Total Furmanation

"Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today." – E. Abbey

Moving rocks instead of lifting weights: On being an industrial athlete

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I saw an article in the NYTimes about extreme fitness today, and it got me to thinking: I don’t go a to a gym. I don’t (can’t) go running. I rarely get to get ride my bike these days. I spend most of my free time trying to do as little as possible. But I’m still an athlete. It just takes a different form. After all, I do manual labor for a living, and get paid for it.

No, I don’t get up early to work out. But I get up early to go outside to work.

No, I don’t lift weights. But I do lift an 8lb sledgehammer (doublejack for all you trail dogs) over my head repeatedly to break rocks into smaller pieces.

No, I don’t flip giant tires or carry sandbags. But I do flip rocks end over end, and carry buckets of dirt for my tread.

No, I don’t do trail running. But I do carry a nearly fully 40liter pack and sometimes tools such as 14lb rock bars whilst hiking up a hill to work each day.

No, I don’t row on ergs. But I have pulled rocks and I-beams into place with a come-along on a Griphoist (see above).

No, I don’t use an machine that uses electricity like a treadmill to stay fit. But I can carry a generator around to power the tools I need to cut lumber.

No, I don’t have a coach to work on my technique. But I’ve learned how to have proper form when swinging cutter mattocks to chop a root or shovel gravel for hours from my crew leaders in the past.

No, I don’t go backpacking. But I have carried a 20lb propane tank two hours up to camp.

No, I don’t wear sneakers or quick dry clothing. But I can still move freely in my hiking boots and heavy duty cotton work pants.

No, I don’t wear a helmet. But I do wear a hardhat.

No, I don’t do a warm-up and a cool-down. But I do start my morning with the crew doing stretches and end my day stretching in my tent before bed.

No, I’m not your typical athlete. But I’m one, nonetheless.

I don’t know how I’d stack up against your average CrossFitter or weightlifter, or any of those programs ostensibly meant to prepare oneself for anything. Maybe my fitness doesn’t translate. Does it have to? Does theirs have to translate to mine? I think those programs can be empowering, and I imagine I’d be a participant were I desk-bound at work. I think we’re too coddled in America. Maybe we need more people to do some time in conservation. Get down in the dirt and try to set a rock a dozen or more times before it finally becomes stable. Pull invasive plants in the rain. Carry steel I-beams up a hill with your co-workers. Stop being soft. But don’t forget to take care of yourself. You only get one body, and it’s the most important tool any conservation worker has in their arsenal. Lift with your legs, drink your water, etc. A pick mattock can’t loosen that rock in the tread without a strong and capable person to use it.

I spent my high school and collegiate years as a student-athlete. It was easy to give up being a student, but I think part of the appeal of conservation work is still getting to be an athlete. It just takes a different form, that’s all. It makes me proud to contribute to the construction and maintenance of the trails weekend warriors use. After all, we’re both pursuing the same goal: making ourselves better.

Fancy Ladies Don’t Cry, or, the end of Cons. 8 – FLDC

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Now that I have the perspective of a few days with all the luxuries of civilization like refrigeration and roofs over one’s head (I totally get why people live in houses), I think it’s time to take a look back at the summer. There were lows, there were highs, and there were a whole lot of epiphanies.

Things I learned this summer include, but are not limited to:

  • check your propane levels occasionally whilst in a backcountry spike camp,
  • which direction to start one’s handsaw,
  • sort of how to teach what I’m doing whilst doing that thing for the first time,
  • how to make cowboy coffee using a bandana,
  • how to chisel wood (albeit mediocrely),
  • eating mostly vegetarian is a great way to save money,
  • the importance of level surfaces to my mental health,
  • what a bryozoan colony is,
  • that writing letters to every single one of your fellow crew leaders can provide the clarity that comes from writing down your experiences in a journal but it’s better because you can get responses,
  • that complete strangers won’t be fazed if you knock on their door asking for matches and may even give you cookies,
  • there won’t be any bluegrass at a music festival called Jig In The Valley,
  • why some summits are bald and others aren’t,
  • to always double check that the door to the freezer containing the Ben & Jerry’s is shut,
  • that crew members often come up with better solutions than the crew leader can,
  • what a multiple trunked tree may indicate about the history of a forested landscape, and
  • that being on an all-female crew does not automatically mean there is going to be lots of tears and feelings all the time, but instead actually meant doing harder projects with a better work ethic, intelligent and productive discussions during our education periods each day, a lot of Fleetwood Mac, and an endless amount of laughing and being silly.

We started our summer tucked high into the forest on the side of Hunger Mountain in the center of Vermont, and ended on the flats of the river delta of the Missisquoi, in the northwest. I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for our summer than rain drops in a watershed: disparate drops falling on a mountain, trickling together, coming down off the mountain, and then steadily flowing as a river. But rivers eventually end, and so did our time as Conservation 8 – the Female Leadership Development Crew/Fancy Ladies Doin’ Conservation.

Best of luck in all your future endeavors, ladies, and thank you for your hard work,

Heather

Missisquoi NWR Dispatches, week 2

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Hello from the Swanton Public Library! It’s Saturday morning, I’ve got a cup of real coffee here, and our laundry is in the dryer at the laundromat. I can hear the oldies from the classic car show going on outside, and I just bought two new books to read at the library book sale. I think that this little corner of Vermont is my favorite so far, with the exception of Montpelier. It feels a little more authentic here, and everyone is just so friendly to us. It also helps that we are working in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege of working, and that our project partners are so friendly and generous to us.

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This past week we continued work on the Discovery Trail, moving more gravel, and also working on sealing the wooden safety rails along the boardwalk. Monday and Tuesday were particularly hot, but we did our best to stay cool and hydrated. Luckily, on Wednesday, we got to work in a closed section of the Refuge to prepare a duck banding site. The US Fish & Wildlife Service monitors duck populations by banding them annually each fall. To do so, they prepare sites by mowing down the grass, raking up all the cut grass, and then baiting with corn. When the ducks are accustomed to the site, in the fall, they will then use a rocket launcher to capture the ducks with a net. After the biologists gather the data they need, the ducks are released.

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What this meant for us is that we got to take a boat out to the island that the site is on! If you look up a map of the Refuge, look for a site called Cranberry Pool. It’s a controlled wetlands, and home to all kinds of waterfowl and other exciting birds like osprey. You can see the nest in the top picture. We mowed and raked and mowed and raked, and the site is now just about ready for the ducks to come back. We are really enjoying working on this project! We were also lucky to meet some staff from the US Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Office who were on a site visit. The conservation world can be an awful small one sometimes – the two who visited had come to a volunteer day for the trail I worked on last year at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, Mass. It was great to see them again, and even see a couple pictures of my old trail. On Thursday, we got to stop by an archaeological dig on the banks of the Missisquoi. They even let us hold one of the artifacts, a piece of pottery with patterns on it. We also worked on clearing downed branches and overgrowth on the Old Railroad Passage Trail (blueberries!!) and the Stephen Young Marsh Trail (lots of pretty flowers and wooded sections).

We also enjoyed a cookout yesterday with the Refuge staff. It was such a treat to relax in the air conditioned visitor center and get to know the staff better. We were also delighted and humbled to receive maple syrups from one of the staff here who also owns his own sugaring business. The maple syrup is obviously excellent in Vermont, but it’s so much more meaningful to know the person who boiled all that sap down. Thank you, Joe!!

Please write us! VYCC | Attn: Name, Cons. 8-FLDC | 1949 E. Main St. | Richmond, VT 05477.

Sittin’ in Swanton,

Heather

Missisquoi NWR Dispatches, week 1

Aren’t you lucky! A double post this weekend.

I’m writing from the laundromat in St. Albans, VT. Our crew Saturday morning tradition is pancakes followed by a trip into town for real coffee and washing our clothes. Today didn’t involve a hike down a mountain, which was a welcome relief.

Our first week at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge has been a study in luxurious living. We’ve been marveling at the simplest of things to a normal American: level surfaces, picnic tables, flush toilets, potable water from a spigot, not having to hike up a mountain to go home, etc. the funny thing is our life is still so much simpler than the average Americans, even with our posh set-up right now. We’re staying at a private, residential campground near the Refuge, and we’ve been enjoying sitting on the dock and soaking our feet in Missisquoi Bay after work, and watching the sun set. We can also see Canada from camp!

Work here at Missisquoi has been really different from Hunger, as well. We don’t have one main project; rather, the US Fish & Wildlife Service utilizes our crew for a variety of projects around the Refuge. Our first day was spent (safely) removing wild parsnip, an exotic invasive plant that also happens to have phototoxins in it. Much to my relief, no one was afflicted by it.

We switched gears after that to start working on the Discovery Trail, a one mile, universally accessible trail right behind the visitor center. We are moving and spreading gravel to raise and smooth the tread surface. On Friday afternoon, we took an educational tour of the trail with our project partner, a ranger for the USFWS, and learned about the flora and fauna along the trail.

Please write us! VYCC | Attn: Name, Cons. 8-FLDC | 1949 E. Main St. | Richmond, VT 05477. Snail mail is the best way to communicate with us.

Sitting on the dock of the bay,
Heather

Hunger Mountain Dispatches, week 3

Sorry this is a week late! Didn’t have time to find Internet to publish it last weekend. -HHF

Yesterday we lumbered down the trail with huge loads for the last time. We’d been slowly moving out of camp since Tuesday, which meant we only had to bring down one monster load on Friday and one on Saturday. I know i’m happy to be done with our backcountry spike and move onto a frontcountry one.

We finished out our time on Hunger Mountain with a bang. We knocked out some enormous projects in record time, including re-setting a massive stone staircase, 7 check dams to control erosion (including one bathtub sized check dam) and our second and final ladder. I never have to remind my crew to work hard; I sometimes have to tell them to take breaks!

We ran into some snafus the final few days at camp. For every problem we faced, though, there was some serious problem-solving on behalf of my crew, as well as no complaining. It started off with all our filters slowing down over the course of the week and basically stopping by Thursday night. After putting in a call to the manufacturer, we learned there was no way to backflush or to clean the cartridges, so we decided to boil water for the last day. When we went to turn on the propane to make dinner, though, we were only able to get a tiny flame for a few minutes before it petered out. Not sure how we possibly could have been more cautious with propane use, but we only had to do one night of cold cans of veggies & beans in lukewarm veggie stock. It was mediocre tasting at best, but again, as a testament to my crew, all ate it with gusto, leaving no leftovers. We ended up treating our drinking water with bleach, but luckily we had enough regular water to dilute it with so the taste was fine. Again, no complaints.

Friday night was planned to bring the kitchen down and make dinner in the parking lot, which worked out nicely because our second propane tank was completely full and waiting for us in our trailer. Alas, the lighter and the matches were left up in camp, an hour’s hike away. After some resourceful attempts with rocks and mirrors and asking some loggers for a light (turns out that stereotype is not true; none smoked), we decided to ask at the houses down the road. No luck at the first (but they had an impressive view from their front porch), but we struck gold at the second house. The woman not only gave us a giant box of matches, but insisted on us taking a Baggie of some protein cookies she had made. They were phenomenal, and it was great to head back to the rest of the crew not only bearing matches, but cookies for all. I am continually humbled by the kindness of strangers.

This weekend is our move to Missisquoi. To break it into manageable chunks, we stayed at the HQ barn last night. When we arrived, my assistant crew leader had to announce that she was leaving VYCC to the crew. We all wish her the best.

After dropping our sleeping gear in the lean-tos, we headed off to do laundry and start on some of errands. Before we left, one of the VYCC farm staff donated a whole box of fresh veggies to our crew!! If we finished our errands early, I was hoping to take the girls swimming at the Bolton Potholes, but something better got arranged for us: a free luncheon at a restaurant owned by the parents of one of my girls in Stowe. It was absolutely incredible food, and we feasted like kings (think fried cheesecake). Thinking nothing could top that, we were delighted to learn that free tickets had been arranged for us to the Stowe Balloon Fest around the corner. We spent our evening marveling at hot air balloons before heading to the lean-tos for the night.

Today we have a busy day of cleaning spike gear, cleaning ourselves (showers!!!), grocery shopping at Costco, driving to Swanton, setting up camp, and doing some tool maintenance. I mustn’t dawdle any more, we have a big day!

Please write us: VYCC | Attn: Name, Cons. 8-FLDC | 1949 E. Main St. | Richmond, VT 05477. We’re running out of thank you notes for all the generosity we’ve encountered recently, so we wouldn’t be opposed to a pack of them sent our way :)

Enjoy your week!
Heather

Hunger Mountain Dispatches, week 2

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Good news! Cons. 8 – FLDC survived week 2 of our Hunger Mountain hitch. We’re two-thirds done with our time on this project, and hopefully two-thirds done with our work. Always a little hard to tell with rockwork, as sometimes it’s done in a flash, and other times can drag on. Those silly rocks, why don’t they just move on their own!

This past week we got a major project of ours done: the first of the lumber ladders. Above you can see two of my corps members putting some finishing touches on it. It’s not just pretty, but really sturdy, too. It’s also made our lives much easier with its existence; now we can simply carry the tools up to our current worksites by walking normally up the steps without having to crawl up the side of the rock.

We’ve transitioned into doing a lot of rockwork this week. Many excellent check dams, filter dams, and steps have been installed by the crew. You’d think they’d had a lot of rock experience before this by the quality of work, but nope, only one has prior experience. I think sometimes the best rockwork is done by either novices or by experts. Either you have to intuit how it’s done, or you have a ton of experience and know how to do it. We moved a big rock this week down the most technical ‘descent’ I’ve ever done. It was really steep, but everyone rose to the occasion, and carefully guided it safely down to its new location. It will now be the base of our second ladder. I think it was a confidence booster for all of us.

Life at camp has gotten a little easier, now that we’re completely established. We had some really excellent dinners this week, led by the girls. Each is assigned a night for dinner, and must come up with a meal idea and a grocery list. Even though it’s a big transition to eat a nearly vegetarian diet for me, I’ve enjoyed all the various combinations of quinoa, rice, beans, and vegetables we’ve come up with. Certainly helps out the budget to reduce meat consumption! (That being said, I’m looking foward to a big steak at the end of these 7 weeks).

This weekend we’re back in Montpelier for our Saturday. Always nice to have real coffee, have a hot shower, and eat good food from a table with chairs (it really is the little things in life).

My crew really loves to get mail, so please send us a letter! VYCC | Attn: Name, Cons. 8-FLDC | 1949 E. Main St. | Richmond, VT 05477. Our supervisor brings us our letters once a week by hiking them up the mountain, so perhaps keep the packages on the smaller/lighter side :) Thank you to all who have sent us letter so far!

Soon we’ll be off to Missisquoi NWR! Crazy how fast the time has flown. Next weekend, we’ll move out of our spike camp, drive to the East Monitor Barn (VYCC’s hq), and spend the night in the lean-tos there. Maybe even have a campfire! The next day we’ll head up to Swanton, and to our home for the last four weeks of the season.

They’re kicking me off the computer, so until next time, happy trails!
Heather

Hunger Mountain Dispatches, week 1

“Going back to a simpler life is never a step backwards.” – Yvon Chouinard

Last Saturday I woke up at 4am, more or less ready to receive my crew for the summer. I didn’t need to be up until much later, but I enjoyed the pre-morning and pre-startup stillness. At 9am, my girls started arriving one by one. All made a great first impression, and if I may brag a little, was the best crew at all the team building games.

We rolled out in style, all the crews at once, to our respective sites mid-afternoon. My girls are crew: Conservation 8-Female Leadership Development Crew, and we’re tucked away into the woods on the side of Hunger Mountain in the Worcester Range for three weeks. Although we had to carry some seriously monster loads up to our campsite and worksite, it’s been overall a positive week so far. I watched these women carry those enormous loads up with a grace & determination that really made me proud.

Our project is to install some improvements onto the Middlesex Trail, which has seen increasing traffic in the past couple years. Another crew, Conservation 7-LDC (mixed gender leadership) is also here, and we’re splitting up projects. Currently they are focused on rockwork like check dams, and my crew is focused on building two lumber ladders to improve passage over some sections of scrambling. Yes, we had to carry the lumber up there. Nope, no mules. Just us and our soon-to-be Michelle Obama arms. We’re also getting some good practice with handsaws and wood chisels. I find carpentry to be very empowering, so I think this project is a very good fit for my female crew. We’re making good progress on them, and should have them installed this coming week. After that, we’ll transition to rockwork and maybe some puncheon.

I wish I could show you all around our camp. It’s a heck of a hike up a step slope, but once up there, we have a place for our tents, a living room to gather in under a giant tarp, and a kitchen where a juvenile moose came to visit us last week at breakfast!

I also wish you could meet my crew. They were understandably quiet at first – being a human pack mule will do that to you – but it’s been great to watch them become friends with each other. More and more laughter every day. Our only real issue has been timeliness but that’s easy to fix, and always hard to do at the start.

Another highlight from this week was hiking up to the summit of Hunger with an ecologist from VT Fish & Wildlife. I’d never thought about why some summits are bald and others are not, so I learned a lot. I was also able to see the Greens, the Whites, and the Adirondacks, which is just incredible to me. Three states, one summit!

Until next weekend, write to me or my crew! Name | VYCC – Cons. 8 | 1949 E Main St | Richmond, VT 05477

Peace, love, and trail grime,
Heather

Changes & Flexibility

In 2011, I spent six very intense months in northern Arizona, working for a conservation corps called American Conservation Experience. If there was one lesson I took away from that experience, it was be flexible. Be adaptable. Be quick to change. The prior summer, I spent two and half very intense months cycling across the country with a non-profit Bike & Build. The main lesson I learned from that journey was to be zen about what the road gave you, because you have no control over it. Some days I ground up hills, other days I flew across the flats. I am perfect at neither of these, but we can all strive to something higher, yes? 

I am sharing this because I have some news. After two months of mentally & actually preparing to lead the inaugural roving crew of the Great Lakes Conservation Corps alone in the upper peninsula of Michigan, my crew was abruptly cancelled, and my assignment changed to leading the Female Leadership Development Crew (Conservation Crew 8) here in Vermont for the summer. A big change, yes. I now have a seven week session, a co-leader I feel very lucky to have been paired with, two really different but great-sounding projects, and what thus far sounds like a really great crew of seven women who are excited for this experience. Our first project will be at Hunger Mountain, doing trailwork and living in a backcountry spike camp; our second project will be working the Missisquoi NWR, doing various trail-related projects and living in a frontcountry camp. 

We finished another session of classroom training last Thursday, and then transitioned into pre-programming week. We’re planning out food, packing our trailers, sorting out activities and lessons for the first week, and crossing off a bunch of items on our master to-do list. Do not fear, we’ve snuck in some fun time amidst the work. “Mexican” food in Montpelier, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on the boardwalk overlooking Lake Champlain, swimming at the Bolton Potholes. I’m looking forward to meeting my crew this coming Saturday, and getting some tools in the ground Monday morning. I hope to have weekly updates from the field as we go through the season, but that’s all internet-access-dependent. 

Namaste, 
Heather 

Scut work on Ascutney & an announcement

 

The title’s a bit of a lie, but I couldn’t resist. This past week was spike week for VYCC, an annual tradition where us crew leaders become corps members for a week and our supervisors get out of the office for a week to show us the ropes of what VYCC life is like. I ended up with an excellent crew on a great project, and had a blast. Our project was re-routing a section of the Weathersfield Trail up Ascutney, and let’s be honest, scut work it was not. We did mostly rock work, building three staircases out of stone, building several check steps from stone, pulling some basic tread, and repairing a stone waterbar. 

I haven’t done rockwork of any note in a few years, and had never built steps before, but I enjoyed the challenge. Rockwork is a lot more manageable when one is not at a high elevation, and the mountain is littered with step-sized rocks with 90deg edges. Also, the rocks we used to create crush – the trail term for gravel that goes behind the rocks you’ve placed – were extremely easy to split even with a single jack. Not that we were given shaping tools, but we didn’t really need them either. The re-route was desperately needed: the original path took one up a rather steep section of straight bedrock with water dripping down it, making it a treacherous mess. Not only were we falling on it, but we witnessed casual hikers falling on it. Unacceptable! Our re-route bypassed it, but then required all those steps in order to gain the elevation needed to connect back to the original trail. 

The other major aspect of spike week than the work project is camp life the VYCC way. The spring session I did was a little different than traditional camp life. This week we did education sessions on backcountry hygiene and Leave No Trace, and we also used an hour of our workday on the WoRD education curriculum. It’s negotiated into the work contracts, and the hour is spent reading an article, discussing it, and then journaling about it. We also modeled a sample chore chart, etc. 

On the whole, I really enjoyed the week. We had some tough hikes, and some big rocks to move, but our crew was great. We spent a lot of time laughing and enjoying each other’s company over art projects and some very tasty meals. Fun fact: it was seven girls and one guy. In all my time in conservation, this was the first time I’ve been on a crew so dramatically slanted towards females. I don’t think it’s better or worse to be on mostly female or mostly male crews, but it’s interesting to experience both. 

Lastly, I think I can finally announce this: my crew this summer will be the Great Lakes Conservation Corps’ inaugural roving crew, covering the upper Peninsula of Michigan. Yup, the U.P.! As it stands, it will be me and four corps members, working on projects all over the U.P., and camping together. 

Nature is but another name for health,

Heather 

 

Technical Training: Build a bridge & get over it

Over an ephemeral drainage, that is.

Monday morning found me tired, but ready for technical training week. Nearly all our 3 month crew leaders & assistant crew leaders were there, too, to begin their terms. VYCC brings in guest trainers to teach us all technical skills in trail design, rock work, and carpentry so that we can then lead crews doing similar work over the summer. I ended up on the carpentry skills group, and our task was to build a bridge to make that drainage ditch passable again for a tractor or vehicle, or heck, just us people walking over it. Previously there had been a dirt passage with a culvert, but it had washed away this spring. We used a standard, but scalable Forest Service design for our bridge, and constructed it out of dimensional lumber, with rock sills holding in the gravel ramps on each side.

I felt very fortunate to have both a good trainer but also a good group with which to work and learn. Five out of the eight members were beginning their terms as 3 month leaders, so it was a great chance to actually get to know them, and not on the superficial level that most icebreaker games achieve. The enthusiasm was high, and it was definitely contagious, which was most appreciated in the middle of the afternoon when the sun beating down on me tired me out.

One of the things I appreciated most about technical training week was that that was all we did. The rest of our days, aside from meals and one presentation, were pretty unstructured, which allowed us to rest and relax. Meals were just as great as during training, thanks to our wonderful caterer, Katie. All our lunches and snacks were even prepared for us, which made life so much easier. We stayed up in the lean-tos again, but with warmer weather, and a group of early-to-bed, quiet sleepers in my lean-to, it was very restful. I was able to sneak away occasionally and get some quiet time, which was pretty rare on spring session.

Next week is spike week, which is where we exchange our blue hard hats for green ones, and experience life as a corps member. Our supervisors will be acting as our crew leaders this coming week, and we will be modeling all the parts of summer crew life, including the educational component, chore charts, etc. I’m on an all-female crew, and we’re heading to Ascutney. I’ve only seen it from the highway, so I’m excited to hopefully hike it, but at least work on the trails there!

Catch y’all on the flip side,

Heather

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