. In the process of doing so we found various intriguing items like skulls of coyotes, deer antler sheds, and a couple of unlucky snakes that were unable to outrun the fire. The patchy burn that was left behind as evidence of a fast moving fire further fueled our desires to engage in our crews first prescribed burn.
Before we could be rewarded, more important and vital work needed to be done. Following lunch we were served up an opportunity to learn more about just how the refuge gets it’s seed and what techniques exist to prep and spread it. It should be noted that we were all wearing our fire resistant clothing throughout the morning, which feature a number of Velcro pockets. As you can imagine, spreading small, wispy seeds on a windy day results in quite a lot of seed and other plant matter in very itchy places. Despite my best efforts, I think there may still be a few forbs and grasses lodged deep in the fabric of my Nomex. It is for this reason that I am thankful for the previous CCI crews that came through Lacreek who helped to gather and mill the seed we were distributing on that day.
After we had taken our tour of the seed facility we loaded up Shilo's truck full of a few more barrels. It was here that we met her dog, Ziggy, a curious and well-behaved fellow. Ziggy watched as we rolled out to a unit just south of the main complex. Here half of us spread seed along burn patches that had been used for log piles while the other half consolidated further burn piles, work that would later prove useful.
We ended the work day with one of Sarah's delicious home cooked meals, making great use of our bunkhouse’s full kitchen. We then settled in for the night, not knowing what exactly was waiting for us in the morning.
Todd greeted us at the office Wednesday morning with a small, but necessary task of thinning the trees along a bird trail just east of the complex. We fired up our saws and knocked the project out in no time, savoring the sight of flocking pelicans in-between cuts. The word came through that today was a burn day and the sense of excitement within the crew was palpable. As we quickly ate our lunch and got our fire gear in line, I could hardly contain my own feelings of anticipation.
Arriving at the shop we were greeted by Brian, who would act as a crew boss for the day. Todd, who was the burn boss, gave us a briefing of the unit we would be burning. It was then that we realized just how interesting the afternoon would be. Instead of a much smaller unit that was originally planned, we would also be burning the large mixed pool in front of the complex, a 600 acre unit!
Despite our desire to start torching, we adhered to the old saying ‘hurry up and wait'. We watched as crews from the Forest Service and National Park Service rolled in to assist on the burn. The grizzled looking veterans of countless fires chatted as we stood by in our small group, watching on. Before too long Todd gave the full briefing and we were separated into two groups. Lexie and I went with Brian and we’re assigned to run a two mile burn line along the northwest border of the unit.
Everyone rendezvoused at the southwest corner of the pool to get some black on the ground and get our foot in. After which, Lexie hopped over a channel into the thick stuff while I settled on the downslope side of a dike constructed by our predecessors, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
I had never used a drip torch before, but Brian was eager and willing to give me the rundown. Within minutes I was putting fire on the ground and the burn was on. Our group worked a strong and fast pace, getting solid fire and eventually a great smoke column. I eventually moved to the inside of the channel and was walking through knee deep grasses, putting down fire as 10 foot tall flames licked the air behind me. Lexie and I were spoiled by the exceptional quality of our burn unit. Despite the arduous nature of carrying a drip torch for miles through thick prairie, occasionally swallowing hot smoke and walking through thick marshy grasses, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
When all was said and done we were dirty, a little wet, and tired, but very happy at having experienced such an awesome job. Todd debriefed the whole team before releasing the teams that we’re called in to assist in the burn. Then the real work began… those burn piles that had been consolidated yesterday were now smoldering and required further mop up and maintenance to ensure everything was burned through and cleaned up. We worked right up to sunset before hauling back to the bunkhouse, once again taking a moment to stop and watch the sun set over our newly burned prairie.
The next few days were a mix of small projects that allowed us to both experience the full extent of the refuge as well as build and acquire unique new skills. I had no idea there was a piece of equipment designed to pull fence posts out of the ground, but apparently I was born to make good use of it.
Before we knew it the last work day was upon us. We had seeded, burned, sawed, pulled and collected nails, screws, and staples, swept, swamped, cut out tree fabric, consolidated brush piles, removed fence posts, washed a Marsh Master, and driven miles upon miles. All the while seeing and learning new things every day thanks to our project hosts.
As a reward for our hard work, Todd treated us to a morning of bird watching and exploring other areas of the refuge we had not yet seen. As an avid birder and photographer, I'm sure you can probably guess just how much I relished this experience. Everything from pheasant to Burrowing Owls, all kinds of ducks and wading birds, snipe, raptors, and even a pair of Bald Eagles made an appearance. It was a good thing I had my bird list and a pen, because I checked off quite a few species that morning.
We said our goodbyes and finished off our little bit of work left to do before Todd released us to take a day trip up to the Badlands. It was this experience that helped to solidify this trip as one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life. What most people might only see out of the window of their airplane, I and my fellow crew members helped to restore and maintain. The ‘modest’ 13,000+ acres at Lacreek seemed massive to my eyes and even though we had only done a small part, we still left our mark. Just as past crews had left there's, the Rivers Crew of Conservation Corps Iowa made a difference. In just one short week, I feel confident in saying we grew closer as a team and made both splendid connections, learning from a diverse and seasoned group of professionals, and made wonderful memories to forever look back on. Even though we were the ones asked to come and provide our services, I feel it is appropriate to say thank you to Todd, Brian, Shilo and everyone else at Lacreek for having us and for all of the hard work they do everyday. I'm sure I can speak for the whole Rivers crew when I say we would be more than happy to return and help out again anytime.