By Claire Wood, Leelanau Conservancy Communications Director.
We set out from Leland Harbor in two canoes on a calm, sunny morning in late August. The hypnotizing ripples of turquoise water sparkled from the sunlight as I gazed south towards Whaleback. I had joined our two AmeriCorps members, Molly Fava and Anne Rodeck, to monitor the shoreline of Clay Cliffs Natural Area. With the record-high water levels, the only way to reach it without swimming was a five-mile round-trip paddle.
Sitting in the front of the canoe with a notebook and camera in hand reminded me of my days as an AmeriCorps member on the famed Au Sable River. I fondly recall that summer full of new experiences—tromping around in waders mapping old fish habitat structures built in the ‘60s, avoiding fly-fishermen while paddling the “Holy Waters” to scout for invasive purple loosestrife, and hiking the sandy riverbanks to plant cedar saplings. AmeriCorps offered me the opportunity to literally “get my feet wet” and gain experience in the conservation field.
I spent the previous year living in a cramped studio apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, making the 45-minute commute each way to a Southwest suburb to work for a leading publishing company. I was in my mid-20s, and while I enjoyed the editing work, I discovered I did not like the stress of city life. I dreamed of an idyllic life in the woods where I could stare at the stars every night if I wanted to. At the same time, I had become quite interested in the environmental movement. I jumped at the opportunity to move up north and work for a worthy cause. AmeriCorps was that opportunity.
AmeriCorps is a national service program—think the domestic Peace Corps—devised by President Kennedy in 1965. Each year, 75,000 people participate in volunteer, full-time service to give back to their communities and gain career experience. AmeriCorps members receive a living stipend and education award in exchange for their service. This is the Conservancy’s 4th year hosting members through Huron Pines’ program, and the help they provide our stewardship team is tremendous. “They do so much to keep our natural areas accessible and maintained,” says Director of Natural Areas and Preserves Becky Hill, who supervises the AmeriCorps team. “They’re the eyes and ears of our natural areas, and their excitement for what they’re learning and seeing is energizing.”
Although Molly and Anne had never monitored by boat before, they eagerly took off on the journey, in awe of the towering cliffs above us. We watched with wonder as a Bald Eagle dove from a dead white pine to fish. We traversed the ombre blue waters for about an hour until we finally reached Clay Cliffs.
Stewardship staff monitors each of our 28 natural areas every year. But Clay Cliffs is unique. Here, Molly and Anne took photos and documented signs of recent erosion (there were many), looked for invasive species, and observed the observation deck above. We saw giant Petoskey stones too big to carry, massive chunks of clay and old-growth trees that had fallen 200 feet into the water. We lingered, savoring the remoteness and the last bits of summer sun on our faces.
Clay Cliffs was the fifth property the pair had monitored this year. Anne’s favorite was Soper Preserve: “there are so many different habitat types there—swamp, upland, cedar forest. We saw a coyote den and found a huge pair of antlers.” Molly agreed; she loves trekking to “places where people haven’t been.” They spend much of the rest of their time doing trail maintenance; one mows and the other weed whips. They also agree on their favorite part of that job: the people (and pets!) they encounter. “Folks always thank us for our service and keeping up the trails,” says Anne. Garlic mustard was also a never-ending task for the two for about six weeks this spring, “but without volunteers due to Covid-19, it was tough to make much headway,” Molly says.
Another tough reality thanks to Covid-19 was the lack of in-person training that Huron Pines usually offers. They also missed out on team bonding and networking with the 30 other Huron Pines AmeriCorps members scattered across Michigan, a valuable perk of the “Corps” experience. “But I feel really lucky to have Anne here,” Molly says. A native of Dearborn and recent graduate of Tulane in New Orleans, Molly has a strong foundational background in ecology and evolutionary biology but says AmeriCorps has given her much-needed “real-world experience.” She goes on, “it offers a broad scope and variety you might not get going straight into a job. And it has helped me figure out what I like and don’t like.”
Anne, a Leelanau local with a teaching background, wants to mesh that experience with her passion for nature. She loves the animal world and using the forest as her classroom, and hopes to one day find a career blending both of her passions. “AmeriCorps gave me a year to practice and dig deep into learning, and I’m grateful for that time,” she says.
Becky adds, “I’ve been amazed at the quality of the members that serve with us. Each one has different skills, and the program allows the freedom for members to build service projects around their interests. Looking at our members who go on to grad school or start their careers, I know their time in AmeriCorps was formative.”
We hugged the shoreline as we paddled back to the harbor. The wind picked up and it was getting choppy. This was different than river paddling, but my muscle memory kicked in. I watched as Anne and Molly splashed through the waves undaunted. As we paddled, I reflected on my life-changing AmeriCorps service, and how it led me to where I am today. It was the entry-point to my career, how I found my purpose, and how I met my husband. Almost a decade later, many of the 15 members from my group still keep in touch.
Hopefully, this experience is the beginning of something wonderful for Molly and Anne as well. When we finally reached the dock, none of us were fazed. My arms were floppy and my back was already sore as we lifted the canoes into the trailer, but a smile spread across my face. These are the days we live for, days adventuring in the field. They remind us of why we do what we do and inspire us to keep going. All in a day’s service. – Claire Wood, Communications Director. Published in our Fall 2020 Newsletter; all photos by staff.