Some might say that carrying cumbersome loads of fencing materials on foot across the rugged terrain of Desert National Wildlife Refuge in southern Nevada two or three times a day for most of a week is not the ideal spring break.

After doing just that this spring as a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, I would disagree.

Between the breathtakingly beautiful landscape and the kinship developed among the 13 volunteers who joined me, the week–long alternative spring break trip sponsored by the Friends of Nevada Wilderness was truly rewarding. When I first learned about the trip from an academic advisor, I was apprehensive. I worried about not knowing anyone else and not having enough work to keep me busy. In the end, I decided to go anyway. The payoff was enormous. I can easily rate this spring break as the best of my college years.

The volunteers included undergraduate, graduate and even doctoral students whose fields of study ranged from psychology, English and engineering to geology and biology. Most were from Nevada, and two–thirds were male. The group also included two retired gentlemen. Almost immediately, we all became close friends with a shared work ethic and a common goal.

Our job was to take apart and remove a fence that had been installed on the refuge years ago for a long–concluded study about the effects of nearby Edwards Air Force Base, CA, on bighorn sheep. The remaining fence segment, made of standard mesh and barbed wire, was about eight feet high. It stood between the bedding grounds and water source for the sheep. Once we dismantled the fencing and rolled it into bales, removal was no easy task.

Because motor vehicles are not allowed on Desert Refuge and the nearest road was a 2.3–mile hike away, all dismantled materials had to be hiked out. I was one of three volunteers who worked as pack mules while the rest of the team deconstructed the fence. Our team made two or three trips a day, carrying the heavy loads in the hot sun. The work was rigorous, yet we each found a niche, worked as hard as we wanted, laughed and joked along the way, and had time to enjoy the outdoors. It was a fantastic mix.

Passion for Nature

In arranging the outing, the Friends of Nevada Wilderness had two goals. Of course, they wanted to get the fence removed—and we pulled out more than 2,900 feet, all the way up a valley until we reached more treacherous rocky terrain. They also wanted to open our eyes to the value of desert lands. While many people associate the desert with desolation and nothingness, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Desert Refuge is a stark landscape, but it is full of life and beauty. As we trekked across the terrain, each of us shared knowledge of what we know best. The geologists talked about how the mountains were formed by tectonic activity, pointing out layers of sediment in the ridgelines. The biologists discussed the traits of local wildlife, including road runners, horny toads, desert tortoise and, of course, bighorn sheep, and how each has adapted to life in the desert. The botanists pointed out the intricate web of vegetation such as the Indian paintbrush and bear paw cactus. We were even treated to lectures back at camp by local experts.

The Friends certainly accomplished their goal of sharing passion for nature with us.

And I’m glad they did. While other students partied or worked on their breaks, I got to get into the great outdoors, meet amazing new friends, do work that makes a difference, and still came back feeling rejuvenated. What more can you ask of a spring break?

Toby Marble is a May 2011 graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno.