New Experiences in Every Time Zone
By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett
From the cool coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the hot and humid riparian forests of the Ohio River Valley, it’s been a busy two months for this team of Visitor Survey Interns! We started off this leg of the journey in the Nisqually Delta near Olympia, the capital of Washington. Then we made our way clear across the country to West Virginia and finally southern Illinois. Read on to hear about the places we saw, the people we met, and the things we learned!
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR
At Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR, we learned about the importance of salmon and the inspiring partnerships needed to protect this critically important species. The area around the refuge is a mosaic of federal, state, and tribal lands with all partners cooperating together to enhance habitat for salmon in the Nisqually Delta. This urban refuge is found right off of busy I-5, and is full of a variety of visitors everyday! Since we were easily able to reach our target number of visitors to sample, we had plenty of time to help the refuge with other tasks.
Aside from the visitor survey, the project that we spent the most time on was trail maintenance; we worked to cut back and remove invasive Himalayan blackberries which encroach on the trail with their thorny vines. Visitors and staff were extremely happy to see the paths clear of these vines. While out on the trails, we were happy to answer questions from visitors and enjoyed sharing the interesting history of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR.
Another project we were able to work on was picking up trash alongside the main entrance road to the refuge. The refuge staff was very appreciative of this roadside clean up because it helped beautify the area.
The most enjoyable project that we helped with was locating marsh wren nests for a children’s program in the education center. After a few hours of searching, we were successful in locating three marsh wren nests. We learned a lot about the busy little birds in the process: male marsh wrens remarkably build up to 20 nests to mark their territory and the female bird picks just one to fill with more building materials and lay her eggs!
A unique program that the visitor center hosts is a weekly summer lecture series where each week a different speaker shares information on topics related to natural resources. We really enjoyed the first lecture in the series: So You Want to Be a Park Ranger. In the lecture, a former national park ranger shared stories from his career. We were able to learn about the history of the National Park Service and definitely added a few of the places he worked to our bucket list.
While in Olympia, we also had the opportunity to kayak in the Puget Sound. We spoke with visitors who love to kayak around the refuge and had to try it out for ourselves. We saw countless seals playing in the water and resting on floating logs, and it was definitely a highlight of our time in Washington!
Our next stop was at Dungeness NWR. We had previously visited Dungeness and were happy to see familiar faces. Dungeness was by far the most popular refuge we have sampled at. Visitors from all around the country, and even the world, make their way to Sequim, WA, to hike the Dungeness Spit. Like Nisqually NWR, we found plenty of people to survey, so we had extra time to help with projects and explore the area. The projects we helped with were wonderful opportunities and experiences.
The beautiful bluffs along the coast at Dungeness NWR are enticing for young people to climb, but they erode easily and can be very hazardous. To protect wildlife habitat and ensure visitors’ safety we installed new boundary signs along the bluffs. Through this project we got an interesting lesson in the value of modern technology. For most of the installations we were able to use a gas powered post pounder which made the job quick and efficient. However, there was one instance where the gas powered machine was unable to be placed on top of the signpost. We then had to use a manual post pounder for this sign which really made us appreciate the convenience of today’s technology!
During our time off, we were able to explore more of the Washington coast and made our way to the most northwestern point in the lower 48: Cape Flattery! This area is located on the Makah Indian Reservation and we loved learning about the indigenous history of the area. Camping on nearby Shi-Shi Beach and exploring the extensive tide pools was a major highlight of our internship thus far.
Towards the end of our stay we were invited to a picnic held by the Friends of Dungeness NWR. Everyone we had worked with over the past month was there, and Dave, our point of contact, was kind enough to give us a gift of departure. We were very grateful and happy to experience Dungeness NWR and hope to one day return!
After departing Dungeness, we enjoyed a week long journey back to the East Coast! Along the way we were able to see the Milky Way from our secluded campsite in Montana and listen to the prairie dogs chirp in Badlands National Park. Our time in Badlands National Park provided ample opportunities for us to reflect on the power of nature and the mindblowing history of this planet: we even found and documented our own fossil!
While camping in the Badlands we woke up to a local resident strolling through our campsite — a giant bison just feet from our tent! He was just one of the many awe inspiring creatures that we saw that day. Watching bison in the national park definitely made us yearn to see what America looked like when millions of them freely roamed the endless plains, but it also made us deeply appreciative of the conservation efforts that have ensured bison still exist.
Ohio River Islands NWR
Our first stop back east was Ohio River Islands NWR in Williamstown, WV. Our favorite river from our college days, the New River, flows into the Ohio River so being at this refuge felt like we were back at home! We were also closer to our families and were able to spend time with them on our days off, which was a welcome treat after being in different time zones for so long. Since this refuge is made up of a string of islands in the Ohio River, the majority of visitors are out on the water which made sampling a bit of a challenge. Still, we were able to find plenty of people out fishing and joyriding on their pontoon boats.
An interesting aspect of our time at this refuge was learning about the history of the area. The nearby town of Marietta traces its history back to the Revolutionary era; we learned all this and more while taking the a tour on Valley Gem along the Muskingham River, which flows into the Ohio River. The Valley Gem is the largest sternwheeler between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and is powered only by the large paddle wheel on the back. As the Valley Gem cruised by islands within the refuge, we were able to give an educational talk about the history and ecology of the area as well as the management strategies that refuge staff use to improve habitat for the many resident bird and mussel species. Sampling visitors aboard the Valley Gem was definitely one of our most enjoyable work days so far!
Crab Orchard NWR
Our final stop in this stretch of the journey was Crab Orchard NWR in Marion, IL. We enjoyed learning about the unique history and management of this refuge. Before the refuge was established, local industry thrived in the area and many manufacturing firms existed to support World War II. Crab Orchard still allows for mixed usage of refuge lands including industry and agriculture, and many unique recreational opportunities also exist on the refuge. It was exciting to see that so many different types of users enjoy time at Crab Orchard, from people exercising on the trails to people relaxing on their boats!
Even while off the refuge, we were able to see first hand how special Crab Orchard is to the local community. From the grocery store to the auto mechanic shop, everyone we interacted with was quick to suggest that we check out the refuge while we were in the area! Every visitor loves it here and they are very proud of the unique history of the refuge.
One fun event that we had the opportunity to participate in at Crab Orchard NWR was a kayak tour. While visitors kayaked through Devil’s Kitchen Lake, Ranger Dona shared interesting tidbits about the unique history of the refuge, such as how the lake got its curious name. Legend has it that when pioneers first arrived in the area they saw smoke rising from the deep canyon where the lake now exists. The smoke was likely from the cooking fires of Native Americans, but the people were not visible from a distance and the pioneers termed the spooky sight “The Devil’s Kitchen.”
While in Illinois, we were also able to help out with a project at Cypress Creek NWR. We tagged along with a team of AmeriCorps interns, one of whom was our roommate. We shadowed them while they continued work on a forest inventory project that aims to quantify native and invasive plant species. We gained a deeper appreciation for the forests by learning about the immense diversity around us and even learned a few plant IDs by the end of the day!
From the rugged coastline of the Pacific Northwest to the charming Heartland, we were able to make lifelong memories across four time zones over the past two months. We continue to be amazed by the diversity of wildlife we encountered and the friendliness of people from all walks of life. Thankfully we still have many more places to explore and people to meet so be sure to check back in with us in a few months!