USFWS Resident Volunteer Program
US Fish & Wildlife Service

Workamper Testimonial

(published in Fish and Wildlife News, 2000)

by Muriel Smith

Muriel and Jim Smith

The ad didn't spell out the specifics, but since it was for a wildlife refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, we were intrigued.

We have been traveling full time in a fifth wheel trailer, for four years, stopping occasionally at some spots to workamp, the name given to a barter between camper and businessman. Camper works a specific number of hours a week, generally someplace between 20 and 40 per couple, in exchange for the employer providing a campsite with hookups at no charge. Some places are better than others; free propane, laundry, e-mail services, passes to local attractions are among some of the other perks we've enjoyed.

We subscribe to Workamper News, a periodical which accepts advertising from campgrounds, towns, counties, states and federal agencies in need of extra help for short periods of time, generally two to six months. The small ad promoting 32 hours work a week in exchange for a campsite sounded like something different we'd like to try.

We've cleaned bathrooms and campsites at Lake Placid, NY, given talks on Amish living and conducted horse and buggy tours in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We've greeted campers as camp hosts in a Virginia state park and started up a new campground outside Williamsburg. They've all been new, different and enjoyable experiences. But nothing prepared us for the unique experience of workamping on a wildlife refuge. Certainly not one as diverse as Pea Island, which joins the Alligator River Refuge under a single administrative office in Manteo, NC, somewhere mid-way between the two refuges.

The promised campsites scheduled to be under construction when we arrived weren't, but arrangements were made for us to stay at a nearby KOA campground, with the Refuge picking up the bill and us agreeing to the 20 mile round trip from campsite to work every day. The anticipated indoctrination wasn't precisely promised and never materialized. That was ok, too, we're used to OJT programs. We didn't know the difference between a tundra swan and a stilt, and were by no means prepared to view...up close and personal....loggerhead turtles washed up on the beach. For the birds, there were books, films, videos, and willing FWS staffers to teach us; for the turtles, there were caring bio-techs whose demeanor showed how deeply they feel about the wildlife they protect and whose professionalism showed how much they do and know.

We learned the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society is the non-profit organization that provides so much for the Refuges, and the idea of working in their Visitor Center/Gift Shop was appealing. Meeting people has always been high on our list of fun things to do. What we didn't know is how intense and interested thousands of people are when it comes to birds and water fowl, threatened, endangered or otherwise. It was a jolt to see the sheer delight and excitement in the eyes of a birder who had just seen an unusual split-tailed kite. It was exciting to hear an old timer stop in to say thanks for the magnificent and well cared for bird walk, recalling days in the 1930s before the land was preserved for migratory birds. It was wonderful seeing a father pick up his son to get a better glimpse of the ospreys building a nest just outside the Visitor Center window. And it was with a daily sense of awe that we met each of the volunteers who staff the Visitor Center, people who travel as much as 120 miles round trip to staff the busy shop seven hours a day.

But working with and getting to know Refuge volunteer coordinator and interpretative specialist Bonnie Strawser has probably been one of the highlights of this workamping experience. Ms Strawser had started the college intern program on refuges 20 years ago, and last year added to her volunteer program the rapidly growing idea of workampers. She placed her first ad in Workamper News looking for two couples to do a variety of work for a three month period late last year. Pleased with the response, as well as the quality of work campers who completed the program, Bonnie tried once again when she needed one workamping couple for three months beginning in March.

It was that ad we answered, and after telephone interviews and reference checks, were delighted when she called to tell us we were accepted. We learned soon enough that Ms Strawser is a bundle of activity, a packed ball of energy that can juggle four to ten jobs at a time. With her enthusiasm, it was easy to get caught up in a workload that stretched far longer than our agreed upon 32 hour work week. She reminded us frequently we could take things easier, didn't have to put in as many hours; we rejoined that it was a learning experience and too much fun to stop.

Pea Island is not your average kind of place. Named for the dune peas that grow and have been a source of protein for migrating tundra swan and snow geese, among other visitors, for hundreds of years, Pea Island is a 14 mile long refuge for tens of thousands of migrating birds, water fowl, and small mammals. Situated between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, it is located within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

It was the variety of work and the opportunity to learn that made workamping here such a unique experience. The administrative office and maintenance departments are severely understaffed. Willing hands and minds willing to learn more about what a refuge is all about and the variety of chores necessary to keep it going are always welcome; eager staff members are enthusiastic in their presentations and explanations.

Outdoor maintenance is fairly similar regardless of where it's needed. But there is something especially rewarding about painting traffic lines in parking areas, repairing benches or making directional signs for the more than a million visitors who will come each year to catch a glimpse of a magnificent tundra swan in flight, a flock of pelicans swooping down to the ocean for breakfast, or a flock of red-winged blackbirds dropping down among the sea oats for a meal. There is something very satisfying about making renovations to a cabin where college interns will stay and get their first practical experience on their way to careers in environmental and conservation fields.

Office work also sounds rather trivial and unexciting, given the splendor and beauty of the surroundings. But accurate records must always be kept, and newsletters must always be put together for the thousands of Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society members who contribute so much to the Refuge. We reveled at the opportunity to work in the volunteer-staffed Visitor Center, meeting natives and newcomers to the Outer Banks, sharing in their appreciation of the preserved land. There are rewards beyond compare in seeing the joy in a youngster's face when you tell him turtles are 250 million years old, older than dinosaurs. Or when you let her feel the rough carapace of a loggerhead turtle, or tell the story of how she drags herself up on the beach each summer to lay her eggs. Nothing beats the excitement of a bird-watching adult who wants to share the joy she has gotten in spotting a bald eagle or a split-tailed kite.

For us, the excitement of learning more about wildlife and our nation's efforts to protect it, took the majority of our time. We opted for a wolf howl and turtle patrols, for bird walks and canoe trips, all offered at the Refuge, over visits to the four lighthouses on the Outer Banks, the Wright Brothers Museum, a Native American Museum a few miles away and the coast's highest sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park. But they were all in the vicinity, ours for the visit, if we wanted. We took advantage of our location directly on the Atlantic to do some surf fishing, and enjoyed North Carolina's free ferry system which includes a great trip across the sound to Ocracoke Island. We lamented the facts the nearest supermarket meant a 50 mile round trip, church services meant a 40 mile trip and we couldn't get a daily newspaper delivered; we chalked the inconveniences up to the price we would have to pay for the serenity and solitude of a wildlife refuge.

Our stay at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has been a learning experience and a labor of love. It offered us an opportunity to give back to the nation just a small part of what we have enjoyed. It gave us the chance to see the dedicated personnel who are the Fish and Wildlife Service, and let us see just how serious they all are about their work.

Would we do it again? Well, there's this great book which describes each of the Refuges across the country; we've been studying it every day. There are a couple of great ones that interest us in Texas and one in Arizona that sounds exciting. Then there's one close to our grandchildren in New Jersey, and another .......the list goes on....we just have to find out which ones offer workamping opportunities!

Note: Since their original workamping experience on Pea Island, the Smiths spent the winter months workamping at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Texas, and have completed three seasons on the Outer Banks at Pea Island!
Last Updated: 2/18/09