Monday, August 31, 2020

Volunteering with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Dworshak Dam, Ahsahka, Idaho

We read an article in the Sep 2019 edition of Workamper News featuring volunteer opportunities with the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Shortly thereafter, we were among the 4 families recruited by the Corps to volunteer at Dworshak Dam in Ahsahka, Idaho this Spring.  However, we were the ONLY ones to keep our Spring commitment.  Some may attribute this to the uncertainties/health concerns/travel restrictions of COVID-19.  However, those of us who have work-camped/volunteered for many years know that failure to keep commitments is nothing new for 2020.  It has been a consistent, systemic problem and cause of frustration for employers who routinely hire work-campers/recruit volunteers.


The volunteer commitment executed last fall included a $500 travel stipend.  However, because of COVID-19, The Army Corps said it could not authorize volunteers to travel this Spring.  Therefore, they asked if we would come “unofficially” to help them prepare for opening day.  My parents have and always will be community-service oriented, so they agreed to forfeit the $500 travel stipend and fulfill their commitment.  Perhaps the other volunteers recruited were not so inclined.


As we learned from our wonderful behind-the-scenes tour offered to us as volunteers, The Army Corps’ Dworshak Dam is quite a phenomenal engineering feat.  At 717 feet, it the third tallest dam in the US (Oroville and Hoover take top 2 honors), and it is the largest straight axis dam in the Western Hemisphere.  Furthermore, the area it encompasses provides an absolutely spectacular setting!  Surrounded by mighty pines and conifers, it reminds me of a Bob Ross painting.  I could just imagine the trees with a little hint of white snow glistening on their branches.   The area is teeming with wildlife, from turkeys to whitetail deer, from quail to hummingbirds, from mule deer to elk!


While lovely, the project is quite spread out.  It consists of several areas:  Big Eddy, a day use area for boating, swimming, and picnicking; Bruce Eddy, a day use area for boating and access to the Ahsahka Hiking Trail System; Viewpoint, which was designed for guests to view the Dam being built; Dam View, a small dry-camping area; the Visitor Center which also houses the administrative offices; and a fishing wall located by the Dam’s Powerhouse station.  There are more primitive as well, like Merry’s Bay for day-use and Canyon Creek for dry-camping, which are located several miles away from the main complex.  The Reservoir also has several other remote locations (Dent Acres, Grandad, etc.), but due to their distance from the main complex (1+ and 2+ hours, respectively) they are serviced by Staff and/or a different set of volunteers.


View from Canyon Creek

View of Marina (run by the State of Idaho) from Big Eddy

Another view from Big Eddy

The Army Corps prefers recruiting volunteer couples, but because of COVID-19 and limited Visitor Center (VC) operating hours, they recruited a solo to work the VC at 7.5 hours/day, 3 days week.  My parents were contracted to each volunteer 5.5 hours/day for 4 days, or a combined total of 44 hours, with the next 4 consecutive days off.  However, due to site logistics (as described above) and the sheer number of tasks assigned to them (cleaning restrooms; litter patrol of roads/parking areas; trash removal at several camping, fishing and boating areas; riding and hand mowing/weedwhacking multiple large areas; grass/pine needle blowing; cleaning fire pits; removing small pieces of driftwood from dock areas), it was nearly impossible to complete all tasks properly within the 5.5 hour daily work commitment.  Now, my parents are no slouches.   They are accustomed to physical labor, having worked 10-11 hour days/4-5 days/week as Amazon elves in the Camperforce program for the 2015 and 2016 holiday seasons.    They have exemplary work ethics, willing to do any volunteer task, even clean toilets.  They are reliable, willing to succumb to all kinds of weather to meet their work/volunteer obligations, from snow (After a blizzard in May 2015, they snow-shoed to work because Crazy Horse Memorial is open 365 days/year) to hazy, hot, humid days of 103F degrees here at the Dam.  They follow the Army credo, “be all you can be”, even if performing a menial task as a volunteer.  Hence, it took them an average of 6.5 hours/day/person (or a combined 52 hours/4-day period) to fulfill their job responsibilities (and it would have taken them longer if they weren’t so organized, efficient, and willing to split up to maximize time/efforts).  Even if they subscribed to mediocrity like many folks today (it’s good enough; it doesn’t look bad, let it go), the time commitment would exceed the contracted 5.5 hours/day/person.  I should note that Dworshak Dam has a full-time, year-round paid Maintenance Staff who supposedly handle several of the above tasks off-season.   However, they were not involved with the tasks at all once we arrived.  Instead, my parents were responsible for mowing/weedwhacking the Maintenance staff complex as well!


We were impressed with the layout at Volunteer Village.  It is tucked under a wooded knoll inside the main gate.  All 4 sites are flat, level, spacious and come with 50 amp electric/water/sewer.  Propane tank refills are complimentary, too.  Our site came with the bonus of a decorative corner fence where a nest of recently hatched robins lived with their Mama.  What a wonderful greeting and experience to watch them progress from ugly close-eyed hatchlings to full grown fledglings who flew the coop!  Inside the Village is a hut that holds a refrigerator and huge chest freezer for shared use, which is handy for those without a residential fridge/freezer in their rigs.  We expected the laundry unit to be inside the on-site hut, too (like it was at our Fish and Wildlife volunteer gig last year).  Instead, the one complimentary stackable washer/dryer for shared use is located outside the security gate at the Viewpoint restroom building, 3/16 mile from Volunteer Village.  Mom’s routine of doing laundry at 10 p.m. came to a crashing halt.


We got zippo television via our over-the-air antenna.  Even if we had satellite, there was no clear view of the southern sky from our site.  Having no TV was not an issue for us, though, and we even viewed it as a blessing in disguise.  No stressful news of COVID-19, protests, lootings, and shootings.


During the interview, we were informed there was Wi-Fi available at the Visitor Center.  But once we arrived and asked the Corps for the password, receiving access from the Corps suddenly became problematic.  We suspect the powers-that-be just didn’t want any “outsiders” in the office for fear of COVID-19, even though the State of Idaho was in Stage 2 COVID reopening by the time we arrived in mid-May.  Whatever their reasoning, our request for access was never fulfilled. During the interviewing process, we were told Volunteer Village had an outside booster to catch the signal from the Verizon and AT&T cell towers 2 miles down the hill.  However, after attempting to get a signal by standing right under it, we learned from the Corps that it is a 3G booster, which proved useless now that 3G is no longer supported by Verizon, our service provider.  Since we were the only volunteers at that time, the Corps graciously provided us with an RV web booster.  But again, the best we got at our site was 4G at 2 bars standing right next to the booster within our rig.  You can’t boost a signal that’s not there.  So, bottom line, connectivity to the outside world was a MAJOR issue for us and quite worrisome from a safety and medical emergency perspective.  Not to mention it put me way behind in my blog postings! 


It rained 27 out of our first 40 days at the Dam.  I don’t know which was worse, trying to perform volunteer groundskeeping tasks in the rain on workdays or trying to enjoy outdoor activities in the rain on days off!  All I know is that this Rambling RV Rat was beginning to suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD)!  The precipitation vanished by July 4 and the hot, humid dog days of summer arrived.


We envisioned the Reservoir to be like many we have visited in several states:  a place to rent jet skis and pontoon boats, to have a drink at a waterfront bar, or to book a fishing charter.  But because the Corps and other government entities own all the shoreline lands and control access to the Reservoir, there are no commercial ventures nearby.  We did have an opportunity to paddle a few times in our inflatable canoe. 


View from our canoe--sharing the "roadway"

View from our canoe

Orofino, the seat of Clearwater County, is 7 miles from the campground.  It offers 3 food marts, restaurants, banks/credit unions, and a wonderful park where we went regularly to get an internet/cell signal. Orofino also has a small movie house, which provided us a weekly dose of 1980s movies for $3/ticket!  We were happy to support local, small businesses that suffered lost revenues due to COVID-19, and we admired the sense of community demonstrated in this and other less populated Idaho towns we visited.


My parents felt a bit like orphans, having little interaction with/communication from Corps regarding key happenings that affected them/their job responsibilities.  Even when we sent emails/texts to all 4 Rangers to inquire about/report on various matters, we sometimes received no response.  We thought perhaps recipients did not receive our messages due to sporadic/spotty internet/cell service.   But we learned through Mom’s persistent follow-up that messages were, in fact, received, yet no one thought to reply.  Mom expressed to the Corps that she and Dad did not feel like volunteers were appreciated or made part of a team. The Corps attributed the situation to COVID-19.  Apparently, in years past, the Corps had an orientation session, weekly meetings, and even fun events that Staff and volunteers attended.  But now due to the virus, the Army nixed in-person meetings and group gatherings, including those for our location’s 5-member volunteer team.  (This explanation made little sense to me since the Corps allowed guests, including those from out-of-state, into the Visitor Center with no mask mandate for a 6-week period from mid-June to the end of July.  Does the risk of COVID-19 only exist among volunteers?)  Well, how about an occasional email then?  My folks received a rare informational email during the last week of their volunteer commitment, most definitely a direct result of Mom’s comments days earlier.


Having 4 consecutive days off was terrific!  My parents, though younger than the average workcamper/volunteer, needed time to rejuvenate their weary bodies, especially since the way the schedule fell, they landed the most physical landscaping tasks 9 out of 13 weeks (all during peak grass growing season).   But more importantly, we needed 4 days off to facilitate touring the state.  You see, North Central Idaho is very much like Alaska.  It can best be described by the 3 R’s: resplendent, rugged, and REMOTE!   Some folks may be content to just relax at their campsite, but we like to explore and tour as much as possible.   We hiked the trails within the nearby Ahsahka System and enjoyed picking (and eating) tasty wild berries, cherries, and plums.   We visited Dworshak Reservoir at Dent Acres and Grandad (1 hour and 2+ hours away respectively from Volunteer Village), getting terrific use of Rat Patrol II, our Polaris Rzr.  Unfortunately, The National Fish Hatchery down the hill from Volunteer Village, the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center in Lewiston, and several other government operated attractions in the area were all closed for the majority of the summer due to “an abundance of caution” with COVID-19, even though the State of Idaho was at Stage 4 reopening from June 13 onwards.  Other places of interest to visit like Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, and Hell’s Canyon for Snake River rafting are 1.5, 3.5, 4.5, and 7.5 hours away from the Dam, respectively, when accounting for the winding, hilly roads you must traverse to get there.  We devoted many hours to driving and spent more nights in hotel rooms in the last 3 months than we did in the last 3 years.  But it was worth it--we visited so many wonderful places and caught up with several RVing friends which I’ll tell ya all about in my next post.


Considering all the above, this volunteer experience garners a 3 out of 5 cheese rating from Rambling RV Rat.  Mom suggested that the Corps at Dworshak Dam establish better lines of communication during a pandemic (COVID has been around for 6 months and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.    Small businesses had to think outside the box to facilitate operations/communications, so the Army Corps should be able to do so as well).  The Corps should re-evaluate work commitments/expectations for retirement-aged VOLUNTEERS to align with competitive volunteer opportunities.   (For example, last year my parents’ volunteer commitment for very physical work at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in NJ was only 32 hours COMBINED for them over 4 days, with a location 1.5 hours outside NYC;  Vermont State Parks required 30 hours COMBINED over 5 days, within 30 minutes of Burlington.)   Furthermore, considering that a stay at a local full-service RV Park, with free Wi-Fi and including electric charges would cost less than $600/month, the Corps’ $1,276/month “value” of their campsite in exchange for volunteers’ work efforts is extraordinarily high (calculated at the contracted 5.5 hours/day/person at Idaho’s $7.25 minimum wage if volunteers were paid like staff for all hours worked, although the Corps was agreeable to paying a high school student $15/hour at another location to perform similar tasks completed by my parents).


I am confident that if these suggestions are implemented and connectivity/communications improved, this volunteer gig could garner a coveted 5-cheese rating from Rambling RV Rat in the future.


PS:  Just 5 days after our volunteer commitment expired and we left to explore other areas of Idaho, the Whitetail Loop Wildfire broke out in nearby Cavendish, spreading to over 400 acres, and requiring our fellow volunteers to evacuate.  Our prayers for safety go out to them, Staff, and all the neighboring areas affected as firefighters continue their efforts to contain the fire.