Dispatches from the Field: Jumping In

By Jennifer Millsaps

Anxious. Socially awkward. That’s me in a nutshell. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into when I applied for a crew member position with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. As a forestry major, I was primarily focused on gaining some field experience to spruce up my resume for future internship and career endeavors, as well as to spend my summer in the great outdoors while giving back to the places I love most. I didn’t think much of it otherwise; I usually throw myself into situations and wing it as I go. Sure, I read up on the organization, liked what I saw and submitted my application. I didn’t actually think I would be offered a position, especially after what I thought to be a less than smooth phone interview. Regardless, I was offered the job and accepted the position without question. I probably should have had a million questions—I guess I like surprises. And man, was I ever surprised.

Orientation. One big social gathering with 40+ people I had never met. Forty strangers I would be camping and socializing with over the course of an entire 48 hours. Terrifying. Bears, spiders, heights, sleeping alone in the backcountry? Pssh. No big thing. But a whole group of strangers? Holy crap, was I ever nervous. But I got there and almost instantly felt at ease. I mean, you know, as much as a flaming ball of awkward can. It didn’t take long to realize that, although we were people of all ages and different walks of life, we all had one thing in common: a deep and infinite love for and the desire to conserve some of the most wild and precious places that our predecessors have worked so hard to protect. The friendliness exhibited by all was off the charts. I felt emotional, happy and fulfilled as Bill Hodge described the creation and journey of SAWS. The realization hit me then: I get to be a part of this incredibly important journey, a part of the SAWS family…but only after I survived two weeks of training and more socializing on an even larger scale.

When I think of job training, these words come to mind: superficial, boring, underwhelming, monotonous. The Wilderness Skills Institute in the Cradle of Forestry, Pisgah National Forest quickly changed that. I’m going to pause here and reiterate the TRAINING IN THE FOREST part. Paid training. In the woods, where U.S. forestry was born. I know, I know…it’s only appropriate for this line of work, but you’re getting the perspective of someone who is on her first outdoor-job-merry-go-round. Anyhow, I was forced to eat those words as May 22nd rolled around and we began the WSI courses. Not only did I gain even more respect and admiration for this amazing organization I get to call my employer, but I had the honor of witnessing the impenetrable bond between members of SAWS, the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Some participants had been coming together since the start of the institute in 2011, while others, like myself, were experiencing the institute for the first time. But everyone was welcomed with open arms, and I met so many wonderful instructors and participants. And now I have wilderness first aid and crosscut sawyer certifications. How rad is that? Really, really rad, if you didn’t know.

“Be safe. Have fun. Work Hard. In that order.” – Bill Hodge. Safety first. They have to say that, right? The difference here, though, is that it really is first. In addition to morning and afternoon safety briefings focused around the courses, everyone checked on everyone back at the campsites, offering extra sleeping bags, tents, layers, food—anything to make sure every last person was comfortable and taken care of. In addition to fun in the field and classrooms, fun was certainly had every night as participants and staff mingled around the parking and picnic areas at Pink Beds or participated in movie night, cookouts, a tour, and an ice cream social. But when it was time to learn and work, everyone put their best foot forward and gave it their all, watching out for one another along the way and still managing to have loads of fun! Like a family, just as we were promised in orientation.

The Wilderness Skills Institute left me with such an overwhelming feeling of hope for the future of our public lands. Hope that I’d allowed to slip away as the result of recent political events. I feel honored and fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful mission and to have met so many like-minded and passionate people, old and young. The experience, just in the orientation and training weeks, has been so much more than networking and resume building. It’s been creating bonds and friendships that likely would have never happened otherwise. I am beyond excited for this summer and have no doubt that my life will be richer and all the better for it. Truly and genuinely.