Steve Gifford was recently asked why he volunteers at Indiana’s Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. His response is inspirational:

I guess when most people think of the great outdoors and some of the most beautiful places to see wildlife, the reclaimed strip mines and flooded river bottoms of southwest Indiana are probably not on the top of their minds. But the reality is that we have abundant opportunities to see some of God’s creation at its best right here at home without having to travel great distances to exotic locations. With as busy as most people are and as stressed out as we seem sometime due to finances, health, work and whatever is making headlines on a particular day, I really believe people need a place where they can get away from it all. For me, being able to get out on the refuge calms my heart and restores my soul a bit, and helps me put things in perspective. I think it can do the same for others if we help make them aware that it is there for them to use and enjoy.

As a volunteer and Friend for most of the past decade at Patoka River Refuge, Gifford has assisted with marsh bird surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, least tern-nest monitoring, trail clearing, invasive plant control, prescribed burns and presentations. But his photography is what stands out.

His photos of fauna and flora at the corridor refuge 90 minutes southwest of Bloomington, IN, speak for themselves. Just go to http://bit.ly/1lBFNtD.

One of his photos, of a bobcat, won the Division of Realty’s annual photo contest. It will appear on the cover of the next "Annual Report of Lands Under Control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service." All of his photos are therapeutic.

Several years ago, the 43-year-old Gifford learned he has Parkinson’s disease. Among the symptoms of that degenerative neurological disorder are soft speech, difficulty swallowing, tremors and muscle rigidity.

"The best way to fight the progression of these symptoms – besides a fine cocktail of drugs I take every 3½ hours – is to reduce multi-tasking and stress by allowing time for a single thing that relaxes me," Gifford says. "That’s where photography comes into play. Getting out on the refuge gives my brain the downtime it needs to help maximize the physical abilities I have remaining. In a way, Parkinson’s has been a blessing in disguise in that it has forced me to slow down and focus on things that really matter."

Gifford is humble. When first contacted by Refuge Update, he wondered why an article should be about him "when there are so many other talented volunteers with valuable contributions as well."

Bill McCoy, a 44-year Service veteran and Patoka River Refuge manager since its establishment in 1994, knows why: "Steve is probably the best advertising agency a refuge could ask for because he shows people what’s out here."

Gifford is one of roughly 30 volunteers and 70 Friends. "The Friends group, as it’s now organized, is the best thing that’s happened to the refuge since we formed the refuge," McCoy says, "because they are believers in, and supporters of, what we are doing." What the refuge is doing is gradually acquiring riverine habitat. It encompasses 8,400 acres within a 22,472-acre acquisition boundary.

Gifford is awed by the wildlife the refuge attracts – migratory and nesting birds, waterfowl, river otters and more.

"Having a close encounter with a bobcat was by far my most memorable event ever at the refuge, and is one I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to repeat," he says. "Being able to experience an event like that is a testament to the decades of hard work of refuge staff and partners in preserving quality habitat for such amazing creatures."

A short video of that encounter is at http://bit.ly/1uXr8wf