Sam Houston National Forest

Blue Crew had an interesting start to our first real hitch outside of training for the conservation side of our term. We came in off of our break post Hurricane Michael deployment with our Crew Leader snowed in out of state. We were all excited for the opportunity to step up and take initiative on a project regardless. Having loaded up the trailer, double checking that we hadn’t forgot anything, we headed towards the Sam Houston National Forest.

The GPS landed us in the wrong spot to begin with, trying to take us to the Ranger Station, instead of our campground, but finally we found our way to the beautiful Double Lake Campground. The host greeted us, and directed us to our site while we waited for our point of contact for the Forest Service to arrive and take a look over what projects we had in store. He was a funny man, always cracking a joke. Provided us all with a copy of plans for filling in a lot of clay dirt around a series of campsites that had experienced
severe erosion. We started the next day, blasting through the first site. Halfway through the following day, and a little more than halfway through the next site, our Crew Leader arrived, and there was much rejoicing, hand shaking, back-clapping, and the like.

We continued plowing through our rehab of the campsites until we ran out of dirt. By that time, it was Saturday, and time for an REI sponsored volunteer event, in correlation with the National Forest Foundation. The plan was to remove a large swath
of brush that had taken over the backside of the dam nearby. The eastern director of the NFF showed up, bringing breakfast tacos and coffee, for which we were all immensely grateful. One volunteer showed up, and away we went, sawing and lopping the offending vegetation. That took less time than expected, so we went to start cleaning up brush around various camps, opening up more views to the little lake they surrounded. This is what occupied the majority of our remaining time of this hitch, the dirt to finish the remaining sites we were originally working on having not showed up.

Overall we maintained high spirits, enjoying our time in the majesty of the woods and water around us. Survived a couple of freezing nights, some thunderstorms, a sasquatch raid, and of course loud weekend campers. I can confidently say that we of the Blue Crew are excited for our next outing, and furthering the camaraderie that has been developing among us. Sounds like we are aiming back to Florida here in January, for another round of disaster deployment. I’m eager to get back and further serve those in need

Samuel Martinich – Disaster Response Crew Member

Gulf Corps Fire Training

Aqua Crew had the unique opportunity to spend two weeks in Mississippi getting certified to operate chain saws and fight wildland fires. Several other Gulf Corps crews participated as well, some of which Aqua had met at Gulf Corps orientation in September. The trainings were incredibly tough and stretched us physically and mentally. At the same time, it was really fun! Our tight-knit crew grew even closer on this trip, and I’m sure none of us will forget the experiences we had.

The first week was S-212, during which we learned how to properly use chainsaws. Everyone on our crew already had at least 3 months of experience on a saw, but despite that we discovered we still had a lot to learn. Personally, I realized that I had never fully understood tension and compression forces involved with bucking felled trees. Our crew learned to be more methodical when using chain saws with the help of our instructors, Thayer and Jody.

Before the start of the wildland fire training, we had to take an arduous pack test, which involves speed walking while carrying 45 pounds. We had to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes, which was no easy feat. Passing the pack test gave us our Red Cards, which will enable us to fight fires and conduct prescribed burns.

Many of the instructors from the chainsaw week stayed on to teach us about fire behavior. We learned so much from them—they were patient teachers who clearly cared about helping us succeed. The knowledge we now have about suppressing and using fire will be useful for our careers, even if most of us never join a fire crew. We became familiar with firing devices like drip torches and plastic sphere dispensers (the latter looks like a paintball gun). We practiced deploying fire shelters. We punched in fireline using hand tools to scrape down to mineral soil. We learned about fire engines and bulldozers—bulldozers are commonly used to create fireline in the South because the terrain is flat. Most importantly, we learned to use our brains to problem solve, even in stressful situations.

Most S-190 fire trainings do not include live fire, but we were lucky. We participated in conducting a prescribed burn at Camp Tiak, the camp we stayed at for the duration of the trainings. Originally, our instructors had planned for two burn days on De Soto National Forest land; unfortunately, these plans got rained out. We were all happy that the instructors worked hard to come up with an alternate plan to give us the experience of being on a fire. We prepped the 2-acre burn unit by removing large dead logs and digging line around the area. The amount of line we had to dig was minimal because the burn unit was adjacent to natural fire breaks: a lake and a road. Once everything was ready, we assembled and lit the drip torches. Walking in proper formation so that no one assisting with firing would get surrounded by flames, crew members lit the area on fire. We also helped “hold the line,” by spacing out along the fireline and checking for spot fires. I was proud to be a part of Aqua Crew—we learned a lot as a team and we will apply our new skills when we return to project work in the new year.

Sarah Vande Brake – Gulf Corps Crew Member

Last Week of the Hurricane Michael Deployment

It is bittersweet writing this week’s report. After today the Gulf branch will dissolve into the Bay branch and our beloved command staff will get ready to demobilize. This week has been full of adventure and adversity and we faced it all as a united Gulf family. We began this week with all of our 5 field teams, including the command staff, working on one site. The homeowner was not able to move her FEMA trailer on her property due to downed trees and yards upon yards of debris. A site that would usually take one team two or three days to do took our entire branch 3 hours to finish.

Seeing everyone outside with their bright yellow vests and seeing the homeowner eternally grateful was a reminder of why we are here and why this term of service is so important. We are part of the recovery and healing process, not only for the community but for the survivors as well.

Days before Thanksgiving we had some very important people come down to visit: Barbara Stewart, Gina Cross, and Jen Murphy, the people who make all of this possible, were able to see the community we serve. They were able to see us in action and see all the good work that they support and sponsor.

On Thanksgiving some of our members took the opportunity to go back to their conservation roots and help clean up a park. The park was associated with the Arc of Florida, a non-profit organization that helps improve the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The project was among one of the best some of our member’s experienced so far in this deployment.

As this week comes to an end, we celebrate surpassing our goal of serving 100 homeowner properties. This deployment has been challenging but it has also been very rewarding and transformational for many of our members. In the beginning we were separate teams with one mission in mind. Now we are a family. Thank you NCCC and Saint Louis. You have made this deployment one for the books.

Gulf Corps getting to work!

Aqua Crew alternates project work with three main local partners, and this week we got to work with both Artist Boat and Armand Bayou Nature Center. We began the week by going out to Artist Boat, a preserve on Galveston Island that promotes education about coastal environments. Artist Boat provides kayak tours of the coast that integrate recreation and education—tours include stops to paint watercolors and bird watch.

Artist Boat’s properties are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, and in order to support them the land requires continual management. We worked at the corral area this week, where years of grazing by cattle has left a distinct mark on the land. Artist Boat is working to expand and improve its coastal prairies; the organization’s plant nursery is housed in the corral. This week, we completed several tasks for Artist Boat.

First, we removed Chinese tallow trees from the prairie. We were able to see large, rotting stumps of tallows beneath the persistent re-sprouted growth. This was not the first time these trees had been removed, and it probably will not be the last. Tallow is very resilient, and even when herbicide is applied to the cut stumps the trees can produce new growth.

We cleared old, rotting fence posts out of a corner of the prairie. Artist Boat has received a grant to plant coastal prairie species in this area, so the debris needed to be removed. During the process of carrying the posts, we accidentally disturbed a baby mouse nest. We secured them in their nest and tried to give them some space to recover from the scare we gave them! The old wood also provided great habitat for mushroom growth, and our crew appreciated the opportunity to admire the complex mycelium.

Long barbed wire fences remain on the prairie, vestiges of the ranchers’ handiwork. Now, these fences can harm the prairie. Birds perch on the fences, bringing undigested seeds which spring up and create lines of trees. Along the fence we began removing, the primary tree species was gum bumelia, a tree with long spines that our crew developed a healthy respect for.

Aqua spent the final two days of the week at Armand Bayou. On Thursday, we staged one-gallon pots of grasses and forbs to prepare for planting on Prairie Friday. On Friday we were able to get 300 plants in the ground before lunch, and spent the remainder of the day doing bayou trash clean-up.

Next week, our crew will return to Armand Bayou to work on their rookery—this will be different than any project we’ve tackled so far!

-Sarah Vande Brake, Aqua Crew member

Meet our Gulf Corps Crew!

Crew compatibility plays an important role in any crew dynamic or teamwork skills. In order to properly function, a crew must understand one another and be able to work through their differences. For never being in a large crew based team for work, I have loved learning who everyone is and can be. On the Gulf Corps Coastal Crew there are several members that are some of the coolest people you’d have the pleasure of working with, (just ask our project partners).

The crew leader, Natalie, is a bubbly intellectual that knows how to make a team work like peanut butter and jelly. Laura, an experienced worker who is always there when you need a helping hand, especially when it involves a chainsaw. Sarah is one of the most sweetest individuals who you will ever meet, she knows how to work a GIS unit and can always keep her cool when it comes to problem solving through a situation. Tara, a strong willed goal oriented gal who is best described by the phrase, “if you put your mind to it, you can do it”. Patrick is the utmost definition of a positive mindset, no matter what we say or do Patrick seems to always see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is honestly amazing. Christina, the stretch master,  is always there to share a laugh with you or crack a corny joke that you may or may not laugh at. Benny, a man who came in late but sure has not disappointed, he is by far the strongest member. Randy is a quiet soul but still has a lot to bring to the table, as an able worker and strong willed he is always there to get the job done plus he has great taste in music. Dex, the outdoors man with the soul of a wise man who knows how to find a good corndog, he is always there to lend a helping hand even if he is under the weather. Kat, our own personal chef, has a wonderful taste pallet that can only be compared to the delicious foods she brings to us almost every week, she practically keeps us alive. Last but not least, Leilani, she is not only funny, talented, and beautiful she also can put in some work.

With all this and more the making of a perfect team is practically in play, and everyday we grow and learn something new about each other. I can’t wait to see how the term goes with this crew, many surprises and stories surely await so stay tuned.


Week 4 of Gulf Branch Deployment

I thought Florida was supposed to be warm. But with nights reaching into the 30’s and the girls’ heater breaking in the tent, we have actually had to spend our nightly debriefs huddled together like tiny penguins. The cold, however, hasn’t stopped the gulf branch from finishing 70 work sites. We made a goal to finish 100 work sites by the end of our deployment, and we are now more than halfway there. This is our 4th week on deployment and our flow of assessments and finished work assignments is becoming ever more efficient.  

We have had some setbacks, however. Some of our chainsaws are out of commission due to our members impeccable strength. We have luckily found a repairman with Samaritan’s Purse who was kind enough to identify the parts we need and helped us repair one of our saws. We have also been lucky enough to receive help from the Saint Louis conservation Corps. Margaret Gerks has taken the lead on calls and Logan Bleyl has taken charge of Logistics, helping us find housing and food for when we move out of our current base.  With their help we have been able to expand to Liberty county, where we are able to help more people in rural areas. Saint Louis presence here also given the command staff the opportunity to reach out into Mexico Beach to help start a volunteer reception center to help with the long term recovery on the coast. With less than 2 weeks left in this deployment, the NCCC, TXCC and St louis teams have gotten pretty close and created an almost family-like environment, which has made these long cold nights bearable. We have been able to lean on each other when things get rough and stressful,and it is nice knowing that we can always rely on our fellow Americorps members.

Week 3 of Gulf Branch Deployment

The days are starting to merge but each night everyone seems to have a smile on their face. We begin each morning with a buffet of  hearty delights: eggs, bacon, grits, biscuits, and gravy, all with a side of oatmeal. The cooks here are determined to help us restore the calories we have lost in the field.

Our teams have been flying through the projects assigned to them by Ops. Gulf FOB is finishing up to 2-3 houses and hauling over 15 cubic yards of debris a day. We have commissioned a full time assessment crew just to keep up with the pace of our field crews.  We have also started to branch out to other counties around Gulf, including Franklin and Liberty counties. We have begun reaching out to the Emergency Operation Centers in those counties to let our presence be known and that we are here to help.

There have been some setbacks: lightning storms waking up our members up in the middle of the night, forcing us to evacuate to the restrooms for proper shelter; and several members contracting poison sumac.

Although this week hasn’t been the most pleasant for us, it hasn’t stopped our crews from finishing 30 project sites this week. We still end our day with an amazing dinner and a poem from one of the members. With the sky grey and our bellies full we laugh at our daily struggles and bond over matching rashes. At the end of  the day we remind ourselves why we are here and seeing the people we help makes it all worth it.