A surplus of volunteers

While the Ochoco National Forest is sounding the drum for more volunteers, the 11 state parks that dot Central Oregon have no current need.

Popular among volunteers are the 10 different Let’s Go events in Central Oregon parks that include camping, disc golf and paddling. The latter is taught on Lake Billy Chinook in the fall.

The Let’s Go series began about 10 years ago, said Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Volunteer Services Coordinator Jill Nishball. It is so popular that all the volunteers for the 2017 season have been selected. But there is still room for those hoping to enroll in any of the free Let’s Go events.

The crowning program is Let’s Go Camping, said Nishball. It spans two nights and three days, and is scattered throughout Central Oregon’s state parks. There are still slots available for those interested in learning about camping.

“The whole point of this program is to introduce camping skills to people who have never gone camping or maybe to parents who camped as kids, but haven’t camped since they’ve had kids of their own and don’t have equipment any more,” Nishball said.

The program provides a trailer filled with all necessary gear, including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and cooking supplies. Instructors show participants how to safely build a fire and cook over it using camp stoves. Campers are also briefed on the top-10 essentials to carry in their backpacks when going for a hike. The principle of “leave no trace” is also introduced; hikers pack out all wrappers and debris they may have brought with them. These events are directed by a state park ranger, but volunteers committed to camping are the ones who interact and instruct families.

Last year, 408 volunteers provided more than 49,000 hours of volunteer service in Central Oregon, Nishball said. There is no waiting list; volunteers are taken as they’re needed.

“It’s a social setting for everybody,” said Nishball.

Angelika and Pete Heidelberger first took part in the Let’s Go Camping program in Central Oregon and elsewhere throughout the state shortly after moving to Wilsonville from Nebraska in 2007. They got involved as a way to get their camping fix in a state where campsites get booked months in advance. They contacted Nishball, who encouraged them to involve their two sons, who were ages 4 and 6 at the time, in their volunteering efforts. Despite their age, Angelika, 42, said their boys were unwitting examples of how children interact at a campsite.

“They helped out just by being comfortable being outside. It showed parents they don’t have to be afraid if they children pick up a stick or walk down a path a little ways,” Angelika Heidelberger said.

Now that the boys are 12 and 14, they continue to help with the Let’s Go Camping program by handling tasks like setting up tents and teaching segments devoted to “leave no trace.”

“They’re very involved, and they’re enjoying it. They have fun showing people about camping,” Angelika Heidelberger said. “They’re just excited to be there.”

The Heidelbergers spread their outdoorsy philanthropy throughout Oregon’s state parks, although they return often to Central Oregon. They volunteered at Tumalo State Park for the past two summers and will help out with several Let’s Go Camping events, including one at the Deschutes River State Recreation Area.

Angelika Heidelberger encourages those interested to give it a shot. There is room available for campers in the Let’s Go Camping events at the Prineville Reservoir State Park and Cascadia and Memaloose state parks outside of Central Oregon.

“(Let’s Go Camping) is a very supportive program even if you haven’t taught,” Angelika Heidelberger said. “Everyone has something to offer, and there’s always something people can learn from you.”

Every Wednesday during the summer, Deschutes National Forest volunteer George Frey greets visitors on top of Lava Butte. Dressed in a green and tan uniform and wearing a broad-brim hat, Frey shares his appreciation for the area’s tumultuous geological past.

“You study up and you figure out ways to interpret that information to make it palatable to folks who are not geologists or volcanologists,” said Frey, who is a retired educator. “Visitors show up curious and they leave excited.”

Frey and his wife, Gay Lynne Frey, are two of more than 2,000 volunteers who pitch in about $1.6 million of labor each year throughout the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests and the Crooked River Grassland, according to Kassidy Kern, the Deschutes National Forest acting public affairs officer.

“We really value the volunteers we have here in Central Oregon. We have people who have moved here and immediately found a group they want to participate in and also become stewards of this really wonderful area that we have here,” Kern said.

The hats Forest Service volunteers wear are as varied as Central Oregon’s topography. Titles include “ranger assistant and bat education interpretive ranger” (Lava River Cave), and “trailhead stewards.”

The Freys have worked as volunteers in the Newberry Volcanic National Monument for four summers. They are RV hosts, which means they live in their fifth-wheel trailer on the property, across the street from the Lava Lands Visitor Center. The Freys had long wished to serve the public once they retired. They found their current positions listed on the website Volunteer.gov, which compiles volunteering opportunities across a variety of state and federal agencies. They shuttle their RV between Central Oregon and Arizona, allowing them to spend ample time with their grandchildren, who live in Bend. They volunteer at Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins National Monument during the winter.

As Lava Lands Visitor Center hosts, the native Ohioans greet the public, and give ranger talks and walks, which are informative lectures that sometimes include a stroll.

On Wednesdays, George, 67, is stationed on top of Lava Butte, where he tells visitors the story about how the cinder cone came to be approximately 7,000 years ago.

“Imagine shaking up a can of soda and opening it. All the foamy, bubbly stuff blows out — it’s gas charged under pressure,” Frey tells visitors. “In the case of Lava Butte, all the material that sprays out of a crack in the ground, or a fissure, is lava. It cools in the air and comes back to earth and creates these cinder cones.”

Frey said visitors aren’t the only ones who feel enriched by Forest Service volunteerism.

“I have rediscovered the joy of learning something new and having the opportunity of sharing that with others,” Frey said.

Rika Ayotte, the executive director of Discover Your Forest, which is a nonprofit that partners with the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, said volunteers fall under four categories. There are the trail volunteers, wilderness volunteers and a “huge cadre” of interpretive volunteers, who greet and educate visitors.

A fourth catch-all category includes volunteers who work with archaeologists, geologists and botanists on various projects. These include assisting in a wild horse count in the Ochoco National Forest and serving as stewards at Central Oregon archaeological sites.

All volunteers receive a substantial amount of training, Ayotte said. In wilderness areas, where volunteers are prohibited from using chainsaws or ATVs, they’re required to walk in and use a two-person cross-cut saw, for example.

“I would consider that very laborious trail work,” Kern said with a chuckle.

Oregon Equestrian Trails, the Central Oregon Trail Alliance, Backcountry Horsemen and some motorized groups, frequently volunteer in a separate yet collaborative manner.

Before they’re permitted to lop off branches and clear trails, these volunteers undergo a formal chainsaw certification process. Some also pass through the Allingham Trail Skills College, located in the Sisters ranger district, which is a three-day training session that familiarizes attendees with a variety of saws, tools and essentially teaches them the “nuts and bolts” of trail maintenance, Kern said.

That many volunteers are already members of self-managing groups makes it easier for the Forest Service’s process of directing volunteers’ muscle power. Discover Your Forest, which was founded in 2012, is presently calling on the public to help grow the Ochoco National Forest’s number of interpretive volunteers. Those interested in volunteering should contact the nonprofit.

“It’s important to recognize the monetary value of what our volunteers are doing not just for the national forests but for Central Oregon as a whole, which is really an economy that is based around the enjoyment of the national forests,” Kern said. “The volunteers are really critical to maintaining that lifestyle.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com