By Jon Barnhill

All I could see were the steel-toed boots of a man laboring under a mammoth dump truck. An outstretched hand would appear periodically as he called for a certain tool. The young man’s hands moved deftly among the myriad drives, gears, motors, hoses and wires. Soon, a smiling face, fresh with the optimism of youth, beamed up at me: “Fire it up, Dad.”

The truck had not moved out of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge shop for years. I hollered to congratulate the young mechanic. Too late. He was already moving to the next job.

For a dad to watch his son grow — then thrive — is about as satisfying as it gets. To witness that son taking command of his destiny becomes a moment to celebrate.

That happened last summer when my son, 25-year-old Grant, was forever changed after he volunteered on Izembek Refuge in southwestern Alaska.

Far too often, I had not been there for Grant when he was younger. As a career Navy serviceman, I deployed frequently.

In summer 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented a chance for me to continue service to country: I took a seasonal maintenance position at Izembek Refuge near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

Grant is a recent college graduate who lives in Memphis, TN, about 1,000 miles from me when I’m in the Lower 48 during the off-season. He had a job that induced no sense of pride or satisfaction. He sought more but didn’t know where to turn.

After my first season at Izembek Refuge, I knew exactly where he could find the direction he sought. Grant signed on as a 90-day volunteer, working in maintenance for summer 2015.

“I figured I would be treated as a pesky volunteer,” Grant recalls. “Not so. From the start, I was made to feel like a valued member of the Izembek team. My work assignments were all central to the refuge’s mission.”

He became the go-to heavy equipment operator. For precision work, we turned to him. All things mechanical came intuitively to Grant, who replaced a rotting roof, installed doors where weather had taken its toll, and repaired trucks that were languishing in the shop.

After the permanent maintenance mechanic left, I took on the additional duties of planning, preparing and supervising the daily work. To my surprise and delight, our roles reversed over the course of Grant’s time at Izembek Refuge. Grant took the lead on the planning and executing of projects. My son was thriving in the advancement of conservation.

I had carried no small amount of guilt for having missed some important milestones in Grant’s formative years while I was career Navy. To have the opportunity

to work shoulder-to-shoulder with him for three months, bonding not just father-to-son, but also man-to-man, was extraordinarily rewarding.

Grant left Izembek Refuge last summer, but Izembek Refuge didn’t leave him. He’s home now, searching for new and perhaps permanent ways to plug into the conservation workforce. He’s found direction for his talents and energies. As for me, I recovered some of what I was certain was forever out of reach: precious time with my son.

Jon Barnhill was a seasonal maintenance worker at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in summers 2014 and 2015.