Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A 360-Degree View of Volunteering

By Kinnell Tackett, Volunteer It sure has been a cold winter so far, and though for some that would seem like a great reason to hibernate until the warmer months, our local national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and their charitable partner for community involvement, the Mississippi River Fund, are hard at work getting people outdoors -- even now!!! -- and planning for another year of great activities. Year-round the rangers and staff of our local national park and the fund are organizing and leading events for school groups, businesses and general members of the public, just like you and me. I’ve been a volunteer for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area for the past few years, and have gotten the chance to have many fun and educational experiences throughout that time. I have been sweaty, muddy, cold, itchy and downright soaked, but it’s so much fun that I’m always elated to come back each and every time, looking to learn something new, help share with others the knowledge I’ve gained through these events, and hopefully convince them to come back to volunteer with us again, bringing their friends and family along, of course. To make sure they’re providing opportunities that continue to draw crowds, the fund and the park offer an abundance of opportunities for volunteers to take part in. People can sign up to spend a few hours hauling buckthorn, planting trees, counting species of birds or any number of other activities focused on educating the public and enhancing the park at the same time. Helping the park, and learning something new in the process, is what keeps people coming back, and it’s what has fueled my passion for volunteering for many years. Education, fun and exercise take place at each event, so what more do you need to sign up for the next event? Let’s take a closer look at some of these opportunities.

Winter Snowshoeing
Dress warm, and dress in layers. A newcomer (now in its second year of public events) to the growing list of available volunteering activities, and appropriate for this time of year, are the snowshoeing events. I really love these events. We spend some time taking part in a physically exerting activity, like hauling buckthorn, before taking a hike to see a section of the park from a completely different angle, and learning a little bit about the ecosystem and history of the area along the way. These events are friendly to anyone suffering from being cooped up in winter, and are sure to get you smiling.

Canoe & Rafting RAVEs River Action Volunteer Events (RAVEs) deliver a wonderful treat for those of us that don’t spend a lot of time in canoes. Featuring one of the park and the fund’s greatest partners, Wilderness Inquiry, these events are an absolute favorite of mine, and one that I see a lot of repeat visitors on. Sometimes physically exerting (days with strong winds) these events are always fun and should not to be missed by anyone with a sense of adventure.
Offered a few times during the late spring through early autumn, canoe & rafting RAVEs provide a few dozen volunteers with a truly unique (when was the last time you were in a 24-foot voyageur canoe!?) and fantastic opportunity to traverse a 6 to 8 mile stretch of our park on the Mississippi, giving them a first-hand look at the national park in their own back yard. The price? All the park asks of us volunteers is to spend a little time on an island or riverbank cleaning up. RAVEs are friendly for people of all ages, but bring your bug-spray and a camera, as you are sure to need both. If you like getting outdoors and you haven’t been through the metro on the river then you owe it to yourself to go on a canoe or rafting RAVE this summer.

Bike RAVEs If your idea of a good day is to enjoy a nice leisurely bike ride then the bike RAVEs are for you. Participants should bring a properly functioning bike, a helmet and a smile. Much like the canoe RAVEs, bike RAVEs are held at different intervals throughout the warmer months of the year, and are a great way to experience our park while getting a little extra exercise. Participants pedal a route roughly 6 miles long, stopping at intervals to learn about the history of our park and help clean up a prairie, woodland or riverbank, depending on the need for the day.

Invasive Species Removal Central to many of the events is the groan and sweat inducing task of removing unwanted species from our public lands. These invasive species threaten our local habitat, and in many cases, have completely taken over local parcels of land. From Anoka to Hastings, you will have chances to rip out garlic mustard in the spring, curly dock in the summer and buckthorn in the fall, along with countless other invasive species.
A young volunteer uses a weed wrench on Island 102c
Anna Waugh removes curly dock at Coldwater Spring

Events where volunteers get the chance to remove invasives from our park are some of the most rewarding; by the end of the activity one can see the physical results from their hard work, and if we keep at it, we can clean up the area, allowing the native species to get a foothold again. These are absolutely wonderful opportunities for people with just a few hours to spare, but want to make the greatest impact they can.
A volunteer shows off the fruits of his labor on Island 102c

Planting Events We do a lot of work removing invasive plants from our park, so naturally we should be spending some time planting native species as well. Throughout the year the fund and our park offer events where volunteers can get dirty planting trees, shrubs and wetland plants. Events of this nature are just as fun as removing invasives and you can come back year after year to watch your efforts continue to transform the environment.
Volunteers plant trees for National Public Lands Day
Surveys Sometimes as a group, and sometimes as a more solitary effort, scientific surveys and BioBlitz (a 24-hour event!!!) help park staff understand what’s really inhabiting our land by looking for live specimens, tracks or scat. During these extremely important events, volunteers and partners of the park help gather the type of information that help shape the future activities that they, and the rest of the public, get to take part in. Though my experience with surveys has been focused around understanding the river otter population in the cities by looking for dens, entry or exit points, and scat samples, the park also offers coyote and bird surveys, as well as the annual BioBlitz, where volunteers of all ages can take part in identifying plants and animals during a 24-hour event at one site. These events, while different than normal volunteering opportunities, grant patrons a very unique experience interacting with our environment--one they won’t soon forget.
River otter at Gun Club Lake
Winter otter den & entry hole with fresh scat
No matter how you choose to volunteer your time for the Mississippi River Fund and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, your actions help the river, and you are part of a larger movement helping to further the original dream of our great park system. There are so many wonderful experiences to have and beautiful areas to explore in our park, and the rangers and staff of our national park and the fund are here to help you find what inspires you to get outside to find them. All you have to do is be willing to invest a little of your time. I hope to see you out there at a future opportunity! www.missriverfund.org/volunteer Check out Kinnell's videos taken during an otter survey with the National Park Service in November 2013:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Gathering Cottonwoods

by Maria DeLaundreau, Minnesota GreenCorps

Last Wednesday I was part of a group of six people that sat in a restaurant in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, a city surrounded by a gorgeous landscape featuring rolling hills and the mighty Mississippi River. One asked the waitress, "What do you think we've done today?" The waitress eyed the group before guessing, "A teacher's retreat? That or a kung fu convention." Her wild guesses missed the mark, but the reality was about just as unusual as a kung fu convention in rural Wisconsin: collecting cottonwood tree cuttings for propagation in the spring.

That morning our group of three volunteers, two park rangers, and myself, a GreenCorps member, had driven to an Army Corps of Engineers cottonwood restoration site just outside of Maiden Rock where two Army Corps of Engineers employees, Bobby and Ray, were waiting for us. They told us that the place where we would be harvesting cottonwood cuttings used to be an agricultural field that was turned into a field of cottonwood saplings after it was acquired in 2008. The trees had done so well they needed to be thinned. That's where we came in. We helped them and our cottonwood project by cutting their saplings down and preparing them to be planted on Island 108 on the Mississippi River near Coldwater Spring and Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul.

Bobby and Ray from the Army Corps of Engineers
The beautiful site featured a dense stand of cottonwood saplings
Ranger Nancy cutting saplings
Volunteers made quick work of cutting saplings
Soon we were enthusiastically harvesting saplings from the young forest and taking them to an open space where we broke into teams. Bobby led some people in removing branches and cutting the sapling stems into two foot sections. Ray showed me how to bundle up the cuttings tightly and make a nifty handle for easy carrying. 

Bundling the cuttings with expert advice from Ray
Removing branches and cutting stems
Bobby painting the tops of the bundled cuttings

Next, we were given the pro tip of painting the top of the cuttings, which will be important later this spring when they're planted. The top ends will produce the buds and branches needed to grow into a thriving tree and the lower part of the cutting that is placed in the ground will produce roots. Painting the top will make it easier to identify which end goes up.

Soon we had a truck bed filled with more than 600 cuttings, each of which will be planted as a part of the cottonwood restoration experiment in the spring. Using cuttings is an inexpensive option for organizations interested in floodplain forest restoration. This makes it an especially valuable option to research. 

I would like to offer an extra note of thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers for their expertise and time, in addition to giving us access to their cottonwood field. What a great resource and terrific partnership. Special thanks also to our fabulous volunteers that came along! We will be advertising more volunteer opportunities in the spring when we are ready to plant the cuttings and subsequently monitor their success. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events on our events calender or email Anna Waugh at awaugh@missriverfund.org to sign up for our volunteer email list.

We accomplished great work thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers and our volunteers

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Finding Beauty in a Harsh Winter

By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach 

It’s not always easy to appreciate winter. To me, Polar Vortex is a term so profane it merits an F.C.C. fine. But banning weather words wouldn’t change the thermometer. Instead, I’m working on finding the positive amid the negative temperatures. I want to appreciate and acclimatize myself to this relentless season. 
photo by Leon Kosek

So I went indoors to look for Minnesota’s true beauty. I toured the Minnesota Waters exhibit at the James J. Hill House, where the Minnesota Historical Society is featuring works from its collection. Most of the art showcases summer scenes of blue waters and green trees, flowing waterfalls, glassy lakes, placid canoes and cows. 

Winter makes an appearance in only a few paintings, and most of those scenes seem mild, with snow as soft as an old cotton sheet, dotted with colorful fish houses and pretty trees.

Only one painting on display shows winter in all its dominance.
Philip Little, Frozen Mississippi, circa 1910
Artist Philip Little’s Frozen Mississippi, circa 1910, shows an all-too familiar scene. Billowy steam clouds cast a veil over the muted Minneapolis skyline. At first glance, it’s hard to distinguish the river from the land. Both are blanketed in snow. The painting is a study in fifty shades of gray and white. It’s not a pretty picture. Daubs of white paint sit unevenly on the canvas, textured as thickly as our washboard side streets.

Little’s brave landscape isn’t as easy on the eyes as sweet scenes of greenery and summer canoes. But I admire artists who help us see art in the world as it is. Winter is too powerful to ignore. So I look again at Little’s Frozen Mississippi and see the Stone Arch Bridge as a sinewy dark curve that pops amid a world of white. 

Little’s painting opens my eyes to the art of winter. As I drive into downtown Saint Paul, the pink of the morning sun catches my eye. It seems like a light show combined with the showy plumes of steam rising from the city’s District Energy heating plant. The massive steam plume could be mistaken for a disaster -- a major fire or epic pollution. Instead, I smile, knowing that the plume is just my city’s healthy way of staying warm. Truckloads of invasive buckthorn from Coldwater Spring end up as District Energy fuel to keep downtown buildings warm.  I’m learning to see the beauty in billowy steam plumes, to see the graphic art of sunlight and shadow atop a blanket of snow. While running outside, I notice panoramic landscapes of shadow trees painted on endless snowy canvasses. 
photo by Melissa Buss
This week, I got to see our winter world a new way, from the aerie view of a friend’s 17th story riverfront apartment. Suzi and I looked out her wall of windows, gazing upon an undulating expanse of white river, framed by tawny and brown bluffs, bare trees, and cityscapes full of buildings and people. From her Highland home, we looked down on grain elevators and water towers, the downtown Minneapolis skyline, the University of Minnesota, the Witch’s Tower, Lake Street Bridge, St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, cars, houses and people. We saw runners dressed in blaze orange, warm black and bright reds striding along river road trails. We spotted what look like cross country ski tracks etched atop the snowy river. 
photo by Melissa Buss

The river is frozen; winter is harsh, but people and life continue to flow. And maybe that’s the true beauty of winter in Minnesota. In a world of white snow and ice, people bring the color and warmth.