By LYDIA BERGLAR
For nearly a decade, students from Iowa State University (ISU) have traveled to Cloudland Canyon State Park on their spring break to work in the park. This year, 12 students drove over 800 miles to help with trail restructuring and handrail repair.
The university offers a program called ISU Alternative Breaks to encourage students to use school breaks in unique, productive ways. Per the school’s website, the trips “provide direct service opportunities for students to experience diverse perspectives, learn about social issues, and grow as life-long active citizens.”
Hosting the students is made possible by Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park. These volunteers prepared several meals for the students and coordinated the work projects. This organization works closely with park management, including Park Manager Brad Gibson.
Gary Holsted with Friends of Cloudland Canyon serves as the trail maintenance coordinator. He noted that several other groups have volunteered in the park over the years. Last year, the Rochester Institute of Technology sent students from New York to work in the park, and the American Hiking Society has also sent volunteers before.
Holsted said, “Friends of Cloudland Canyon is an older group as many of us are retired. We maintain all of the trails and we’re capable, but we can only do a limited amount of work. These college-aged students help us achieve a lot. In years past, we’ve constructed new trails. We appreciate their labor, but there’s a lot of teaching them about wildlife as well.”
Monday morning focused on welcoming the students, informing them about the park, and preparing them for trail work. On Friday, students enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tennessee Aquarium, an opportunity arranged by one of the Friends of Cloudland Canyon.
The students ranged from freshmen to graduate students, and while many were majoring in studies such as agricultural education, animal ecology, and environmental science, several were engineering students.
PJ Micksch, a materials and biomedical engineering major, said, “I was looking for something unique to do, and I like the wilderness.”
International student Gaurab Singh is earning his masters in mechanical engineering. He said, “I always wanted to experience how volunteering is done in America. In India, a lot of people are under the misconception that America is this perfect place, but once you get your hands into volunteering, you get to know the problems.”
Siti (Bell) Nabila Mohd Radzi, another international student, also wanted to see how volunteering is done in the US. “This is my first time in an American state park,” she said.
Sarah Crowley, Kai O’Connell, and Nick Barton are all studying environmental science. Crowley said, “I want to learn more about conservation and protecting the environment and see the behind-the-scenes of charity work.”
O’Connell noted that she’s done conservation work in Iowa, but she wanted to broaden her experience, saying, “Maybe I can learn stuff here that I can take back home and apply to issues there.”
Barton added, “To see firsthand what the issues are and learn about them is important. One of my pipe dreams is to move to Montana and work in a state park.”
When teaching the students a little bit about Cloudland Canyon, Gibson noted, “We are the second-highest revenue producing park in Georgia. I have a full-time staff of four and part-time staff of 20. I rely heavily on volunteers, so I get so excited hearing y’all are coming [each year]. We appreciate you giving back to a community that’s not necessarily yours.”
Many of the students noted that they enjoy nature and were excited to experience the park. Kailyn Micklow said, “I wanted to go on a trip that was completely different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I really love the outdoors and animals.”
Liya Mooradian went on an ISU fall break trip to Chicago. She explained, “That was interpersonal work, but I think this focus on the environment will be recentering and bring us back to our roots of being stewards of the earth.”
Gibson told the students, “You’re going to be physically exhausted, but you’re going to be mentally refreshed. When you finish school, consider becoming a park ranger. It’s a competitive market, we pay well, and the state provides us a house to live in.”
Gibson noted that he handles more office work than park rangers and most other park managers. “I spend a lot of my time behind a desk, but I never know what my day will look like. Yesterday, I had three rescues in the park.”
Beatrice Fischer wanted to see places outside of Iowa and specifically how conservation work is done in other states. “I’ve been working at an organic conservation farm camp for about 10 or 11 years. I thought it’d be cool to do something of a higher caliber.”
Suryansh Mishr, an environmental engineering major, is interested in conservation and habitat restructuring. He said, “I like the outdoors and want to get hands-on experience while learning about a community. When I see an opportunity to travel and to volunteer, that’s the golden pot for me.”
Shelby Mielke added, “I think this is a great learning moment so I can have more skills to teach others about conservation. It’s a good opportunity to give back and learn about Georgia conservation.”