Monday, May 30, 2005

AmeriCorps, chapter 5: The First Spike, Part the First

During the first round, Fire 4 was on a local project at a Baltimore primary school. We all came to love our students, and ache for their lack of resources and thus a more limited future. Occasionally I see them in a dream, and I am so thrilled to see them. This year my kids will be (should be) graduating fifth grade! How time flies.

There were, I think, only five of the eighteen teams doing local projects and thus living on campus. When the Fire unit all came back, we were inundated with loads of people everywhere. Part of it was exciting, to visit with friends and housemates, but part of it was a big culture shock. We had had the whole place to ourselves, things were quiet and peaceful. Then all of a sudden, everyone was there, taking up room. Invading our space.

It was quite thrilling to find out that our second project would be at a camp in the woods of New Jersey. (To be honest, I think most of us were shocked to find out there were woods in New Jersey.) The work would be mostly outside. There were lots of bears in the area!

May 1 was our departure date. Not only that, it was teammate Jess's 19th birthday. Mandi and I baked a birthday loaf (cake mix poured into a pound cake-type loaf pan), and Jep decorated the van. Oh, and it was a new van. Our Ghetto Booty (the name the rest of the team dubbed our stellar gray 15-passenger beast) had been loaned to an Ice team whose van was somehow out of commission. Thus, we got a new, maroon van. It was literally right off the lot; it had eighty miles on it. Sweet! Sadly, still no tape deck or anything.

So we started off with that, some fun and sugar. We only got across the Havre de Grace bridge before someone remembered something important that had been forgotten. We all hung out at the McDonald's parking lot while it was fetched.

Finally we arrived at Trailblazers, the camp, in Stokes State Forest, still in daylight. It's a thousand acres of raw forest. As of yet, it was still winter up there; the whole world was still brown. We met our sponsor, a hilarious Brit named Jean. I love her, we all do. She showed us the Great Hall (dining hall/industrial kitchen, where we would be preparing our meals and eating). Then we saw Chimney Corner, the nurse's cabin and our home for the first six weeks of the project. There's a lodge, with one computer on the third, attic-type floor.

As we were hanging out in the kitchen, I left to go get something from a bag in the cabin. Right behind the Great Hall, in the trees next to the path, was a black bear. I froze, desperately trying to remember if I should look it in the eyes, or look away, or stand still, or run screaming, or what. It looked at me, I looked at it, and a moment later, it turned and ambled away. I ran back into the kitchen: "I just saw a bear!!" We'd known that we would probably see them, and the next day we would be shown a video about safety/bear stuff, but no one thought we'd see one so quickly. And I was the lucky first. Whew.

Trailblazers is a nonprofit decentralized camp that's been around for over a hundred years. They bring out underprivileged kids from New York City and Paterson, New Jersey. They don't have to pay anything to attend. The kids live in groups of 10-12 (separated into age groups) with two or three group leaders, out in a smallcamp site. The smallcamps have shelters (either hogans, round-tos, or tipis), a main bonfire area, a 'kitchen,' a latrine, and a (face/teeth) washing area. All structures are natural materials (except perhaps the canvas coverings?). No nails and hammers.

The activities are all outdoors-based, including literacy, swimming, hiking, cooking, and other things. All the smallcamps have to plan and then cook most of their meals out in their camp. There's a store where they can 'order' supplies and ingredients for the meals.

Because of bear concerns--cooking in the same area where people sleep--the forest authorities this year forbade this. Now each group will still cook outside, but only a couple times a week, instead of at least twice a day, and only in special, cooking-only areas, not in their own smallcamps.

As I mentioned, we lived in Chimney Corner. Eleven people in four bedrooms and with one bathroom. There was no heat and no hot water on tap. The cabin was made of all wood, naturally. We were all sleeping in our AmeriCorps-issued sleeping bags, under piles of four or five wool blankets. The blankets had been liberally doused with moth flakes, so they smelled just great and made me sneeze all over the place. We all slept in our complete outfits, even in layers, because it was so cold. The only thing that made eleven people sharing one bathroom bearable was the extra sink in the front room. We had no choice but to use the ice-cold tap water. That's what I used to wake me up each morning when I washed my face. To this day, I wash my face in cold water in the mornings.

Four of us girls slept in the front, main room of the cabin. We were lucky in that we had a fireplace to at least attempt heat. Mandi was our Firestarter, and made some nice, toasty fires each night. Of course, halfway through the night they'd burn out and we'd still wake up half-frozen, most unwilling to leave our little warm nests.

As it turned out, us four were not the only occupants of that front room. Each night we heard little sounds, like nibbling or something, from the rafters above us. It took a week or two to figure out what exactly it was. One morning we found out the hard way. A whole FAMILY of flying squirrels was running around our room. I woke up with a bang when one of them ran across my legs in the sleeping bag. Holy cow, did I sit up fast! Somehow Mandi and Dez convinced Geo to get the squirrels. She donned her leather work gloves and carefully trapped each animal, one at a time (two adults and four babies), setting them outside our door. She would be known as Squirrel Hunter the rest of the year. (If you don't already have a hero in life, you can borrow Geo. More on her heroics later.)

So. The first week and a half of our project was terribly thrilling; we raked leaves. IN THE FOREST. We had to make sure that the pathways in the smallcamps were clear, and also that there were no large piles of leaves, which are a home for nesting mosquitoes.

It was hard to be very excited or motivated at first, we thought we were just doing stupid grunt labor. We complained, we got backaches, we got blisters. No fun at all.

Soon enough, though, we graduated to more interesting tasks. Jean taught us to square lash, which is when you use twine to tie sticks/posts/logs together. It's surprisingly sturdy. That's how all the shelters, tables, and washstands are built: using twine and twigs, saplings, or logs from the surrounding forest.

We relashed some kitchen tables and built washstands. We put up the canvas over the kitchen areas and shelters in a good number of smallcamps. Tipis are a major pain in the ass, if you didn't already know. Very complicated. You have to start with your three main logpoles on the ground, arranged just so, then tie them right. Somehow you get the other logpoles in there too, as well as hook on the canvas/covering in the right direction at the right height on the main pole. Then you have to make sure the damn thing can stand upright and stay sturdy. We spent an entire afternoon with the property manager doing the first one of the season.

One of my favorite projects, and one of the proudest accomplishments, was building a round-to. It's got one big cover that leans over the platform to provide shelter. All shelters only last a few years, and in this one camp, they were all a bit damaged. We took the first one down and started over. We relashed the base log, which was HUGE and took the whole freaking team to hold up while someone did some giant lashings. From there, we found suitable saplings in the forest behind us, and sawed them down.

Once we decided our measurements (how far apart we would make the lashings), we lashed in the vertical ones first, they were easiest. Then we lashed in the horizontal ones. Those got trickier the higher up they got. We had to employ one of us as a weight-bearer, who stood on one of the lower horizontal saplings and leaned into the structure, to bend it down so that the rest of us could actually reach to do the next one up.

It took two mornings to finish this round-to, but when we did, it was perfect. It had excellent, even, and strong lashings, and it had a perfect angle to provide maximum coverage.

When I was back at Trailblazers last weekend, I made sure to check out that round-to. And do you know, it was still perfect and beautiful. Three whole years later. See what I mean about one of our best accomplishments of our entire year?

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