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Know the West

Volunteering provides a special experience in national parks


Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The Rio Grande is slow and muddy along the Mexican border, at the base of Santa Elena Canyon, on a sunny November day. My roommate, Alex Brachman –– like me, a fresh-out-of-college intern volunteering in Big Bend National Park –– skips stones from bank to bank. The truck backs up, and we start unloading dull-green National Park Service canoes. There are 14 of us on the river cleanup today, including a mother and son from the tiny town of Terlingua, Texas, and nine retirees. Nearly all of us work for Big Bend National Park one way or another. We just don't pull a park paycheck.

Seasonal volunteers here typically sign up for three-month stints. Many of the retirees come in RVs, and for their required 32 hours of volunteering a week, they're rewarded with free hookups in this wild, remote sprawl of west Texas. It can be a powerful experience, and it's pursued by a surprising number of people: In 2012 alone, the Park Service as a whole attracted 253,000 volunteers who donated 6.7 million hours, with about 50,000 hours going to Big Bend. Volunteer Steve Blythe, a retired comptroller from Louisiana who's doing maintenance work here, says, "I would feel very bored and not very good about myself if I just played for the rest of my life."

Riley Caton, a retired municipal fire chief from Washington, is even blunter: "Retiring and waiting to die is not on our agenda." He and his wife, Karen, a former FEMA disaster assistance employee, volunteer as evaluators for the park's Structural Fire Crew. Today, they're paddling the sweep canoe.

About half of all Park Service volunteers are retirees, and in Big Bend the percentage is even higher. The rest tend to be a mix of short-term volunteers in for just a few days and young interns like Brachman and me. During our three-month stints here, we're volunteering a full 40 hours a week, through a group called the Student Conservation Association. It's not financially rewarding, but we love it.

Our guides on the river cleanup are a retired couple from Michigan who volunteer for the park's law enforcement program. On river patrol (their regular assignment), Elaine and John Jonker have logged more hours on the Rio Grande than many of their paid coworkers. This is relatively common; career Park Service employees are encouraged to switch parks as they rise through different pay grades, but volunteers are usually selected for the same park year after year.

The hours vary from park to park, and becoming a volunteer isn't that easy. Even though Big Bend has about 260 volunteers annually -- more than twice the number of paid employees -- only 120 are lengthy, seasonal positions. And Big Bend has an average return rate of about 80 percent for these positions, so it can be difficult for newbies to get a spot. Experience volunteering in other parks, wildlife refuges, or national seashores or forests can help you get a foot in the door, but luck and timing also play a role. Sometimes family emergencies or health problems suddenly open up positions that have been occupied for years.

Unpaid labor's not for everyone, of course, and some volunteers have to work elsewhere part of the year to get by. Lew McCool, a volunteer park interpreter here, works seasonally collecting fees at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Steve Blythe in maintenance sold his antiques and even his house to fund his volunteering. The Catons also just closed on their house sale, becoming full-time RVers. They joke, "We tell people we're not homeless now, just houseless."

If you're a college student or a recent graduate, the Student Conservation Association offers interns some support (a food stipend, housing, reimbursement of some travel costs) in a wide-ranging program that assists many parks and other federal conservation areas. On occasion, the SCA also partners with Americorps to provide money toward student loans. And the non-monetary perks are incredible. During my two-week orientation and training in Big Bend, I paddled a different stretch of the river on an overnight trip that featured beer, tacos and guacamole, made at the campsite with fresh avocados. As my internship proceeds, I hike with the park geologist, botanist and archaeologist, down-climb out-of-the-way canyons with a park interpreter, and monitor backcountry wells with a physical science technician. On a flight in the park's Cessna with a law enforcement officer, I help spot some people illegally crossing the Rio Grande, headed north lugging big plastic bags that likely contain marijuana or other contraband.

Among park volunteers, Big Bend is considered one of the best opportunities. There's a healthy volunteer community here, with a monthly newsletter and constant email dispatches describing events like group triathlons and moonlight bicycle rides, a hiking club, a seasonal awards banquet and community recycling days. Perhaps most important, the volunteers feel accepted by the paid employees.

Not every experience is idyllic. I spent several months before Big Bend doing a volunteer stint in Denali National Park as part of the Exotic Plant Management Team -- in other words, on weed patrol. I wandered Denali parking lots with a GPS, pulling dandelions, and on field weeks, I strapped on head-to-toe anti-mosquito clothing, including a hooded shirt with a built-in mesh faceplate, and roamed the endless shrubby dwarf birch in that park's swampy west end. While the Denali botany crew was supportive and lively, I struggled to break into the larger community of employees and volunteers in the Great North. Big Bend came as a pleasant surprise after that.

Our morning briefing in Santa Elena Canyon is short and to the point: Safety first, trash second. Avoid landing on the Mexico side. The river is shallow here, so we'll probably do some boat-pushing. Skip Jiru, a volunteer with the maintenance division, jokes about canoe-assisted hiking and gets a few chuckles. Brachman and I have hiked with him out to remote archaeological sites and up into the Chisos Mountains, which rise higher than 7,000 feet, to inspect backpacking campsites and make sure all the bear boxes are in working order. When it comes time to push off, Jiru paddles his canoe over a shallow turn with an enthusiastic whoop.

A day trip on the Rio Grande can cost more than $150 a head if you go through local guiding companies, but we volunteers get it free as part of the river cleanup. Today's stretch runs along the base of a huge mesa on the Mexican side that drops abruptly to the river in 1,500-foot limestone cliffs.

We stop on a wide sandbar for lunch and redistribute some of the tires we've dug out of the sand. We've got six tires so far, but we're hoping to break the record: 13 for this stretch. Somewhere upstream a while back, a rancher tied over a thousand tires to his portion of the riverbank in a vain attempt to control erosion. The big flood in 2008 had other ideas: The Mexican dams on the Rio Conchos tributary opened their waterways full-bore to let that flood rage, and now the tires keep showing up on sandbars and riverbanks in the park. Each year, volunteers come back and fish out a few more.

Our river cleanup ends on a muddy beach. I jump out and sink up to mid-thigh in mud and water. We wrestle the canoes onto the bank and unload piles of trash and 14 tires -- a new record! On the way back to the park's small residential neighborhood, we drive through the creosote-filled Chihuahuan desert, skirt a smaller canyon lined with volcanic ash, bump over a few lava dikes and stop at a historic trading post -- almost a hundred years old -- for ice cream, because, after all, it's November in Texas and we're all hot, sweaty and sunburned.

A few days before Christmas, the Catons knock on the door of the funky doublewide trailer that houses Brachman and me, across the street from the retirees' RVs. They propose a Christmas party for all of the spare volunteers in the area: "Us orphans have to stick together." Since many of the park's paid employees take their annual leave over the holidays, a good deal of the work this time of year falls to volunteers.

On Christmas day, we host eight volunteers and two park employees in a potluck dinner in our trailer, where we've wrapped our living-room window with a string of festive chile lights. As the eggnog and the pot roast disappear, the conversation turns to the park itself. Riley Caton asks the group of gray-haired retirees, including a former preacher, a former nurse, and a former journalist: "If you had it all to do again, what would you change?" One by one, they all answer with some version of: "I wish I had volunteered with the Park Service sooner."

Henry Ring is a freelance writer and conservation volunteer with roots in Montana, who is temporarily based in Washington, D.C., as one of the countless unemployed 20-somethings looking for a paid job in the Great Recession.