Serving something larger

Team Oak 7 above, left to right (where they call home in parentheses): team leader Zach (Seattle), Jennifer (Long Island), Sam (Maryland), Cat (Delaware), Sarah (Michigan), Keziah (Deleware), Nate (Maryland), and Grace (Florida). 

At 3:30pm on Tuesday, an hour before we expected Americorps NCCC team Oak 7 to arrive at Weldon Springs State Park, I got a call from Fritz, the team's supervisor back at the Vinton, Iowa campus: Oak 7 was being redeployed to Baton Rouge on Saturday. They would serve three days with us, and then return from Louisiana on October 18.

I asked Fritz if the team knew. They didn't.

Awkward.

That's how it felt to Mary and Norma from the Weldon Springs Foundation and to me as we watched the van pulling into the lot where we waited. The Foundation, who is helping to fund this Illinois Trail Corps hitch, had baked cookies and made lemonade to greet the team. Zach, the team's leader, received his call about the redeployment as Mary, Norma and I welcomed the team to Clinton, Illinois, half holding our breath.

Zach told the team which erupted into shouts of surprise and I told you so's. On their drive out, there was a lingering expectation inside the van that this would happen: the Baton Rouge floods have been a true and persistent disaster, and Americorps NCCC's first priority is those in most need. Weldon Springs State Park is deeply loved by folks who live near and who grew up enjoying the park when times weren't so tough for state parks. The decline of the park over the last 10 years of IDNR cannibalization and neglect by governors and legislators—a decline park superintendent Charlie Montgomery is turning around with innovative resourcefulness like partnering with Illinois Trail Corps—is heartbreaking.

But Baton Rouge.

Charlie, Mary, Norma, the hundreds of donors who are supporting this Illinois Trail Corps hitch, we're all disappointed that seven weeks with this team will be reduced to 2 1/2. But we also honor their service, and thank them on behalf of America for rushing to serve in Baton Rouge.

On Tuesday afternoon, we of course had a situation to solve: Charlie had put together a scope of work for seven weeks. What does the team do for the next 2 1/2 days?

The team had that answer: They get things done.

After some training with me, the team jumped right into solving two major problems that plague the park: major fall line erosion and structures rotting in place. Splitting the team in two, four of them cut new, sustainable tread to access one of the lake's prized fishing piers that literally eliminated a collapsing stair case Charlie had closed the entire season.

Gone, good riddance, thanks to new trail cut by Oak 7.

Gone, good riddance, thanks to new trail cut by Oak 7.

Half of Oak 7 with me (shamelessly promoting the Hennepin Hundred. Photo by Mary Mitchell)

Half of Oak 7 with me (shamelessly promoting the Hennepin Hundred. Photo by Mary Mitchell)

The other four went with me to find and begin clearing a new alignment on the south side of the lake to route around major fall line trail erosion and eliminate another wooden structure, a small bridge, from the trail system. We'll fill the old, gullying-out trail with rip rap rock to slow the water draining on the old trail and discourage use, halting the erosion.

A fall line trail, the quickest route for feet and water to carry your tread downhill. Eliminated by Oak 7.

A fall line trail, the quickest route for feet and water to carry your tread downhill. Eliminated by Oak 7.

Oak 7, as other teams we've sponsored, simply astonishes me with their esprit de corps and relish for hard and tireless work. Spending time working with and getting to know them has helped all of us at Weldon Springs feel really good about what we'll accomplish in the time we have them.

Oak 7 team member Sarah, who in her civilian life does taxidermy as a side job, skillfully dressing a felled tree.

Oak 7 team member Sarah, who in her civilian life does taxidermy as a side job, skillfully dressing a felled tree.

Before the power of teamwork, the Earth parts to reveal its trails. Photo by Mary Mitchell

Before the power of teamwork, the Earth parts to reveal its trails. Photo by Mary Mitchell

We're changing the dates of volunteer days to October 28–29 instead of October 14–15, since the team won't return from Baton Rouge until October 18. THANK YOU everyone for your amazing interest and response to helping at Weldon Springs.

We greatly anticipate Oak 7's return, and wish them safe traveling and a safe service term in Baton Rouge. Our tools will be sharp and ready for dirt when you return.