By: Ben Schian and Jess Michalski

In day-to-day life, most people have routines. They go do similar tasks at similar jobs in similar locations. This is not one of those stories. We have been experiencing a job that requires an understanding that everything changes, and that is the one consistency. Change has been the underlying theme of our time with the ACE National Visitor Survey team. We have found an abundance of changes throughout the two months of being on the road. When we began our journey to Fort Collins, CO for training, we arrived unsure of where the job would take us. We found out that we would be traveling across the entire US, coast to coast which was definitely unexpected as we had thought that we would be surveying just one region!

Immediately upon transferring towards our work assignment we felt the changes of being on the road.

Bald Knob NWR, AR

Bald Knob NWR has one of the most intricate water systems to manage waterways for waterfowl. (Photo by: Jess Michalski)


From the moment we left Fort Collins, Colorado everything began to change. In fact on our very first travel day our campsite changed, when we arrived and noticed that there was a nicer campsite open a few sites away from where we had originally planned. On our second day of travel from Fort Collins to Bald Knob, our plans also changed as we were originally going to camp in the Ozark National Forest, and instead camped about an hour from Bald Knob, at a campsite called Cove Creek. Before our sampling ever began, before we had even arrived at our first refuge we realized there would be constant change and that one thing that we would have to get comfortable with was adaptability. (Spoiler alert: we have become incredibly adaptable).

As natives of Niagara Falls, NY the first big change we had to adapt to was the change in temperature from New York to Arkansas. During our time in the “Natural State” it was consistently over 90 degrees. This high heat may have been a deterrent for refuge visitors, but the wildlife at Bald Knob sure seemed to enjoy the end of the summer. In the hot air you could always see great blue herons and white egrets flying around, until the heat became too much and they settled into the intricate waterways that the refuge maintains. Among the herons and egrets you could also see tons of butterflies and dragonflies, unless they were hiding away in the dense trees that cover close to half of the refuge.

As for Bald Knob, our time there was during the change of seasons between the end of summer and the start of fall. One thing we are sure of after leaving Bald Knob is that it will be a completely different experience for our friends sampling during period 2 in the fall!

Santee NWR, SC

At the Cuddo Unit’s wildlife drive, days went by without seeing any American Alligators, until one day that changed- and we saw this +12 foot alligator! (Photo by Ben Schian)

Upon leaving Bald Knob, we had the opportunity to camp in Alabama, at Monte Sano State Park, as our housemate in Arkansas (an Alabama-native) recommended. It was beautiful and peaceful full of white-tailed deer who roamed freely nearby. Just in time for sunset, it was wonderful through the trees. The next night we got to camp at Congaree National Park (sweet job right?!) but the coolest part was that we were the only visitors in the park camping that night! Imagine an empty National Park, with a full moon (and of course plenty of massive spider webs to dodge!) That was an experience like none other! The next morning we arrived at Santee NWR in South Carolina.

Sunset through the forests at Santee NWR. (Photo by: Jess Michalski)

Santee is a 13,000 acre refuge on the edge of Lake Marion, the largest lake (Reservoir) in the state. We encountered our first American alligators, plenty of wild turkeys, as well as white-tailed deer, raccoons, hawks, and one very large snake. The folks at Santee were friendly; however, we met very few people. We tried to not take this too personally…the refuge biologist told us that visitation is hit-and-miss, especially with the transitional seasons. Just another change for us to roll with. Onto coastal South Carolina…

Cape Romain NWR, SC

Imagine all the changes this tree at Bull Island (>1,000 years old) has seen! (Photo by Ben Schian)

Although Cape Romain was only approximately 1 hour from our last refuge, Santee NWR, it was a completely different experience. Upon arrival our schedule was still pretty much up in the air, and that quickly turned during our orientation with a very sweet refuge manager. She booked us a ride on a ferry to the uninhabited Bull Island where we surveyed for our first shift- a once in a lifetime experience and something vastly different from what we had done until then. Our next sampling day we had another once in a lifetime experience as we got to sample visitors during a red wolf feeding. There are about 20 red wolves left in the wild so it was very cool to see them walking around and eating (and hanging out with their vulture friend) while we also sampled visitors. With change in mind, hopefully the population changes for these beautiful red wolves, and it just may thanks to dedicated people like “Wolfman Rob.” As for populations that have been changing for the better, we also got to help out with a loggerhead sea turtle nesting project, where we helped count eggs. We were told that the population has been increasing year by year and this year was the largest population they had ever recorded since their surveying began, up from 1-2,000 to more than 3,000 turtles!!!

Within about one month of traveling the country and working on the National Visitor Survey, change had become something we had gotten used to, and impermanence was something we had become somewhat-comfortable with. Change and impermanence was shown to us to beautifully & symbolically during our time at Cape Romain on our off-time. Every chance we got, we went to the beach to swim in the Atlantic ocean. With the coming-and-going of each wave it was a beautiful reminder that nothing stays the same from moment to moment, but beautiful moments will always continue to come again and again.

Hoping that the population of these red wolves will change for the better! (Photo by Ben Schian)

Cross Creeks NWR, TN

About an hour west of Nashville lies Cross Creeks, an 8,862 acre refuge that features a focus on waterfowl habitat and co-op farming accordingly. Many of the folks were visiting to observe the variety of species there. These included armadillos, vultures, eagles, an abundance of white-tailed deer, turtles, heron, white pelicans, egrets, and bison (at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area). We had the opportunity to encounter the bison relatively close, as one day we were driving through and two were less than 10 ft from the fence of grazing range. We got out of the car and gazed at them grazing…it is true peace to watch these majestic animals.

Our time in Cross Creeks was one of the first times that there was moderate consistency in our lives throughout our time on the road, with a pattern of light visitation that we followed to try to recruit as many survey participants as many as we could. This resulted in us having a daily routine of sorts. But not to worry, we remained in the state of change not through our daily actions but change to our physical bodies, we gave each other haircuts and got new tattoos. We must have just grown accustomed to change!

Best friends, travel buddies and partners during a sampling shift, let us survey you!

We were lucky enough to start this job, traveling the country, as best friends and we’re glad to say that is one thing that has not changed. In fact we’ve become much closer than ever before! Along with the turning of the seasons, the changes from place to place and the changing climate that is affecting these refuges, we have noticed major inner changes within ourselves. We have gotten better at not jumping to conclusions about people or places, and really getting to live life with genuine wonder and awe for everyone and everything we see! Working at National Wildlife Refuges has shown us that although the refuges are primarily for the wildlife, they are just as important to the public, and to ourselves as we have found a deep sense of inner peace while sampling at some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

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