Great Stories

Life on Project

by Justin Bigelow Of all the memories I have stored from my October month of service with AmeriCorps St. Louis, one stands out in particular. It isn't of any out of the ordinary moment when I was frightened or tested in some way. It's of a very mundane and calming moment during a typical day of service. However, I think this memory is so important to me because it represents the three features of life on project I've come to cherish the most, which are: spending time with good friends, visiting scenic destinations, and performing arduous, but rewarding, days of service.  

The memory is of a warm, calm afternoon in Montana which I spent cutting new tread for Peacock Trail. The day had begun much differently as our team hiked up the trail in the frigid morning hours before dawn. During our morning trail-building work we were largely silent as the wind howled, and a brief snowstorm of small snow pellets blew past our spot on the mountainside. However, after lunch, the weather changed dramatically as the clouds lifted, and sun shined brightly at our backs. 

It was then that I took a break from digging up grass to look out at the stunning view below our trail. From our vantage point on the mountainside we could see an expansive valley stretching from the town of Sheridan directly below us to the large city of Butte a good hours drive away. The image of that valley and the snowcapped peaks far off in the distance is one I will never forget, and is among the most scenic vistas I witnessed in Montana. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent either grubbing roots and grass off the trail, cracking jokes with my teammates, or looking out at the expansive view below. This combination of hard work, camaraderie, and scenery made the moment incredibly special to me. The afternoon of work felt less like something I was told to do and more like something I was uniquely privileged to be a part of. From what I can tell these moments are all too common in ERT while on project, and I continue to feel motivated every frigid morning in the pre-dawn dark to rise and work again. 

Photo by T Johnson

The Time I Almost Saw A Moose

by Steph Wood There I was, on top of a hill peering down on Elk Lake Resort. It was my first project, I was nestled in the heart of Red Rock Lake Wildlife Refuge, if I was going to see a moose anywhere, it was going to be here. But lets back up a bit and talk about WHY I was on the top of a hill above my work site. 

It was lunch time, Team Blue had been working all morning on constructing a Jack Leg fence around the resort to keep free roaming cattle from harming the guests. It was a beautiful day and we were making great progress, but I wasn't feeling too happy. That day I came to the realization that I have a lot of skills, but hammering six inch nails into large wooden poles is not one of them. It seemed like everyone else on my team was sinking their nails into the fence in three swings or less. I, however, I tapping away with my mini-sledge hammer, bending nails with almost every swing. Needless to say, I was frustrated and feeling a little self-conscious. 

My salvation came at lunch time. Team Blue was working under the direction for three USFS Rangers; Darcy, Pat, and Mark. Mark had just joined the team that day and was immediately tasked with going on a scouting hike across from the resort to gather intel about the barbed wire fence that was supposed to be keeping the cattle from even reaching the resort. Considering Darcy was seven months pregnant, and Pat was covered in mud from attempting to extend the Jack Leg fence thirty feet into the lake, Mark was the best man for the job. When he asked for a volunteer to accompany him, I jumped at the chance. While I might excel at hammering, I know for a fact that I can hike. Sadly, Laurel, our contact had very kindly cooked our team fresh hamburgers and potato wedges for lunch and I could not fill my belly as full as I would have liked too. 

After lunch, we set out. Our hike took us on a big loop around the fence. We discovered that there was about a 50 foot section of barbed wire down, which explains the influx of cattle in the resort. After we had walked the length of the fence, we decided to follow a "bluff" fence that ran up the hill into the treeline, to see if that fence was helping keep the cattle out. It was not. The barbed wire ended right at the treeline. Cows could easily walk up the hill and pass the fence. 

So Mark and I found ourselves on top of a hill above the resort. Looking to our right, we could see the Centennial Mountain range, to the left the Madison range. It was breath taking. It was way better than trying and failing to hammer a nail straight into a fence post. And when Mark pointed to two large black creatures standing on the hillside directly across from us, I had a feeling it was about to get even better. Since I arrived in Montana, my own personal goal was to see a grizzly bear or a moose. I was excited to learn how to use a chainsaw and to get to know my teammates better, but I also had an agenda. I wanted to see some of the wild Montana wildlife. 

The creatures across from us were big. One of them looked like it had a large light colored rack on it's head. This was going to be my moment. Mark started to walk faster, trying to see them closer up before the moved off the hillside. We picked up the pace, both excited about the creature sighting. As we moved closer, the animals appeared even bigger than they seemed when we first spotted them. 

Suddenly, one of them lifted it's head and let out a long, low rumble.  My heart stopped...

The creature said "MOOOOOO!" It was a cow.

Mark and I stopped, looked at each other, and bursted into laughter. He raised his fist to the sky and shouted "Dang cows!" and we laughed some more.

Even though I didn't get to see a moose (or grizzly bear) I did get to see a pair or swans and a pair of golden eagles. Plus, Mark taught me everything he knew about Wolverines, which was pretty fascinating. People should really learn more about them, because they are crazy animals.

I have high hopes for this upcoming summer when we return to Montana. There is a moose in my future, I can feel it.


Rectifying Wrongs

by Emily Jack On February 13th, I had the opportunity to retake the wildland firefighter pack test - the one I originally failed as discussed in my second Great Story, "My Worst Nightmare." I can't say I was looking forward to it; it's a very physically painful experience for me as I have little upper body strength and sinus issues, and I was terrified that the entire ERT would show up and watch me fail again. As it turned out, my fears were ungrounded. Everyone respected my wishes and did not come and try to cheer me on. I also passed by a couple of minutes, more than making up for my pitiful 30 second failure the first time. I believe my final time was 43 minutes and some-odd seconds. Anyway, the leadership staff administering the test was wonderful. They told me how proud of me they were, that I did a fantastic job. While I appreciate their praise and am very happy I do not have to go through this ordeal yet again, I do not truly see this as any great victory. It was something that I previously messed up on and was required to fix - simple as that.

I know I'm supposed to go on about how I learned so much from this about perseverance, and never giving up, and insert Disney Channel schmaltzy life lesson here. But what I really learned is to seize second chances - they don't come around often in life and I was lucky that the ERT let me try again. Nothing I can say or do will ever make up for the fact that I didn't pass the first time. That pain will always be there. But I see it as a battle scar. In time it will fade, and in the end, I now know better how to emotionally handle my shortcomings. It won't be quite so traumatic for me next time. And I know there will be a next time because (as much as the perfectionist in me doesn't want to believe this) failure is unavoidable. At least I know how to pick myself up by my bootstraps and get on with my life. Whether I go back to try and rectify all of my wrongdoings, or decide it's not worth it and move on, I am now equipped with emotional knowledge to soften the blow. And THAT is something I feel I can be proud of.



Bragging Rights


by Natalie Cohen We're about 5 months into the AmeriCorps term and almost everyone seems to be bragging about the biggest trees they've taken down. Meanwhile I would pass on sawing in the morning and sometimes get away with not sawing all day long. I was just so impressed yet very intimidated by everyone's skill level I would just swamp all day, I thought it was great. Soon enough a project came where I couldn't just slip by not sawing all day with the length of the fire line and the amount of snags we needed to down. I would take down candlesticks with not much to it, or smaller snags I knew I could handle. Then we reached a part of the fire line with snags I would normally turn down and say "nope!" But this time I felt confident and ready to step outside my comfort zone. By the end of the day I had taken 6 down, that was a record for me. And throughout the month my comfort, confidence and skill improved. During the last week I got my highest daily record of 15 snags! I'm happy I stepped up and challenged myself. Now I know that feeling everyone had talking about the biggest trees they've taken and now I can join the conversation happily.


Shawnee Mules

by Jake Nelson The month started off in the Lusk Creek Wilderness of the Shawnee NF. The ERT team met the mule team which came from Hoosier NF in Indiana. The mules names are Paul, Ruth, Bell, and Jack the eldest, who is 30 years old! We also took pleasure in learning how to put saddles on the mules.

The first day on the Indian Kitchen Trail, Oliver and I loaded the mules with 6 tons of gravel throughout the day! I don't know if I should be more impressed with Oli and I, or the mules because they are the ones that transported all that gravel.

The month has been an interesting variation of job and duties, including packing the mules, doing trail maintenance, maintaining campgrounds, building and replacing picnic tables, and clearing trails. The work has been great whenever the weather permits it. Temperatures have ranged between the low teens to the upper 60s. Some variation huh? Oh, and the snow and rain have made their presences known.

February 2016 has been a hard month for conservation work but I have pushed my limits, learned a whole lot about packstock, and worked in the coldest environments I have ever worked in! Some great memories have been made and I will not forget this project!

Jake mastering the crosscut! Photo by Amital Orzech


First Wildfire

by Duncan Fuchise We left early Sunday morning, an unanticipated packout. I hadn't even showered or done laundry from the week before and here we were headed into another week. We packed, drove, and landed at the "Barclay Hilton" near Lebanon, MO. We were there on standby in case of wildfire, and there we sat, for four or five hours. Waiting...Waiting. Deciding the day was up we headed out to our project site for the week. On the way out of town we got a call, there was actually a wildfire. We drove out near Edwards, MO, and in about an hour’s time we got to the site: it was 8pm, pitch black outside except for the line of fire creeping its way across this Ozark landscape. I got put on torch and the next four hours I spent behind my crew or behind a dozer back burning from their line. After we protected the last house the IC okayed us to leave, and I got to ride alone in the bed of one of our pickups. Traveling through the dark all I could make out was the lines of fire that we lit traveling over the hills, smoldering snags slowly burning, and the stars through the leafless trees. I don't think I’ve seen stars that good since I've came to Missouri.

My First Wildfire

by Neil Tweardy Going on my first wild fire was an amazing experience. Whenever I talk to wild land fire fighters about how much they love fire and why they got into it I never understand where that passion is rooted. Now I do. The fire we went on was over 900 acres. It seemed like everything was on fire. It was like a really cool level in a video game where you might have to fight Hades in hell. Whenever we got there, there was initial confusion on where and what we should be doing. We called Burks. No answer. We walked up to his truck. We called him again. No answer. Suddenly as hyped as we were for the fire, it seemed like maybe we wouldn't get to do anything at all. We wouldn't be needed because the fire was already contained. Maybe we would get back in our truck and have to go back to Lebanon... Finally Burks got back to us. He told us to get in contact with Mike. We met up with Mike and charged through the forest putting in line. The whole world was on fire around us. We were actually fighting a fire. Once the line was put in we back-lit around some buildings. When it was all said and done it was around 1 in the morning. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I have had in ERT.


by Maria Tran Being a part of my first disaster response as an AmeriCorps Saint Louis Emergency Response Team (ACSTL) member was unalike any of my prior experiences in crises. Honestly, hearing about the Missouri flood in December was not as staggering as hearing about a tornado or hurricane. In spite of that, the flooding that hit several counties was a sight to see in person. The several feet of water that filled football fields and complete sections of highways was striking, but seeing the destruction done to the homes it drowned was truly impactful. It was heart-rending to witness homeowners lose their homes to water and to throw away personal belongings which had turned into debris. The aftermath required a fair amount of assistance that even ACSTL alone could not handle, with hundreds of homes needing immediate assistance. Therefore, more AmeriCorps members were called upon to help. Within a week, 100 members from across the country were stationed in Eureka to respond to the disaster.

My part amidst the larger response was to assist the planning chief in organizing the expansion. For the first few days, I did assist, but it soon became necessary that I would be leading the planning section of the operation with a partner as the planning chief was rotated off the disaster response. My partner (we called each other co-pilots) and I had to quickly learn how an Incident Command System worked, how to form an Incident Action plan for a 24-hour operational period, and what a situational report entailed. All without prior knowledge or experience. The steep learning curve only added to the pressure of the responsibility of the position itself, as fellow staff depended on us to organize personnel positions, assignments, and meetings. Suddenly, 7AM turned into 10PM, as days were filled with tasks that took up hours without my co-pilot and I noticing. Nevertheless, I loved it.

Even with a co-pilot, my attention was divided among several people at time and not a moment passed where a single task had to be done without a few more in queue. The satisfaction came from the liveliness of it all, accompanied with the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day when the coordination was complete. I was suddenly surrounded by like-minded and talented individuals who wanted nothing more than to help folks affected by the disaster. Working alongside them, every day was a new challenge to us while we balanced additional factors or issues that arose to our strike teams or operations. Orchestrating solutions to those problems was worthwhile because it meant that more homeowners would be helped if our operation ran smoother. Our work was valuable because flood survivors were benefitting consequently from our decisions. Be that as it may, there were difficulties that didn’t make the position enjoyable.

Situating 100 members in their positions meant that at least a few individuals would be discontent with their positions and there certainly were. Handling discontent was not the most pleasant part of the service, but relieving that discontent was productive and gratifying. The weight of the position also came with its fair share of stress and required hours. Sleep deprivation became standard and coffee became a staple at the incident command post we worked in. Truthfully, we didn’t mind the effort it took to accomplish what we were doing.

In closing, the disaster response was an experience I will always value and remember. It was unique in the sense that the fellow staff worked so well together while not knowing each other before the unfortunate circumstances. We will probably never all be in the same place or time again, but it was an honor to work with such individuals. There is a certain virtue that is rare and invaluable, which is necessary to dedicate oneself to help a community that you’re not even a part of. Everyone I worked with in the disaster response certainly possessed that quality. I will not only attribute the indispensable experience I gained from the response from the position and role I was placed in, but to the members I was placed with. Together in the month rotation, we were able to assist nearly 100 homes affected by the flood.

My First Disaster

by William Cretinon The first week was rough. The worst part of it all was walking into a command system that had already been created. This was very difficult especially for me. Especially since my job didn’t even have a title yet. I had always pictured a disaster deployment to be spent canvassing and mucking and gutting or making endless phone calls. This disaster was different than all the other ones I had heard of. It wasn’t the endless chaos I had gotten prepared for. My personal work seemed like utter chaos. Everything changed on that Friday though. Everybody that had been doing my job prior left and it was just me. I had become the trainer for the new folks coming in. That’s when I decided to revamp the system that I had come into, make it even more organized. I spent the next four weeks doing the same tasks and combing through my database over and over and over. What I was doing was crucial to our operation. But t was hard to feel like I was making a difference sitting behind my makeshift desk. However, the third week I was able to go on home assessments, and that’s when my “slump” changed. Just visiting one home for 20 minutes changed the way I felt when I was back at work the next day. For each home on my database I picture a flood survivor and their difficulties, their personal details. I was the one of the phone keeping track of all their information. I was the one sending help to their doorstep. That was A-DRT dispatch! The best first disaster position ever! That assessment gave me the disaster bug and I cannot wait for my next one.

Members Sandbag Homes as Water Levels Rise


Check out Fox 2's article about AmeriCorps St. Louis's sandbagging efforts.