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Adventures of a spring break do-gooder

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Planting emergent grasses along the beach.

Most college students typically choose to spend spring break sprawled out on beaches, icy cold beers in hand as they work on their tans.

But what if, thanks to erosion, there weren’t any beaches to sprawl on?

Questions like this spurred me and 30 other budding environmentalists to join Butler University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB), devoting our break from classes to volunteering with a natural and manmade disaster relief organization called Community Collaborations International (CCI).

CCI has spent the past year in the Florida Panhandle working out of Niceville, Fla.’s Camp Timpoochee. Once we arrived at the converted 4-H camp, heaven after our cramped and boring 20-hour bus ride, we were debriefed by Steve Boisvert, a 25-year conservation veteran who runs the camp with the help of a team of AmeriCorps volunteers.

He gave us a brief rundown of the camp’s purpose, highlighting the importance of “looking behind” to gauge your actions’ impact on those who follow after you. We then gathered up our bedraggled luggage and made our way to the wooden cabins we would call home for the next four days.

DAY 1:

At 6:45 a.m., we awoke to the sun’s ruby light streaming through our window as it rose over the ocean. Despite the early hour, it was hard to grumble as we groggily stumbled outside and took in our campground for the first time.

The Gulf of Mexico glittered a mere hundred feet from the door of our cabin, ringed by pristine white sand. Palm trees waved gently in the morning breeze. We had to pull ourselves away to go to breakfast.

After scarfing down bowls of cereal, we headed for the buses to tackle our first project of the trip: wetland restoration.

The morning’s site was located in a middle-class residential area along a marina. The assigned stream was already in the final stages of cleanup. All that was left to be done was pulling the last few palm sprouts from the canal and replanting irises, a species native to the area.

It took us the entire morning to finish the task, working alongside groups from two other schools that had decided to volunteer on their spring breaks. The palms were deeply rooted in soil; we worked in threes — one person digging and two pulling — to wedge them out.

As we worked, people who lived in the neighborhood passed by, stopping occasionally to ask us what we were doing.

Once we explained to them who we were (college students on a mission) and why wer were there (to clear the stream of brush and brambles so water could be filtered by the native plants before being flushed back into the Gulf), it seemed the members of the community couldn’t stop thanking us. Their outpouring of appreciation was touching, a nice reminder of the immediate impact of our environmental efforts.

After lunch, we headed off to our second project of the day: clearing out extra vegetation in a swampy wetland park area referred to by the locals as “Snake Palace.”

Working at the Palace was surprisingly fun. We slipped into pairs of chest waders and plunged into the heart of the park’s swampy marsh to pull small trees and bushes from the soupy ooze.

It was smelly, filthy, rewarding work.

At the end of the day, we shimmied out of our sweaty, mud-caked plastic waders and reflected on the progress we had made at Snake Palace. What had once been a completely overgrown thicket had transformed into a healthy, functioning wetland ecosystem over the course of just a few hours.

The barge sans oysters.

DAY 2:

On the second day of our trip, we headed out bright and early to embark on an oyster reef restoration project.

Upon arrival to the site, we trekked about a mile through knee-deep water to reach a barge loaded down with fossilized oysters. The hulking bright yellow, rust-specked monster was anchored a quarter-mile out from the beach.

Before we could begin to unload the oysters, site leader Lindsey informed us that we first had to physically pull the barge closer to shore.

Without giving us a chance to voice our doubts, Lindsey started trudging toward the boat. We followed, whispering to each other about the unlikelihood that we might actually move the hefty vessel.

Once to the boat, we spread out, lining the four sides of the barge. Our fearless leader shouted out instructions and, amazingly, when the anchor lifted, the boat began to plow through the gentle waves.

We nudged it toward shore from chest-deep water, and began to unload the bagged oysters in assembly-line fashion. As the oysters reached the end of the line, we laid them down in a staggered pattern to create a manmade reef.

Restoring oyster reefs is imperative on these beaches; their development along Florida’s shoreline funnels the tides toward certain stretches of beach. The ocean’s constant pull breaks the reefs apart, which are then washed away by waves. Once they’re gone, the sand on the beach soon follows.

Building new reef structures allows new oysters to latch on to their dead predecessors and create a living entity that will continue to grow for decades to come. After a few years, plastic used to bag the fossilized oysters will disintegrate, leaving behind no trace of human involvement.

DAY 3:

On the third day, our cohort of 30 split up to volunteer at three different locations.

One group headed to a state park to help stabilize the habitat of the endangered Red Caucated Woodpeckers, or RCWs as they’re affectionately known to conservationists.

This particular species of woodpecker is extremely picky in staking out new spots for nesting. When left to their own devices, it can take three years to drill a suitable hole. During this construction period, the woodpeckers roost in trees, where they’re often eaten by owls during the night.

Our group’s mission was two-fold: First, to improve the birds’ chances of survival, volunteers worked to find satisfactory trees in which to drill RCW-friendly holes. The next step was to evict intruders, such as snakes and flying squirrels, from existing holes.

[Note: No flying squirrels or snakes were harmed during this process. Small amounts of ether are pumped into the holes to knock them out before they are gently removed and transported to a non-RCW populated area to be released.]

Another group pitched in on construction at Henderson State Park to create an emergency exit in case of wildfires. The team staggered back to camp with massive scratches all over their legs, battle wounds from encounters with saw palmettos — legend has it, the plants’ thorny stems are capable of cutting through steel.

The third group, my own, stayed at Camp Timpoochee to attend to the basic needs of the camp. We chopped firewood, built benches, and helped out in the kitchen.

Butler Universitys ASB participants.

DAY 4:

Our fourth and final day of service took us to a naval base in Panama City to plant emergent grasses along the intertidal zone of the beach. They’re a crucial part of the shoreline; as waves wash up on the beach, their roots help hold the sand in place, preventing erosion.

For this project we worked with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; they offered expert instruction on how to properly plant the delicate grasses.

In teams of two, we spread out along the beach, digging 12 inch-deep holes and carefully planting shoots of grass inside.

Luckily, our group worked well together. We finished our stretch of beach in a fraction of the allotted time, probably because we were racing to plant the lowest row of grasses before the tide came in.

When we got back to camp, we had a reflection meeting with owner Steve and the other schools who had spent the week volunteering with us. The conservation vet told us about the community’s overwhelming show of appreciation for our contributions over the last week.

People in the affected neighborhoods had been calling the camp to thank us and ask what they could do to help in the future.

We realized that over the course of just a few short days, we had managed to inspire an entire community to take responsibility for their own environmental health. It was a heady feeling.

The ripple effect that our volunteer work had on the surrounding community was validation in and of itself.

Never mind the fact that we’d spent the past week waking up at the crack of dawn and living off of PB&J sandwiches. And so what if I have an embarrassing farmer’s tan instead of an even golden glow? The impact of our volunteer work in the Panhandle is sure to last far longer than any crazy tan lines.

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