Just three weeks into our job, we were packing for our first refuge trip. We were proud to be part of this new and important project, and a little nervous to be away from home and family. We never imagined we would meet such wonderful people or see such incredible places. The refuges we visited illustrated the history, magnificence and diversity of the Refuge System.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge was among our first stops. We were surprised to find such a beautiful refuge so close to one of America’s largest urban areas. The skyscrapers, crowds and noise of the city were a striking contrast to the peaceful, restored wetlands of the refuge. It was amazing to see how much wildlife found harbor in this small refuge, despite the seven million people surrounding it.

Alaska in mid-winter fell at the other end of the spectrum: remote; unpredictable weather; few people. We were scheduled to visit Tetlin Refuge, but like refuge personnel, we had to be tough and adaptable. After narrowly escaping a highway pileup in a blizzard, we changed plans. Kenai Refuge graciously made time for us, and our quaint log cabin blanketed in snow and tucked beneath trees eased the angst. Each morning we pulled on our snow gear and walked the trail to the refuge office in the still Alaska dark. The tranquility of Kenai Refuge was like nothing we had experienced.

St. Vincent Refuge in Florida was bursting with personality and scenery. Charlotte Chumney, the refuge’s office assistant, was a walking Ms. Charlotte immediately pulled out two 150-year-old journals she’d been working to preserve, excited that the refuge’s history would be documented in a centralized database. We scanned everything the refuge had, even treasure maps.

One foggy morning we piled into a boat with biologist Bradley Smith to track the refuge’s two resident red wolves. It was energizing to see the tropical scenery and diverse wildlife that we had worked so hard to document in the office.

We’ll never forget Malheur Refuge in southeastern Oregon. After spending a day scanning annual narratives, we thought nothing could make us appreciate the history of the Refuge System more than those brittle 1930s documents. But we were wrong.

At the day’s end, after we turned out the lights and left the refuge office, profound darkness surrounded us. As we rummaged for our cell phone lights, we recognized just how far we were from other humans. There was no glow from a nearby town. The land around us, conserved since 1908, still belongs to nature. A deep respect for refuges and their history came with this realization. We were honored to contribute to the Refuge System’s preservation efforts by scanning 3,778 documents.