Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Life of a Bosque Volunteer

While I wait here in Chicago for my medical fun to begin (June 1st is my new surgery date), I thought I’d start catching the blog up on my time spent in New Mexico volunteering earlier this Spring.

When I arrived to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in mid-March, Spring had yet to arrive to central New Mexico’s elevation of 4,500 feet…and I had yet to learn whether this volunteer RVing lifestyle would be all I had hoped it would be.   Would it feel like a J-O-B?  Would I get bored?  Would I fit in with others working the Refuge? Would I learn the vast amount of necessary information quickly enough to become an effective resource to visitors?  Would I want to continue doing volunteer gigs like this in the future?

Bosque North Loop March IMG_7390

It didn’t take long for Spring to “spring” or for me to get the answers to all of these burning questions!

Bosque North Loop Sunset April P1000336

One of my main goals for 2015 was to try out volunteering at a National Park or Wildlife Refuge. When planning my early retirement, a big component was to do volunteer work about 6 months a year to give my post-work life a meaningful focus, as well as keep expenses minimized until SS and Medicare kick in.

So this past winter, I started doing searches every couple of days of federal volunteer listings on Volunteer.gov.  This website doesn’t have every available opening (some require that you still inquire directly to each individual park), but more and more resources are now using Volunteer.org, so it’s an excellent place to start your job hunt.

The site has a nifty search filter called “Housing/Amenities” that allows you to narrow search results to only those offering an RV Site, and another filter can just show new listings, so it was easy to check every few days to see what new opportunities were out there.

When I saw the posting from Bosque in need of a Visitor Services volunteer for March to June, it seemed like an ideal first “resident volunteer” position.  Bosque has one of the largest volunteer operations in the Refuge System, so here I’d be “one of many” rather than the sole volunteer the refuge would be relying on —a much safer bet for them, and a much better learning opportunity for me! 

Within a few weeks of submitting my application and volunteer resume’, the Bosque Volunteer Coordinator phoned my references and, to my delight, offered me the position!

Many volunteer assignments (particular with the National Park Service) want solo volunteers to work 32/hours a week, but there are still a number of National Wildlife Refuges that only request 24 hours.  Bosque del Apache was one of them!  It’s not that I’d mind working 4 days rather than 3, but this being my first job, I wanted to have the extra flexibility in case it wasn’t a great fit.

Another challenge can be remoteness of the park or refuge.  Is there cell coverage and/or high-speed wifi? How far away is a full-sized grocery store?  Where’s the closest Wal-Mart? Gas Station? Hair Salon? Hospital?  Are there interesting things to see and do on days off that are within a 1 to 2 hours’ drive? .

Bosque met all of those requirements with flying colors.  Located along I-25 in central New Mexico, the RV sites at Bosque are far enough from the highway to not hear road noise, but still close enough to enjoy high-speed cell coverage! 

Bosque Highway Sign IMG_7706

The small town of San Antonio boasts a trio of great restaurants and the main hub for all other services, Socorro, is just under 20 miles away.  Socorro is home to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and proudly sports a big white “M” on the mountain shadowing over the town (appropriately called “M” mountain by the locals).

Socorro M Mountain IMG_7705

Socorro might not be as hip or colorful as some of New Mexico’s other small, funky towns, but I really enjoyed the warm, down-to-earth, friendly people and the full array of services available there.  I’ll also be forever grateful for the town square’s lush green grass that gave Millie such a perfect spot to enjoy her final afternoon.

IMG_7746

My home at Bosque was the 18-site Volunteer RV park Village located behind the Visitor Center. While I could have my pick of many available sites, the Volunteer Coordinator suggested a site close to the Lounge building—less chance of pack rats during the final month of cold nights, and less chance of snakes seeking cool shade during the hotter days to come! Sold!  I’ll take the spot closest to the Lounge!

My Bosque Home IMG_7951

Many refuges have a central building for volunteer and employee use—often it houses just laundry facilities, and perhaps a fridge, freezer, and small social area.  In comparison, I’m guessing that Bosque’s Lounge ranks as the Ritz of the Refuge System!  Take a look--

Bosque Lounge Laundry IMG_7933  Bosque Lounge Kitchen IMG_7935Bosque Lounge Freezer and Ice Maker IMG_7934Bosque Lounge IMG_7937Bosque Lounge Covered Patio and Grill IMG_7945Bosque Lounge Library IMG_7941Bosque Lounge Pool Table IMG_7936Bosque Lounge Sauna IMG_7944Bosque Lounge Piano IMG_7938

We volunteers enjoyed new Maytag washers & dryers, a full-sized commercial kitchen and fridge, large freezer, an ice maker, a covered patio with gas grill, a large living room with sofas, chairs & tables, a new 55” flat-screen TV with DVD player to watch movies, a large lending library of books and DVDs, a computer workstation, WiFi, a piano, pool table, and even a sauna!  There was also a large outdoor fire pit with chairs (and lots of firewood) for group campfires on those cool, wind-free nights.  Deluxe accommodations for sure!

Each volunteer is provided a few polo shirts, name tag, vest, hat, and jacket for use while working at the Refuge.  The volunteer provides their own pants or shorts, and sturdy close-toed shoes.  Here’s what I looked like when “on the job”:

Me at the Bosque SIgn P1010573

Being a highly-visited Refuge with many volunteers, Bosque’s volunteer roles tend to be more segmented than at other refuges.  Most of us worked Visitor Services which meant staffing the Visitors Center and “roving” the refuge to assist visitors and/or spot wildlife in the field.  Others volunteers worked maintenance and custodial jobs, and a few others served as interpretive naturalists (leading Refuge tours).

As a Visitor Services volunteer, I was assigned (usually with a fellow volunteer) to work the Visitor Center 3 days a week from 7:30am to 4:30pm with an hour for lunch.  Since the VC is only a minute’s walk from the RVs, volunteers could easily eat lunch at home. 

Our indoor work location was nearly as beautiful as the outdoor spots!  Bosque’s VC is only a few years old.

Bosque VC Entrance IMG_7968Bosque Visitor Center Entrance IMG_7959Bosque Visitor Center IMG_7961

We VC volunteers were charged with opening and closing the Visitor Center and public restroom buildings, reconciling the cash register, turning all the exhibits on/off, raising and lowering the flag, filling the bird feeders, logging data from the Refuge’s weather station, and logging all bird sightings into the eBird kiosk.  A separate team of local employees and volunteers ran the Nature Store, so we never had to worry about that end of things.

Since there was usually someone else working the custodial duties, we didn’t have to do any heavy-duty floor mopping or toilet cleaning—just light “touch ups” to keep the VC tidy, and restock TP in the restrooms if needed.

With multiple volunteers working the VC, this allowed for a nice variety of duties to make each day interesting.  While one worked the main information desk at the VC answering questions from visitors, collecting entrance fees, and issuing federal passes…

Bosque Info Desk and Nature Store IMG_7957

the other volunteer would be out “roving” the refuge.  Roving involved driving one of the official white government vehicles to make sure all trailheads and information kiosks had brochures and were free of litter, greeting visitors and answering questions, assisting naturalists and/or staff with tours, and observing where wildlife was and whether any new species had arrived or left.  Morning rovers also got to drive to the post office to collect the day’s mail for the refuge.  Always a fun trip!  After lunch, the roles would reverse—the rover would work the VC desk, and VC person would go out to rove.

So, after 6 weeks at Bosque, what answers did I come up with to my original questions?

  • It never felt like a J-O-B, and was never, ever boring!  The work was highly educational, fun, and visitors were always friendly and appreciative of whatever assistance I could give them.  The Refuge staff and managers were terrific too—dedicated leaders, fun to work with, and always grateful for each volunteer’s service to the Refuge.
  • I felt very much “at home” and at ease living and working at a wildlife refuge.  I enjoyed my fellow volunteers and think they enjoyed spending time with me too (both on and off the job).  I also relished the opportunity to observe a natural habitat daily over the course of a season.  It was good to be still to watch and listen to nature for more than just the week or two at a time that is so common for full-time RVers.
  • Would I do it again?  Absolutely!  I’ve already promised Bosque I’ll be back this Fall to finish what I started (assuming my medical stuff gets resolved this summer so it won’t interfere again).

Bosque is known for its migratory birds and waterfowl, so coming to the refuge as a non-birder felt pretty intimidating.  But with the help of some really excellent (and patient!) senior naturalists, and continued study, I soon began to learn and identify more and more birds and other wildlife species. 

I dare say I’ve now become a bona-fide “birder” and am completely addicted to my Sibley Guide and eBird observations!  I’m still nowhere near being an expert, but have increased my knowledge tremendously in the past few months and continue to do so here in Illinois.  I’m making good progress!

I’ll share my bird and wildlife photos in the next posts.

22 comments:

  1. That looks like a great place to volunteer, while getting off the road for a while to recuperate.

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    1. Indeed it is. Perfect place, facilities, and people!

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  2. So glad you enjoyed the stay you had at Bosque and you want to return. It is a beautiful place with a huge "collection" of birds, beautiful visitor center - and a WOW of a volunteers area - and interesting history in the area. I hope, when you return, you get a chance to visit the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, not too far south of Bosque off of I-25 (allow yourself a good 2-3 hours). Hopefully, the return will be therapeutic for you. Am thinking good thoughts for you.

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    1. Yes, I never made it down to the El Camino Real Center and really want to see it this Fall when I'm back. I'll give you a shout when I'm headed that way so we can hopefully meet up at one of TorC's finest eats!

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  3. That really is a gorgeous volunteer area. I'm sure most of them aren't anywhere near as nice. Sending you lots of prayers and hugs at this time. We know all those feelings you're going through and understand how scary it is.

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    1. Thanks guys. I'm doing o.k. so far with the fear factor-- since this is my first surgery ever, ignorance is bliss!

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  4. Welcome to the volunteer life and bird nerdom (new word:))! I'm glad your first experience was a good one, and you're looking forward to returning in the fall.

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    1. I never would have thought about volunteer service at NWRs if it weren't for you, so thanks for the inspiration. Sure hope I can reach some of those service milestones some day that you have! "Bird Nerd"-- ha! Yes, now that my binocs go on every hike with me, I guess I am now looking more the part....but I suppose when I get the full-blown binoc chest harness, my metamorphosis will be complete!

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  5. I am inspired by your post. I am traveling down the Oregon Coast and will hit Harris State Park at the same time Judith is there so will use that opportunity for more information. I will be thinking of you on June 1st, wishing for a positive outcome and speedy recovery. By the way you look pretty snappy in the new gear.

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    1. Judy (and the Oregon Coast) should give you plenty of inspiration! Once you've gotten the initial few months of pent-up travel bugs out of your system, you might really enjoy trying a few volunteer stints to get a nice break from the road.

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  6. Thanks for this post - it gives a lot of good detailed information about this kind of work-camping. I haven't done any work while on the road, so I found it very interesting. This looks like a great place to be and obviously they appreciate their volunteers.

    All my good thoughts and prayers will be with you on June 1, Lynne.

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    1. I think you'd have a great time volunteering Barbara. Sometimes you can find a position posted for less than 3 months (such as a mid-season cancellation by another volunteer)-- a great way to test the waters to see how you like it, and always nice to have a full hookup site for free in return!

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  7. The perfect place for your first volunteer stint. No wonder you are eager to get back. Can you volunteer there again next year? Would you want to or perhaps rather travel around looking for something different?

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    1. Yes, Bosque has many volunteers who return again and again, so as long as I'm doing a good job and honoring my time commitment, I'm sure I could come back in years to come, but yes, in 2016, I'll likely want to try other parks in completely different areas of the country to learn about new wildlife and habitat and broaden my naturalist skills before returning to Bosque a 3rd time.

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  8. You say you're returning in the fall -- I am thinking you mean late october for the November/February session? If so we'll see you there. Peg and I stopped by the refuge a few weeks ago and after talking with Chris we agreed to spend the winter there.

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    1. Hi Peter-- yes, I'm currently penciled in to return in late Sept/early Oct and stay until December (when another couple will be returning to work until Feb). So, if all stays according to plan, I'll look forward to seeing you guys again and working with you!

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  9. I write from the desk at my very first hosting job at the Port Orford Lifeboat Museum on the southern Oregon coast. Hosting has been a great experience and I'm sure we will do it again. Our RV is at a day park with a full hook-up and only steps from the beach. It looks like the volunteer facilities are first rate where you are, but I am happy with a free place to park and an empty beach. Hope your surgery goes well.

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    1. How fabulous! I love the Port Orford and Bandon areas and it's certainly on my list of great places to volunteer at someday! So glad you're enjoying your post and have caught the same "volunteer fever" that I have-- hope our paths cross one of these days!

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  10. Nice write up. Thanks for the insights.

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  11. Great write-up and a wonderful experience. Prayers for 1 Jun so you are quickly back to your new life.

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  12. We went from volunteering at state parks to NWR. Judy got us started with volunteering for NWR. We finally went from blogville to actually meeting her at Tamarac NWR in MN. We worked with her at Tamarac last year and meet Sean Brophy also. We are currently (until the end of June) are at Tualatin River NWR in Sherwood, OR. just out of Portland. Love it!

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  13. Nice write up on your stay in NM. Get well quickly.

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