There and Back Again a Corps Members Tale

Written by: Carolyn Boyd

The Days before Training May 16th-May 20th

We finally arrive. To this far off place in Chesterton Indiana, by plane and by car we are picked up and shuttled off to our new home for the next 6 months. It’s hard to believe this is happening and we are able to participate in the SCA Native Plant Corps and work on the wetlands. At the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore we will be partnered with the folks of the National Park Service to help them in their mission to restore the beautiful 15,000 sites of fragmented wetlands. Many of us have little experience in the field on this scale. It will be a challenge to be overcome, with a little hard work, but a great addition to our work skills and further progress toward our own conservation ideals.

The majority of the two teams working on the Indiana Dunes first met on the 16th of May. And before the whirlwind of training that would later take place, we received a few precious moments to relax and settle in. We also got to view the sites we will be working on and meet a few of the park staff. We learned that the wetlands have gone through a lot of changes in the decades since this area was first settled. A majority of the changes involved draining the marshes and bogs for agriculture, industry, and residential areas. This drainage gave way to a great many tree species to grow in what would have been several inches to feet of water. The land has since been cleared of many of the residential sites, only the small remnants of roads and concrete remain, with the occasional refrigerator or tire to mark human settlement.

Many of the different bogs and fens and marsh which make up the site have been heavily encroached upon in recent years by the hybridized version of a native and European species of cattail. This virulent strain not only grows to tower by as much as 12 feet tall, but also crowds thickly and spreads by rhizome root structures so that it chokes out other native species. Its only saving grace is that with the hybridization, the cattail cannot spread by seed. Much of our work this summer and into the fall will be spraying the cattail with herbicide and planting of native species in their place.

Aside from viewing the dunes and the wetlands and facilities, the extra days gave us a little time to explore the small town of Chesterton, population circa 10,000. It’s a very beautiful area with numerous bike-able paths, urban green space, and feeling of community. Accesses to the beaches along Lake Michigan are always an added bonus.

Native Plant Corps Work Day

The next day at training we met with the various Native Plant Crew teams to go into the field for some hands on training in grubbing out invasive species of Himalayan Black Berry and planting native sword ferns in their places. After so many days sitting around, inside or in small workshops, it’s what we all really needed, just to dig our hands into the soil and get dirty. It was a good day, and the first day to finally work as a team with our whole completed teams. Later that night the Trail crews were having a trail derby to test the trail building skills they had been learning the last few days, and a plant team was made (including two of our very own) to test our skills. Having no experience really with trails and after some crazy flipping through the guide provided we created a very beautiful trail system in miniature. In our opinion, one of the most beautiful trails, or at least the one with the most plants upon it. Complete with water drainage systems, a suspension bridge, log steps, endangered snail sanctuaries, it was definitely in the running, sadly we only received the prize of “The best trail made by a non-trail crew team,” but you can only show them up so much I guess and it surely was a fun night.

Chainsaw Training

The next and final certification of the training was chainsaw certification with the Game of Logging. This system practices perseverance, precision, perfect practice so that we might safely use the chainsaw and be aware of the hazards involved. Chainsaw certification proved most challenging for some, but by the end everyone was certified to operate a chainsaw, even those of us which had never picked up a chainsaw before were felling trees and limbing and bucking logs by the end of the long third day. These skills also came into practice in the field much sooner than we expected in the next week.

Final day and travel back the Indiana.

So on the final days, we bid our farewells to the other corps members as they left to start their seasons. We’ve made some good friends and connections in the past few days, but bigger things await and wetland planting must begin soon. So off we fly back to Chicago and drive back to Chesterton Indiana. Then proceed to indulge in life sweetest pleasures—in the terms of sleeping in past 6am and having hot showers….although nothing could compare with the amazing meals which were prepared for us in those 10 days by the wonderful cooking staff.

First week of Work June 4th-7th

Day 1…see the plants, feel the plants, learn the plants

We start bright and early by transplanting plants from microcosm tubs for replanting into the field and learning and studying the plants we’ll be using the next 6 months. Truly so many shades of green, and so little time to learn them all. With time and a little studying, we can surely come to master some of the plants on the wetlands, or at least the ones we don’t want to tangle with, such as poison ivy.

Day2…Indiana Dunes and Searching for the Lost Trail

The second day began with chainsaw and brush cutter work to clear a trail on the Great Marsh. Aside from a slight detour and beginning our morning on the wrong sections we quickly recovered and started in on the right trail following an old road bed of the old housing development. It was hard going and required cutting through tangled brush and vines, downed trees, rotten logs, close set Aspen trees, Wild Rose, the dreaded Poison Ivy, and equipment malfunctions and dull blades. Not quite as easy as the straight Douglas Firs we learned to cut down in faraway Washington State. But we finished with some smiles on our faces and set out the next day to fix our equipment.

Day 3…chainsaw parts chase

Riding around finding chainsaw parts and trying to find appropriately sized waders took up most of our morning this day, but we came away with some parts, some sharpening tools, and one pair of waders from a local outdoor store. Back at the site we spent the rest of the afternoon still battling with chainsaw equipment problems, but we managed to cut farther down the road the rest of the day.

Day 4…more trail work…didn’t know we joined a trail crew? :)

After a quick jaunt into Michigan City for a couple more chainsaw parts, we started our final day of clearing trail. Today the routine of clearing tangled brush and working with the rest of the team as a unit really started to show with good communication skills and the end goal in site, or at least it was made more clear after we encountered a quite swampy section of the marsh and could no longer clear trail at least from this side without waders. Our NPS supervisor surveyed our work and seemed very impressed with the work which was done. This trail will make it much easier for planting crews to come in and access the marsh and have a place to stash their plants during and at the end of the day. So we’ve finally finished the trail and cleaned it up a bit around the edges. Trail success, with approximately 500 feet of usable trail into the marsh section. Put the chainsaw certification to good use, learned how to use a new power tool, and more about proper maintenance of the chainsaw equipment. A pretty good first week, looking forward to what they throw at us next week.