Once upon a time, in late winter of 2020, the simple and everyday acts of wrestling open the cranky door to our office with bare hands, stopping in at the cubicle of Kim, my co-worker, for a chat before walking upstairs and greeting the volunteers or hikers gathered there – seeing rangers huddled together over their day’s supplies, shaking the hand of a new volunteer, hugging an old friend, leaning in head to head with a hiker studying a map – or handing tools to each other in our basement toolshed, brushing an arm as we pass in our narrow passageway, holding someone’s cell phone to look closely at a picture or handing them mine, sitting right next to ten other people in a workshop in our windowless upstairs room; laughing, talking, breathing freely in close proximity to someone else doing the same, loading four people into my car to head up to the forest….all these common, everyday things to which we never gave a second thought, overnight became the stuff of a past life when the dark cloud of the global coronavirus pandemic rolled in.
On March 17, Kim and I packed up our laptops, locked the door and set up our Wild South offices at our homes. All Wild South volunteer activities, public events and group hikes were postponed indefinitely.
When there is unexpected, sudden and drastic change, we adapt.
In mid-May, we began to tiptoe back into work in the Sipsey Wilderness, Kim and I each going out alone at first, solitary, then together, driving separately, keeping our distance, wearing masks and going only to places that were not crowded with other wilderness visitors. On Quillen Creek one warm sunny day in May, pollen from the massively blooming mountain laurel had us both in violent coughing fits, and we immediately covered our faces and automatically expanded the distance between us even more, rapidly taking giant steps away from each other. Taking masks on and off and being snagged by vegetation, we each temporarily lost our glasses that day. When I backtracked and found Kim’s, I hollered for her to come pick them up. When I later realized that mine were missing from my face, I responded with a no, thanks when she offered to come help find them. Nobody was touching anyone else’s glasses.
As we saw that work projects could be conducted relatively safely, we began to invite one or two volunteers to come along on projects, and all were asked to practice the same virus safety protocols in order to protect themselves and others in the group. Now our volunteer groups have cautiously increased to four or five at a time on a project but we are still not advertising workdays publicly.
While the main task of a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger is to inform and assist, the need to stay safe from the disease has shifted the focus of our ranger work onto more trail work and less visitor contact. Wild South staff has had many discussions about the fact that there has never been greater need for visitor interaction due to the record-breaking use of our National Forests and Wilderness areas, but there has also never been a more threatening time to do it. Our solution has been to do more work in less-accessible places on weekends instead of being on the most popular trails, and work more on weekdays. The same goes for our Helping Hands projects, which are normally performed on Saturdays. Now we keep our Helping Hands group sizes down to three, four or five volunteers and staff.
On the one or two days a week that Kim and I return to the office in Moulton, strategically planning ahead of time to be there on separate days, there is a pause before grabbing that door handle, and it gets wiped down on our way out. The scent of hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes now dominates our olfactory scene. Volunteers no longer meet up at the office except one or two at a time to pick up a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger pack and supplies, and we drive to the trailheads separately, no carpooling. Our tailgate safety talks at the trailhead now include virus safety and all volunteers are encouraged to practice safe protocols to keep themselves, their workmates and the public free from contagion of coronavirus. The liability release waiver is no longer passed around from hand to hand for signing with a shared pen. Tools are assigned and not shared and are sanitized upon return to the trailhead in the afternoon before being placed in a vehicle. Distancing is essential throughout the day and the use of masks is strongly encouraged when distance must shorten.
When hiking or performing trail maintenance or on Wilderness Ranger patrols, the linear nature of hiking trails presents particular challenges – those walking behind others must pass through the air breathed by those in front, and when passing on the trail, someone has to give way a further distance off the trail than usual. Our usual method of progressing along a trail while doing maintenance is that a small team or an individual will “leapfrog” past other teams or individuals to get to the head of the line to clear the next section of trail. At their starting point, they will tie a length of orange or pink flagging tape to a tree or shrub. When the next team has leapfrogged to that point, they will untie the flagging tape, continue well past those who tied it there, and use it to mark their starting point. To avoid all this handling of the tape, we now use fallen limbs found on the ground to make a big noticeable “X” at our starting points. These can be easily kicked aside by the next person coming through, who will form their own X at their starting point down the trail.
Because we adapt, Wild South is alive and well in this time of coronavirus. We are called upon to think and solve problems with creativity and ingenuity, and in doing so we find new workable ways of doing things when only four months ago we would not have imagined the need for such change. The photographs in this article tell the story of how we are doing some things differently for now, until it is once again safe to put our heads together over a map and share a laugh unmasked and up close.
Author – Janice Barrett