Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Steward’s Adventure in Guatemala

I recently just got back from an amazing trip to Guatemala.  While there, I stayed with a host family in Quetzaltenago (called Xela by the locals), which is a beautiful city with some of the most amazing people that I have ever met.  I was there for four weeks and had many adventures, like hiking to the top of the tallest point in Central America, seeing my first live tarantula, jumping off a forty foot bridge into a river, getting sick from eating some delicious street tacos, and learning more about myself and others than I ever thought possible.

I was able to volunteer at a local clinic there named Primeros Paso.  This clinic was basically the main source of medical and dental care for over 15,000 people in the valley that I was staying in, and it was basically this small “building” with a couple rooms and electricity that would go in and out.   Some of the volunteering projects that I took part in were helping out with a class that taught the indigenous women about nutrition and how they should be taking care of their children, and going out to some of the schools and teaching the kids there about nutrition as well as just some basic life skills while also bringing some well needed medicine to the children and families. I was able to learn so much from these people, more than they could have ever learned from me.  Sure I learned that I should appreciate what I have, but what person goes to a third world country for a month and comes back still not appreciating the fact that they have things like heated showers, or running water for that matter.  Something that I feel was more important that I learned on this trip was that you shouldn’t go into service looking at all the bad that has happened and thinking that your going to be able to fix everything for these people, because in reality that doesn’t happen.  What really happens is that you see yourself in those people, you see the humanity and the similarities with yourself in another person, and you figure out that you can’t fix all their problems.   Thinking about this while on my trip really made me reflect on the Fitz Center, and my involvement with the River Stewards Program, mostly due to our asset based thinking approach to service.  Looking at all the good that the communities had was a lot easier than focusing on all of the bad.  I felt like I got a lot more out of my “service” trip down there then any of the Guatemalan people got out of it. 

I learned a lot about the water resources in Xela.  There actually is a big problem with pollution there, especially because of the fact that a big mining company just bought a lot of land near the clinic I worked in, and basically stripped everything off of it.  Also, this one village that I worked in was located on top of a mountain, and everyday the women had to walk up and down that mountain just to get water.  I actually had to walk up it in order to get to the community one day (since the buses would not go up there because of the incline and the roads were too dangerous).  So, I can tell you first hand that the hike up and down that mountain is no stroll in the park.  Those women must have legs the size of body builders, because in order to walk up and down that mountain and also be carrying a couple gallons of water on their head would take a lot of strength.  I was able to see first hand how not having direct access to drinking water affected these people’s lives, and just how much I can take that for granted.

My trip to Guatemala was one of the most life changing experience that I have ever had, and I think that it has changed some of my perspectives on life and the way that I view the world.  I would not trade the experience that I had or the relationships that I built for anything.

Nick Racchi
2017 Cohort



Thursday, June 11, 2015

"A year of life after River Stewards"

It's been one year since graduating from the University of Dayton with a BS in Biology and SEE, minor. When friends and family ask me what I've been doing or what I've done since graduation I usually give them the short version, "I've been taking a few seasonal jobs and applying to graduate school." While that is true, it nowhere near encompasses the experiences I've had, the people I've met, and the landscapes that I've seen. Right after graduation I took an internship with the Ohio EPA in their surface water division in Columbus. I specifically worked under the Wetland Ecology Group where I got to assist two biologists and two other interns in taking National Wetland Condition Assessments (NWCA) and Ohio Rapid Assessment Methods (ORAM) of Wetlands. Basically, these assessments grade different aspects of a wetland such as hydrology, vegetation, soils, buffer area, and more to determine wetland class and health. I learned so much about each assessment method, soil profiling, and even got some lessons on bryophyte identification. 
After working the summer on wetlands, I headed out to the prairies of Montana for the months of October and November. I was volunteering for an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) on a project called Landmark. ASC partnered with the American Prairie Reserve to collect wildlife data. If you have not heard about the American Prairie Reserve, it is definitely worth looking up. In short, the American Prairie Reserve is an organization aimed at creating and managing a grassland reserve that could reach as far as three million acres. The reserve reintroduced bison in 2005 and will soon be nearing 500 total bison. Anyway, the six Landmark crew members lived on the reserve and our job as volunteers was to hike 8-12 mile transects and record field observations on wildlife. We would carry a tablet, GPS and other equipment in the field and every time we saw an animal we would mark the location, number of animals, approximate age, health, behavior, and the direction it was moving. We were also responsible for maintaining motion-activated camera traps, which was always fun to review the footage to see what the camera caught. On these transects we were likely to see bison, pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, bald eagles, golden eagles, rabbits, prairie dogs, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and different species of hawk. On a more rare occasion, we'd catch a glimpse of a badger. Being on the prairie in a remote location was a completely new experience for me and it gave me a lot of time to take in the landscape and to reflect. I got to experience -20 degrees in November, see the Aurora borealis, see a black footed ferret (an endangered species), and meet some great people from all over the country and Germany.  If you ever get the opportunity to visit Montana, don't forget about the prairie. They call the state Big Sky for a reason and the sun rises and sunsets are unrivaled.
The prairie was absolutely beautiful, but I was off again onto a different landscape. In February and March, two other technicians and I helped a University of Tennessee graduate student with his Elk Forage research project. We were tasked with taking vegetation data in North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area which is about an hour north of Knoxville. We would set up 40 meter transects and identify the vegetation (mainly trees) that crossed the transect and looked for evidence of deer and elk forage (basically if a branch had been chomped on). Since it was winter in the mountains of Tennessee we experienced quite a bit of snow and got to test our winter driving on unplowed mountain roads. We got to see a ton of white-tailed deer and turkey, practice our animal track identification, and we even glimpsed a few elk. Personally, I had never had any winter tree identification, so I was able to learn a great deal from the other techs and graduate student. 
As for my most recent excursion, I will be heading up to northern Minnesota to work as a wildlife technician for the National Park Service. While I don't know what is entirely in store for me, I know I will be taking data on wildlife (such as grey wolves) using camera traps and hair snares. I'm really excited to be working for the National Park Service this summer and can't wait to meet the other wildlife techs that I'll be working with. And as for the future, I am currently applying to graduate schools for wildlife ecology or management. 
While I can't say that this is a typical career path for a recent graduate, I can say that this was definitely the right one for me. It has been stressful constantly applying for jobs and not knowing where I'll end up next, but I have seen some amazing things in the past year and have leaned more than I ever could have hoped for!
River Love
Allie Rakowski (2014 River Steward Cohort)