Michael Vaccari

Michael Vaccari and Bear

I truly appreciate having had the opportunity to work at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. My experiences over my eight month tenure have been extraordinary. Here, I was given the chance to become a “Renaissance Man” in a very real sense.

I wondered at first how I would fulfill my volunteer obligations when I arrived; but eventually things began to happen. I received training for ATV/UTV operation, and then trained and became certified for archery instruction; this lead to a summer of interaction with visitors to the Refuge who were eager and excited to find opportunities for recreation. I also interacted with people while representing the Refuge at the Sussex County Fair and the Hamburg Day festival. I never knew public relations could be such fun.

When Fran asked me to look into a “Nature Rocks!” program, she didn’t lay out any boundaries, just let me run with it. Many of the things I did were drawn from my teaching background, and reflected the Arts, Science, and Math. The results were fascinating: I taught observation and measurement skills, how to write great nature stories, how to design and layout a playground, how to paint a flower, and how to become a nature photographer. I had help from Marilyn and Ken, each led nature hikes for me, and I inspired a professional photographer to help with my photography class (She had come to my writing class to learn how to approach writing and was so impressed she had to help).

I also was able to do some real science. Where else can someone be called from the office, “to see a bear,” and end up joining a team of state biologists, tag a live Black Bear, and get a portrait holding that bear in his arms?! Then, although told it would be hot and dirty, I took the chance to corral and tag wild geese in July. What was sold to me as a tough, dirty job became great fun!

As Summer wound down, and Fall led to less work with the public, Jesse let me loose! First in the pole barn at Owens Station, then at the old soccer camp. He had me hang insulation and clean up (again, with help from Ken and Fran), and run tin for the HVAC for the new multipurpose room. He let me have a ball tearing down the partitions inside the old soccer camp building. What guy wouldn’t enjoy doing that?!

Refuge Manager Mike Horne encouraged me to design a Basic Fishing Instruction program. If you saw the look on the face of young Travis, when he caught his first fish, you would understand how much that was worth (he was part of a Beta Test I ran for the program).  

So you see, this “Renaissance” brought out talents I forgot I had. A lifetime of odds and ends experiences coming together in a few months: teacher, public relations rep, researcher, scientist, artist, writer, photographer, naturalist, HVAC installer, carpenter, programmer, and lawyer! I enjoyed myself immensely, and got an education at the same time.

As a “full-timer” for the last 5 years, I have come to rely on volunteering as a way to supplement my RV lifestyle. Committing to an occasional two month stint at a wildlife refuge, or an Army Corps of Engineers recreation area, in return for free hook ups saves me a huge amount in camping fees, while enabling me to stay in one area, immerse myself in its local scene and culture, and its natural attractions. At the same time, I contribute a valuable service to my country by helping out to conserve and protect some of its natural wonders.

I previously served at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, and at the Desert NWR near Las Vegas. I have been in National Parks and Forests across the country and I have seen my share of natural wonders and wild animals. Yet still, I found the Wallkill River NWR chock full of both. Wild turkey, rabbits and deer were regular visitors, but the occasional bobcat and black bear sitting on the RV pad was thrilling! Through the spring and summer, wildflowers abounded, as did the songbirds and butterflies that soared and flitted among them. And, although the Refuge is located in one of the densest populated states in the Union, indeed only 1½ hours from New York City, it was as quiet and removed from civilization as Zion!

As I write this, I am starting out on a 16 month trip that will take me south to the Outer Banks, then north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After touring the Great Lakes, I will head west, eventually to volunteer as a lighthouse keeper in Oregon. By winter, I will be headed south along the California coastline towards Tuscon. Spring will see me making my way slowly back east, where the culmination of this trip will be back in New Jersey along the banks of the tranquil Wallkill River.

If you are reading this, I believe it is to decide to become a volunteer here at the refuge. Take it from me, you could do worse! Come and join me here for a wonderful, fulfilling experience!