Sunday, May 22, 2016

Please Forgive My Rant

This is the 100th Anniversary of our National Parks so please bear with me while I climb onto a soapbox and go on about a couple of things that really get under my skin. I promise it won’t be long and I also promise I won’t do it often.

Every year, we are exposed to a new level of the public’s ability to abuse our national parks. This is just one park with a small percentage of people who continually bend rules and in some cases downright break them. We are just one pair of campground hosts for a month but if you multiply our experiences times four hosts times twelve months times all of the national parks, forests, and public areas where volunteers are investing their efforts, then across the country, there’s a lot of people who think they are above the rules and very often, these people end up souring the park experience for other visitors.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of campers who come in late in the evening after the rangers have gone for the day, set up on an empty site, enjoy the hospitality of the park, the migratory birds and of course the wild ponies, only to pack up and leave before the rangers are on duty the next morning. This is lost revenue to maintain our parks, pay our rangers and continue the wild places as they were a hundred years ago. Those funds have to come from somewhere. Perhaps they’ll even come from taxes taken out of all of our pockets.

While our month here is almost done, we continue to feel good about the hours we’ve put in and will continue to look for ways to give even more of our time in the future.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Invasion From The South

We were on duty today and just about to finish our rounds when I noticed new horses in the Oceanside campground. We turned our golf cart in to discover the arrival of Bayberry, a mahogany bay stallion, and his 10 mares. It appears Bayberry is a ladies man. I grabbed my camera and started methodically getting images of as many of these newcomers as I could. This sounds easy but the horses are constantly on the move, looking for the tastiest bits of grass. Then there is the makeup of this particular band. There are two reddish bay mares, three chestnut  mares and five pintos. This is an impressive band and Bayberry keeps a watchful eye on all of his ladies, all while smelling the air for approaching stallions and grabbing his share of the tender blades of grass between sites.

Whenever there is a band of horses in sight, no matter how large or small, people will gather. Pony patrol was on scene to help keep people safe and honest while we made sure cars parked safely. There are some campers who are here for the beach or fishing and could care less about the horses so we needed to be sure they could travel to their sites unimpeded.

Suddenly, Bayberry’s head came up, he stomped a hoof and blew his nose. And before I knew it, the entire band was on the move at a trot up over the dunes and onto the beach. Once they hit the hard packed sand, they were off at a canter, kicking up their heels, snorting and bucking. The only way to describe their actions would be to say they felt fine. The sun was warm, there was a cool breeze and maybe Bayberry felt he had gotten away with sneaking his mares onto the sweet grass of another stallion’s territory without being caught.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Found At Last

Eureka! We found Miss Mackie this week. She’s grown into a fine young mare. She’s darker in both the fore and hind quarters than I had imagined she would be. Her fur was so light when she was five months old. And she still has that ever so distinctive “poodle face” on her left side complete with an eye. No matter how I look at her, she’s still amazing.

We also just been informed of another birth to one of the southern bands, a filly. I have expressed a desire to travel down the OSV road which basically means driving in the loose sand to see her. We may even find the third foal while were down there.

Our duties continue to keep us busy. Every day there is something different. Just the other day, we came upon a very large group of people who were not registered campers. They pulled into one of the campsites, set up a couple of grills, laid out two tables full of salads, beverages, snacks and eating utensils and kicked back to party. We spoke to them, explained why they couldn’t be there and recommended they move to one of the picnic areas. We returned about 45 minutes later to discover no one had begun packing. We explained once more they were not allowed on the site, it was rented and the people who had paid for it would be arriving at any moment. Still they didn’t move to pack. One of the party did think to go to the ranger’s station to see if there was a nearby site available for them to move their celebration. Rangers rented them a nearby site but when we returned to make sure the picnic site was clean and fires doused, we found Chip and his mares being “fed”. I convinced Chip and his mares to leave and then we received further proof the people were morons. They felt if they fed the horses, they would leave. It was at this point we called law enforcement to come explain park rules to this group. Both Carl and I left to continue our rounds. Still, another hour passed and when we arrived to make sure the site was clean, they were not only off the site but they had gone from the park.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Really Rough Winter

Rangers on the island are looking forward to the birth of three foals to add to the Maryland herd. This past winter we lost somewhere between ten and twelve animals lowering the count to 85. In most cases, nature is allowed to take it’s logical course absorbing the animal back into the ecosystem.

On May 9th, we finally found the new colt grazing with his mom on the marshes. He was born on or about April 17th . I don’t have a name for him yet but he is by Yankee out of Carol’s Girl. This is the same stallion who sired “my filly”, Miss Mackie.  And speaking of Miss Mackie, as of this writing, she remains elusive. I would say I won’t leave the island until I find her but you and I both know that’s unlikely. On June 1st we’ll be NH bound. It’s hard to imagine our three months of volunteerism is winding down.

On our morning rounds we noticed this one site that had been thoroughly trashed. Tents were collapsed, food and trash bags ripped into, cooking utensils and stoves overturned and two cars filled with sleeping campers in the parking space. We woke the people up and encouraged them to clean their site. We continued on our rounds, checked in at the Ranger Station and went back to check up on our trashed site. Upon our return, we discovered the occupants of the cars and gone back to sleep. So we woke them up once more and found one of their party who spoke better English than the other nine. I took photos of the mess, the trashed tents and their license plates while Carl called law enforcement to assist us with expediting the cleanup and their departure.

It took the officer 45 minutes to arrive at our location. In that time, we were able to discover the people arrived with missing tent parts causing them to tie one tent to the nearby bushes. This is against the rules. While cooking supper, a fox or raccoon came out of the woods. The would be campers retired to the cars leaving everything right where they left it. Part of the mess was caused by the fox or raccoon but most of the destruction was caused by the chestnut stallion, Corky. He was seen leaving the scene of the crime through the bushes. Now, the food being left around breaks a couple of important Park rules but these poor people also had had car trouble leaving one of their vehicles on the grass and yes, that too, is frowned upon by Park staff. These poor people had arrived late so they were unregistered on top of everything else. About the only rule they didn’t break was to allow a dog to run free. I mentioned this to Carl and he laughed, commenting they couldn’t have had room in the two cars which already held 10 adult individuals.

When all was clean, the officer followed the people to the office to ensure they paid for their night of “camping”. We hope they give camping another shot in the near future.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Policing Our Area

This morning we rescued several campers from four legged hooligans. They were being held hostage by the bay stallion, Chip, and his three mares who congregated under their gazebo and around the tents, checked out the picnic tables for breakfast items and tried to carry away a bag of trash. The understandably shaken campers now understand why we have rules and our actions opened an avenue of discussion which lasted more than twenty minutes. I hope they will always remember their visit to the park, for both the good experience and the lessons learned.

Part of our job here is education and we’ve been doing plenty of that. We have reminded families with children to be aware of the feuding stallions, cautioned pet owners to keep their leashes short and provided answers to all manor of questions from “ why is that stallion so thin?” to “ why don’t the horses cross the bridge?”. We’ve even tried explaining to one camper why clotheslines are not allowed.

Park policy changes with each administration. Two years ago, we were required to clean out fire pits and dump the ashes in the tree line. Last year, fire pits could be cleaned but only after being sure the embers are cold. It seems an overzealous camp host moved hot coals to a dumpster causing a fire and a complete meltdown. So, this year, debris like cans, trash and glass can be removed from fire rings but only maintenance is allowed to clean pits out. Another change in policy has had some unforeseen consequences. The Park Service has ceased it’s practice of removing windblown sand from campsites. Since a barrier island is constantly moving with storms and tides and the power of nature cannot be convinced to stay within boundaries, the unintended consequence is flooding of areas that stood high and dry previously. Freshwater ponds have become dry, three RV sites are now labeled as “tents only” and several picnic tables are in danger of being lost in the dunes.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Day Late…

I had played our arrival over and over in my head like a favorite movie. First, we would drive around the corner on Rte 611 and catch that first glimpse of the bridge which connects Assateague to the mainland. We would drive past the Visitor’s Center and the State Park Boat launch, up and over the very steep Verrazano Bridge to be greeted by several horses grazing along side the road or on the nearby marsh leading into the National Seashore. My little filly, Miss Mackie, now 2 ½ years old and no longer little, would be there in all her tri color beauty accompanied by her natal herd. However, in my minds eye, I hadn’t counted on the miserable conditions, gale force winds and driving rain, which was the only thing greeting us as we approached the island. Day dreams aside, we didn’t see a single one of the 110 horses that call Maryland home for more than two days.

The weather continued to be most discouraging. Out on the bay, the white caps had white caps and over in the Oceanside Campground, the sand was constantly relocating itself. We’ve used our pickup truck to do patrols even though we’ve been provided with a fairly new golf cart that just sits behind the camper. The rangers even brought us a brand new “rain coat” for it however it’s been way to miserable to try the installation.

Finally, after four days, we noticed horses slowly grazing their way towards us. We have learned from past experience how the dynamics of each band and the territory they claim are in constant flux. Last year, the resident band of horses in Bayside Campground numbered five, four mares and one stallion named Corky, all of them chestnut in color. It was a bit boring although it did create somewhat of a challenge for me to try to distinguish the differences of each mare. This year, the resident band consists of a dark bay stallion  officially known as Delegate‘s Pride but everyone calls Chip, a pinto mare I recognize from last year’s band near the bridge and one of the chestnut mares from Corky’s band.

Then one morning, Corky and two of the chestnut mares casually strolled onto the grassy area from the nearby marsh. I could tell by the way he was acting, there would be trouble. He checked each pile of manure, called bulletin boards, for evidence of what mare might be coming into season and also the health of any stallions in the area. I noticed the  bay stallion making his way towards the interlopers. Ears flattened, teeth bared and more than a few squeals were heard. Then the hooves flew. There was a series of vicious kicks after which the bay chased the chestnut out of the area. The mares kept their distance, at first, but eventually drifted off in search of tender morsels. Several minutes passed before the chestnut came back into view chasing the bay before him. These exchanges continued over the next couple of days with no clear victor. That is until yesterday.

Sometime in the night, the bay stallion, Chip, convinced one of the chestnut mares to follow him. Corky has continued to press for an advantage but hasn’t gained any ground.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sherando Lake Recreation Area, Lyndhurst, VA

Each new place we go presents a different challenge to us as volunteers. An incomplete address had us scheduled to arrive at Natural Bridge Station while we were expected at Sherando Lake, a difference of almost 100 miles further north. Thankfully, I have my “smart phone” with me and I ask Google Maps for adjusted directions.

Our arrival in the George Washington National Forest has again caused quite a stir although in a much different way than our arrival had at Nebo just one month earlier. We were greeted at the front entrance by 4 volunteers, all trying to speak at once, and the Supervisor, in charge of all volunteer assignments, Kelly whose voice boomed out over all present. There was a boisterous greeting, introductions all around and some discussion about where our camper should be placed. There is a separate part of the property reserved for volunteers near the maintenance shed but Kathy and Dave suggested we join them in the group camping area a little further into the park.

Once the backing in of our 24 foot trailer into the somewhat narrow site has been accomplished,  we took a moment to check out our surroundings. We find ourselves in a depression located within the Blue Mountains, described as a bowl. This bowl prevents all television signals and cell reception from making it’s way to our devices. But the month will not leave us totally unplugged. Carl is happy to report the satellite dish is working just great thanks to a lovely southern exposure.

Each night and most early mornings, we have been treated to the antics and grazing of a small herd of deer, numbering 10, all does. I keep hoping one of the ladies might have a fawn or two hidden nearby although these first few days have disappointed.

Our assignment, this month is the Bathhouse and Pavilion on the shore of Lower Sherando Lake. There are numerous picnic sites with barbeque pits, a pleasant sandy beach for kids to do whatever kids will do in the sand and several acres of cool grass shaded by large Oaks. It’s too bad the weather has been so very blustery, cold by some standards and rainy more days than not. We are told by July the grassy lawn will be covered with knees and elbows. Sherando Lake is divided by a large earthen berm. Both Upper and Lower Sherando are stocked with trout and fishing is allowed. You may kayak, canoe or row to your heart’s content while swimming is reserved for the lower portion. No motors are allowed.

 Each day, we are required to disinfect showers, clean toilets and mop the rather large and constantly dirty tiled floor. Every day the wash water takes on the color and consistency of a lehar, the quickly melted cement like runoff of ash, dirt and debris associated with a volcanic eruption. It seems to be a thankless job although I have had several comments on how clean the bathrooms are and what good shape the grounds are in. Most people thank us for our hard work once they find out we are volunteers. That’s not why we do this.