Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why We Volunteer

We’re sometimes asked “why do you volunteer?”  After all, we’re in our golden years of retirement, and could park in a resort, sit around the pool, and play Bingo each night.  So here’s our story:

When we decided to retire to a motor home, we knew we wanted to do something other than just travel, spend time in RV parks, and visit attractions.  Both Brenda and I were always interested in learning more about wildlife, birds, and history, but work, family, and life in general never gave us the time.  And so we decided to give volunteering at try.

We started by searching volunteer.gov, where every federal and some state volunteer positions are advertised.  We settled on searching for openings with US Fish & Wildlife, and sent off applications to the few that interested us. Refuge Sign One day, while out shopping, we received a call from the volunteer coordinator at Lee Metcalf NWR in Stevensville, Montana asking us if we were interested in spending the summer there.  We’d be the first “resident” volunteers to stay on their new RV pads, so it was a first for both of us.  We accepted, and that April 2006 was the beginning of a journey that has far exceeded our hopes and dreams of full-time RVing. 

Volunteer Photo2We look back now and are so grateful that we were lucky enough to fall into Lee Metcalf NWR as our first experience.  The staff was welcoming, the area was incredibly beautiful, the wildlife was spectacular, and most of all we were encouraged to explore and learn.  We laugh now looking back – we were given a set of keys to the visitor center and told “You guys are it on the weekends”, and knowing we’d be asked questions about the many birds and waterfowl on the refuge, spent hours poring through Sibley Birding Guides and quizzing each other.  It wasn’t long before we realized that we were having fun learning – and enjoying being able to share our newfound knowledge.  Within a month, we were comfortable in explaining wildlife to visitors, helping teach children’s environmental education, and leading tours. 

Spending a summer in the Bitterroot Valley gave us an opportunity to explore some of the country that is billed as “the last best place”.  Brenda saw her first moose, I caught cutthroat trout in remote mountain streams, and we made lifetime friends that we still visit every year. 

Yaquina Head 2016Since that experience we’ve volunteered at other US Fish & Wildlife locations, Oregon and Washington State Parks, The Nature Conservancy, and the Bureau of Land Management.  With very few exceptions, we’ve been welcomed, appreciated, and best of all, educated in a new facet of nature.  We’ve become proficient “birders”, versed in the history of the fisheries of the Western US, and amateur naturalists.  We’ve led wildlife and nature walks, given evening programs on Seals and Sea Lions, and guided people at Pacific tide pools.  Kids w pond waterBut most of all, we’ve had the opportunity to teach children about the wonders of nature as “Junior Ranger” program hosts.  We look back to our first volunteer job, where Bob, our boss and mentor once said “we’re raising a generation of flat screen children, and if we don’t get them involved in nature, we’ll loose our parks and refuges”.  New Junior RangersWe’ve taken those words to heart, and whenever possible concentrate on getting children engaged and interested.  We’ve found that even disinterested young teens will drop the attitude of “what-ever”, and become interested if you present nature in an interesting way. 

Interp Host (small)After a few years, we decided that we’d focus on “interpretive” hosting only, although we’ve done a bit of maintenance here and there.  In the volunteer world, “interpretive hosting” is understood as the means to explain nature and wildlife in terms that are interesting, easy to understand, and relevant to the audience.  It’s often confusing to campers, like the lady that knocked on our door with a letter written in Spanish and wanted us to translate it for her.  We explained that we couldn’t do that, and she pointed to our sign; “but it says you’re interpretive hosts”.

Lake Como ProgramTeaching children has given us so many great memories.  Like the French children whose mother was frustrated because they wouldn’t remove their beaded , salamander necklaces that they made at a Junior Ranger class – even to sleep or shower.  Crafting the SalamanerOr the little boy, who after being issued his Junior Ranger badge and taught the “secret” sign, ran to his grandfather yelling, “grandpa, grandpa!” “I learned the secret sign!”…..”I’ll show it to you for five bucks!”  But most of all, the mother of a learning-disabled child who broke down in tears telling us that he had recited everything we’d taught him about hummingbirds – something he’d never done before. 

Humbug Mtn SiteBesides the enjoyment we get from sharing our knowledge, there are other advantages to volunteering.  As part of the volunteer agreement, we’re given a free site with full hookups, and sometimes other perks such as a phone line or washer/dryer access.  Most of the sites are superior to the camping sites, and some, like at refuges, are spacious and away from the crowd.

Visitor Center 1 MaySpending three months or so in an area also gives us a chance to explore.  We choose volunteer sites based on the location; places we’re interested in spending time exploring and learning about.  The Bitterroot Valley of Montana, surrounded by the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains was like nothing we’d ever seen, and our stay gave us the Rushmore through Treeschance to visit the Big Hole valley and battlefield, Glacier National Park, and follow the route of Lewis and Clark.  Our time in Spearfish, SD gave us the chance to follow Custer’s route through the black hills, travel the Needles Highway, see Mount Rushmore, DFerry with Cascadesevil’s Tower, and get in some great trout fishing.  The northern Washington coast was amazing for its view of the Olympic Mountains and the Straits of Juan de Fuca.  We rode the ferry to Seattle and Whidbey Island, toured Forks and Twilight’s land of Vampires and Werewolves, and visited snow-covered Yaquina Lighthouse2Mount Hood.  But of all the great places we’ve been, we keep coming back to the Oregon Coast.  The beauty of sea stacks and pounding surf, the amazing wildlife and the abundance of berries and seafood, and the temperate climate keep drawing us back.  We still haven’t found the perfect place to settle down some day, but the Oregon Coast edges out Montana by just a bit so far.  But there are more places to see….

An important part of our life that we hadn’t really considered was the joy of learning and understating the world around us.  We’ve taught people about birds, raptors, and waterfowl, led wildlife and nature walks, explained the history of fisheries in the west, coastal defense of the Northwest, and lighthouse history; developed programs about seals and sea lions, and guided visitors at tide pools.  All of this was new to us, and the challenge of learning new subjects at each location has been invigorating and we think, keeps us young at heart.  This from a couple, who at retirement only knew birds as Robins and all others, ducks as Mallards and all others, and who thought all Seals and Sea Lions were the same.

And finally, we’ve made so many good friends – fellow volunteers, refuge and park staff, and visitors.  We’ve found that we’re a part of a community wherever we go, and visit friends we made wherever we travel.  We all have the same thing in common, we’re not competing with each other, and we all truly love what we do.  What could be better than that?

We don’t have any plans to stop what we’re doing, and look forward to many more adventures. If you’re interested in joining us on the volunteer road, let us know, we'd be glad to help in any way. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

It’s Time to Build an Ark

Sometimes I think we’re cursed.  Almost every time we spend  more than a couple of months somewhere, they have the worst weather in (pick one) ten/twenty/100 years.  Bandon, where we’re staying, averages 55 inches of rain per year – as of today it’s rained 45 inches since January 1st.  And that doesn’t include the record December rainfall.  We’ve experienced leaks in our motor home in places we’ve never had leaks before, watched ducks merrily swimming around the fields, and we’re starting to grow webbing between our toes.  But, as we learned while being stationed in the Puget Sound area years ago, you put on your rain suit, hike up your boots, and act like it’s a dry (but cloudy) day.  And it’s still a place that amazes us – the pounding surf, marine mammals/shorebirds, and great folks to work with have made our stay here worthwhile.

Bandon Marsh RV SiteWe’ve moved to the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), a part of the Oregon Coast NWR, where we’re volunteering.  Since we were already staying in Bandon until moving south to volunteer this summer, we were offered the opportunity to move to the refuge and help out with projects.  We truly appreciate the offer; we’re alone on a gated large site surround by forest, with only Black-tailed Deer and Pocket Gophers for neighbors.  We’ve had the chance to do a bit of interpretive work helping visitors understand marine mammals at Simpson Reef, but the weather has kept us inside most of the time.  One project we’ve worked on is the building of Pigeon Guillemot nesting boxes, a project headed by Oregon State University.  The plan is to install cameras in the boxes, then mount them under docks where they’ll be accessible to the Guillemots and the nesting and raising of young can be studied.  Mike, a volunteer and part-time neighbor did the bulk of the work while Brenda and I helped assemble and paint the boxes.   They’ll be delivered and set up soon, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they work.

We’ve been surprised by the number of hummingbirds in our area this time of year.  We’ve put out Allen's on Guardfeeders and often have half a dozen or more Allen’s and Anna’s buzzing around.  One of the Allen’s males is fiercely protective of the feeders.  All day, in the pounding rain and wind, he sits…..looking left and right…..daring another hummingbird to get even close to his feeder.  When another approaches, he quickly drives them off, get a drink……and sits, waiting for the next intruder.  We’ve been shopping on Amazon for a raincoat and umbrella for him, but so far no luck….

For people of my generation, there are some things that we just can’t get used to seeing.  Driving through the small town of Charleston, we passed this new store. Cannabis Store Although the use of marijuana is a foreign concept to us, it must be popular since even with a 25% tax for most of the year, the Oregon state tax revenue exceeded $60M.   I’ve been trying, without success, to convince Brenda that there’s a market for Marijuana Cheesecake.  Your support would be appreciated.

Bandon recently held it’s first-ever Gorse Blossom Festival, otherwise known as the “make up something to sell wine and beer at” festival.  Celebrating Gorse is Gorse on the Beachsorta like throwing a party for hemorrhoid pain (and yes, there is an analogy here).  We think of Gorse as Bandon’s Kudzu – you can see and read about our experience with Kudzu by clicking here.  In many ways, Gorse is worse than Kudzu – it’s almost impossible to kill, forms an impenetrable barrier, and burns like napalm.  Gorse ViewHistory tells us that Lord Bennett, the founder of Bandon, brought it with him from Scotland to remind him of home.  Today, it’s everywhere; vacant lots, roadsides, the beaches - all covered with Gorse.  It looks pretty from a distance, but get closer and you can see that each plant is a veritable thorn factory.  Gorse Close UpAnd to add to the mix, Gorse leafs burn with the intensity of diesel fuel.  In 1936, a fire broke out near Bandon, spread to the Gorse in town, and of the 500 structures, only 16 were left intact, 10 people were killed, and Bandon was effectively wiped off the map.  Oh, and it loves fire – it will come back stronger, also the seeds can remain dormant for over 50 years, and cutting it just makes it grow faster.  Only Bandon Dunes Golf Course has benefited, claiming the course is a replica of St. Andrews complete with wind, fog, and of course, Gorse.  It’s a good thing Lord Bennett is long dead, there are folks in town who would love to find his grave, dig him up, and roast his corpse over a Gorse fire. 

This is the time of year when the Pacific produces mighty storms – we’ve been treated to the sight of 30 foot waves pummeling the beach.  And with the winter storms come piles of debris– huge trees that pile up like pick-up sticks everywhere.  Here are a couple of my favorite images:Beach Rubble

Bandon Beach Feb17

We’ll be here until the end of March and still have a lot to see and do, so check back!  We’ll leave you with this image of a sunset taken near Heceta Head, a beautiful spot north of us:Heceta Head Sunset2