A Great Egret, ever lithe and graceful, enjoys a little private time in the early morning sun. Upstream, turtles jostle for places on a shard of protruding old log, like delegates to an important convention. The Colorado bids a sleepy hello to the day as it gently glides by, on its unhurried way to a greater destiny. Overhead a red-tailed hawk alights a snag on the opposite bank, scattering a frenzied blizzard of crows. These are but a few of the delights snatched in a moment’s glance—completely casual and unpremeditated. With a little time, a comfortable chair and a pair of binoculars, the day will express more of Great Nature’s bounty along this mighty river. . . .no tickets required, no traffic, no standing in line. This parcel is an under-appreciated sanctuary, even as more and more people are drawn by its natural beauty. But denying myself the pleasure, today I cannot dawdle; I have another purpose. I am part of an informal but dedicated group of volunteers who come to the Colorado River Refuge often to work. I was asked to write about why I volunteer.
I mark my first anniversary with this group, unceremoniously referred to as the Bridge Maniacs. I know not by whom this indecorous title was coined. We’re an eclectic collection of mostly grizzled old men (and one lady to add elegance and charm) who share a love of nature and who, for the most part, have too much time on their hands. Some are Texas Master Naturalists, one is an enthusiastic Tahitian Village resident, and another is a friend-of-a-friend who just got hooked on the camaraderie and brotherhood of the experience. We all long to be outdoors. It is our objective to convert all team members into full-fledged naturalists eventually. We often confuse the difference between a work group and a tour group. Although we have accomplished much, we don’t let our work ethic get in the way of having fun. In fact, some work sessions degenerate into interpretative hikes along the river and through the upland woods of the Dragonfly Trail noticing wildflowers, identifying trees and telling lies. This we call reconnaissance. We love this place! It is not uncommon for a work session to coalesce around a noon-day plate of barbeque.
When we do work, it’s generally not for more than three hours at a time, in the morning. We realize we’re mostly codgers, and we have long ago made our peace with Texas weather. Moreover, we are pampered and spoiled by PPLT grant money, which provides an ample collection of power equipment, stump pullers, brush mowers and just about anything else we might need as tools. It’s like Christmas in a hardware store—what more could men of this ilk desire? We’ve almost cut more trails than we can maintain. When we do focus on work, we spend our time grubbing stumps, maintaining trails, installing signs, constructing new trails, building benches, revegetating native plants, installing hand rails, designing irrigation systems and. . .yes. . . building bridges. Fully four of the existing bridges at the Colorado River Refuge today were constructed by our group. They started off simple—made from live cedar taken from the landscape—and then evolved into semi-elaborate structures spanning 30ft or more, made with 2 x12’s and synthetic Trax decking. But that hardly qualifies us as maniacs, does it?
As in most informal groups, routines, habits and common conventions eventually sprout into hierarchy, structure and specialization. Our backgrounds are a virtual smorgasbord: oil business entrepreneur, production manager, mathematician, hospital administrator, career military, quality control engineer, national book chain manager, veterans affairs activist and an incorrigible trail builder with experience spanning most of our national wilderness over 40+ years. All are retired but the activist and me. As to hierarchy, there is the master mind (an optimistic curmudgeon who envisions encircling the world with hand-cut trails), the boss/construction engineer (a man of long experience and no fear), the carpenter (measure twice and cut once), the concrete guru, the chainsaw fanatic and various assorted helpers and roustabouts. Together we can overcome all obstacles—to include brush so thick snakes look for an alternate route.
If you want something accomplished, just tell us it can’t be done. Somewhat surprisingly, as wizened old men, we thoroughly embrace advanced technology. Smart phone apps are routinely used to identify plants, animal tracks, plot the slope of a trail or to locate ourselves real-time by satellite. This is particularly helpful when working near commercial housing lots backed up against the wilderness. We freely exchange a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and share a thirst for learning. In all kinds of weather and work conditions, never have I heard a cross word among members. Good natured banter is incessant. Care and concern for one another constantly manifests in the form of instantly administered first aid, shared water and provisions, mandatory work breaks and checking on everyone after the Labor Day wildfires. We look out for one another’s welfare when we are not together. We thoroughly enjoy each others’ company.
As you know, the Refuge is an astonishing fusion of riparian habitat and upland woods, all sewn together by a tangle of vines, understory and wildflowers now accessible by a labyrinth of trails. It is the confluence of ancient geological forces and eternal life bursting forth over the eons of time, nurtured by far away waters. Take a minute. Settle on a secluded bench along the Colorado and listen to the life-affirming message of the current; watch the everyday goings on of the animals that live there—you feel your connection with the Universe. Nothing could be more natural. This space is a gem to be cherished and protected from the nursery importations, barbered lawns, hedges precisely clipped and other formal ornamentations that would surely otherwise litter up this stretch of native woodland. Many groups recognize these truths and regularly come to enjoy and appreciate what it represents. It already has a sizeable following of local residents who walk the trails, enjoy the scenery or simply look for a little quiet time alone. We run into them all the time.
One set of regulars is a weekend collection of young people, some married, some not. They bring their kids to swim and splash in the flats. They float the Colorado, they fish and they camp for the weekend. Yes, they enjoy good music and a few brewskies during their weekend, but these are not hooligans. They take care of the public picnic areas, keep each other safe and make voluntary improvements to the refuge. They do a lot of work on their own without being asked, and they are some of the hardest workers during PPLT work weekends. I dunno—you get to thinking that the world is going to hell, but then you can visit with some of these young people, and they are very respectful, very mannerly, and they look you in the eye. And it kinda gives you hope for the world. Yes, Virginia, there’s conservation-minded young people out there—you just can’t see them from the highway. These are the people we need to coach, to support and entice into our fold, be it through the Bridge Maniacs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Bastrop Outdoor Women, Bastrop Audubon, the PPLT or other groups. People need to be shown the wonders of the wildlands; once properly exposed, they cannot forget. Volunteerism begins as an obligation, but in its mature state it becomes a willingness to give and to advocate the connectedness of all life. I am proud to be a Bridge Maniac. It certainly beats sitting around the general store pitching washers or playing dominoes.