Mountain lions, Black bears, Vegas and NYC - My Volunteer USA experience

22-year-old David from Durham shares his Volunteer USA experience.

From the deserts of the South West to the forests of the South East doing Volunteer USA
Signing up for Volunteer USA in the cold British new year of 2010, I knew to expect my fair share of excitement and the great outdoors. Little did I know that I’d be embarking on an adventure that would see me working and travelling on both sides of the country, experiencing things I’d never dream of in the UK and meeting friends I will keep for life.

My ACE adventure began with two projects in New Mexico destroying pesky invasive plant species. The intense heat and ravenous mosquitoes tested everyone’s patience at times but the group spirit never dropped and the nights after work were always a great laugh. It was even worth being bitten to death by the bugs to witness a mountain lion in the wild, something that people may never see in 20 years of hiking. Luckily we spotted it quite a few miles away from camp! We also got to finish early on the 4th of July and drove out to the chilled out Lake town of Eagles Nest some miles away to see the fireworks, eat burgers and take in the celebratory atmosphere. 

On my days off after New Mexico I set out on my first road trip to the Grand Canyon South Rim. In a moment of genius or madness, my friend Ben and I decided to hitch-hike the hundred miles or so from Flagstaff to the Canyon. Along the way we travelled with some amazing and friendly characters including a geologist, hydrologist and Vietnam War veteran. The most memorable lift came from a group of three Navajos, Vance, Ed and Lovenia, inside the Navajo Nation reservation. They kindly drove us straight into the Grand Canyon National Park for free, according to the special relationship between the park and the Native Americans. From there they took us off the beaten tourist track to the side of the canyon where we shared stories and drank a few beers. It was an experience I will never forget and luckily we avoided being chopped up and buried in the desert. From there we met up with some friends who were already camped there and hiked from the rim to Colorado River and back up the next day, 22 miles in total and worth every last stair.

My next work project was eight days in the beautiful Zion National Park doing fencing. This time I was in a big group with lots of cool characters and there was always plenty of laughs and swimming to cool off after work. With friends from Zion I then went to bright lights of Las Vegas for some well earned R and R, limo rides, casinos, buffets and clubs.

ACE then dropped the news that I’d be leaving the South West for a month long trailwork project in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. Two flights later we had touched down at Charlotte airport and the next day were driving to the Smokies with our supervisor Adam Scherm (Probably the coolest ACE supervisor). The project involved back country camping so we were camped miles from the nearest road up in the mountains. Thankfully our gear was taken up by mules. The Smokies are essentially a rainforest with dense trees in every direction, high humidity and, of course, downpours of rain. A far cry from the deserts of the South West. Again, we had a great team spirit, were never bored and really impressed the Park Service with our trailwork.

Another interesting fact about the Smokies is that it has the densest population of black bears east of the Mississippi river with some growing to over five hundred pounds. Whilst one of our crew was lucky enough to see one just yards from camp, the closest I got was viewing destroyed water bottles and helmets we’d left on the trail during the night. The bear in question really had a taste for plastic and thankfully not humans.

One of the advantages of working the in the Smokies was that we were able to travel to New York and Washington DC on our off days and do all the touristy stuff, something I’d never expected to be doing when I left the UK.

When my ten weeks were over I could have easily stayed longer. The experiences I had and the people I met I will carry with me for a long time. It’s a special bond you share with people when you live and work with them in the middle of nowhere. If anyone is one the fence about doing Volunteer USA, I would say just go for it and be prepared to jump in headfirst and not look back.

Find out more about Volunteer USA

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