Leaf Litter

Tightwad Travel

Lacking time and funds to travel to far off places, Leaf Litter’s editor creates her own, low-budget, local eco-voluntourism experience.

By Amy Nelson

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Putting together this issue of Leaf Litter was both thrilling and agonizing. The opportunities described by our eco-voluntourism experts – restoring meadow habitat in Patagonia; helping a Mayan family establish a sustainable farm in the rainforest of Belize; clearing invasive plants from walls built by the Incas in Machu Picchu – practically had me drooling with desire. Sometimes, while my interviewees were still talking, I was imagining myself – cool explorer hat and all – cruising aboard a boat on the Mojo River approaching the gorgeous, eco-friendly Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize. I could see myself planting seedlings with village children. I could practically smell the tortillas.

Sadly, however, four things stood in the way of my embarking on one of these fabulous, volunteer vacations: lack of vacation time, lack of money and two young kids who needed their mom around. It’s as though the authors of Volunteer Travel Insights 2009, a volunteer travel study conducted by GeckoGo in conjunction with Bradt Travel Guides and Lasso Communications, had me in mind when they summarized, “Price continues to be a substantial barrier to travelers volunteering…”

While taking some comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone, I began to wonder: is eco-voluntourism an experience limited exclusively to people who are wealthy, retired and childless?

In an attempt to answer this question, I decided to arrange my own eco-voluntourism experience – local and low budget.

Following the advice of Sarah Kennedy of Sustainable Harvest International, whom I interviewed for this issue, I began by identifying a reputable non-profit organization whose work I admire: The Nature Conservancy (TNC). I learned that TNC offers so many volunteer opportunities, they actually have a searchable database of activities.

A quick and easy search of opportunities in my home state of Maryland, along with neighboring Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, produced a long list of volunteer activities in interesting places. For example, I could: survey horseshoe crabs on Delaware beaches; help post interpretive signs at rare rocky glade prairie reserve in Pennsylvania; restore underwater seagrass in the coastal bays of Virginia; or help restore Maryland’s largest serpentine barren.

After mulling, calendar checking, hotel searching and calculating costs in my head, I settled on the seagrass restoration project. Though I had spent countless summer vacations on the beaches of Maryland and Delaware, it never occurred to me to check out the “va” portion of that slab of land known as the “Delmarva” Peninsula. Intrigued by the notion of visiting an unexplored region of an otherwise familiar area, I decided to go for it. A lover of superlatives, I must admit I found the opportunity to participate in the “largest seagrass restoration in the world” irresistible.

To better understand the project (and, truthfully, to get out of the office for an afternoon) I chose to participate in a pre-expedition training and orientation, held at the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center (ABCRC), a biological field station located in Oyster, VA that is operated by the University of Virginia. The first thing I learned was that the project is actually a partnership between TNC, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and partners in the Virginia Seaside Heritage Program. Funding for the project, which began in 1997, has been provided by Virginia Coastal Zone Management/Seaside Heritage Program partners including the Campbell Foundation, TNC, Norfolk Southern Foundation, NOAA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the Norfolk Foundation and the University of Virginia’s Long Term Ecological Research Program.

Though I have learned a little about submerged aquatic vegetation through my exposure to the work of my colleagues at Biohabitats, I really didn’t know a thing about seagrass. Turns out there are 55 species of seagrass in the world and only one – marine eelgrass (Zostera marina) – is in our region. Because marine eelgrass absorbs nutrients, forms the base of a food chain, breaks waves, provides habitat and aids in sediment deposition, it is important to the ecology, stability and protection of coastal bays and barrier islands. But since it grows close to shore and requires between 10-30% of the sunlight that reaches the surface of the water, it is vulnerable, and very susceptible to what we humans do on land.

Eelgrass used to be abundant along the North Atlantic coast of the U.S. It was obliterated in 1933, however, by a one-two punch from a wasting disease epidemic and a nasty hurricane.

The goal of the TNC/VIMS project is to re-establish eelgrass and its ecosystem services to the Virginia coastal lagoon community. Our job as volunteers was to harvest reproductive shoots of the grass. Donning wet suits and snorkeling gear, we were to find and (gently) pluck the shoots from underwater and stuff them into a mesh bag. The seeds from our shoots would be safely stored. Come November, we were told, the seeds would be broadcast in areas where there are currently no grasses. As only 5-15% of the seeds were likely to survive and germinate, the more shoots we could collect, the better. My only apprehension: fitting into my old wet suit. It had been almost a decade since I last squeezed into that self-torture device. Several child bearing years later, I wasn’t so sure it would fit.

The training in Oyster, VA provided me with a clear sense of the project’s scope and background. Equally important, it allowed me to do a little scouting for my upcoming eco-voluntourism vacation.

Since the eight-hour round trip drive proved to be a bit much for one day, I decided that when I returned for my volunteer excursion, I would pawn the kids off on my ex-husband, travel into the area one day early and spend the night in nearby Cape Charles, VA. The town met my primary criteria (it was close and cute). I also resolved to make my drive down the peninsula part of the adventure. I’d pop into some of the funky named towns I’d spotted on the map. Visit the barrier island of Chincoteague, made famous by the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. The trip was coming together and was even beginning to sound a bit – forgive me – delmarvalous!

Preparing for this trip would be easy. The day before the trip, with a change of clothes, my running shoes (I always incorporate a run into my vacations), bathing suit, towel, snorkeling gear, sunscreen, insect repellent, some snacks packed in a small bag, only one task remained: trying on the dreaded wet suit. Let’s just say a) it wasn’t pretty and b) I decided on-the-spot to donate it to TNC in the hopes that a slimmer seagrass volunteer might be able to use it in the future. Luckily, TNC promised to have a number of wet suits – in a variety of sizes – available for volunteers to borrow.

The drive down the peninsula was delightful. While I was drawn to Pocomoke City, MD and Onancock, VA by their strange sounding names, they turned out be lovely, historic little towns. While I didn’t have time to put Pocomoke City’s tourism office claim that “You are almost guaranteed to spot a bald eagle overhead while boating on our (Pocomoke) river” I enjoyed the stop nonetheless.

Discovered by John Smith in 1608, Onancock, VA proved to be an interesting spot as well. Although the town’s name comes from a Native American term meaning “foggy place,” its sheltered harbor and charming town square sparkled in their Memorial Day décor before a stunning, blue sky backdrop. Though I didn’t have time to make my planned stop in Coocheyville, VA, I have no doubt that it, too, would have surprised me with its charm.

I was able to make it to Chincoteague Island. Though I was not expecting to find so many hotels and souvenir shops on what I somehow imagined to be a pristine island, I marveled at its expansive salt marshes nonetheless.

Less than four hours after leaving Baltimore, I arrived at my destination for the night: the Cape Charles House Bed and Breakfast. What a welcome sight. Built in 1912, the Colonial Revival frame house sits on a quiet, tree-lined street that felt more like a movie set. The house’s airy, expansive porch practically drew me into the front door, where I was met – and treated like a dear, old friend – by Bruce Evans, who owns the place with his wife, Carol.

Bruce invited me to the porch, where I was served (on a silver tray!) a fresh plate of cheese, a glass of wine and some good old-fashioned solitude. While I melted into a cushioned wicker chair and enjoyed my wine and the evening breeze, Bruce called in a reservation to Aqua, a nearby restaurant where I could sample some locally harvested seafood and produce. A short walk later, I was sitting beside a window in Aqua, eating what was, perhaps, the most delicious shrimp appetizer I had ever tasted. It was there that I was able to witness a rarely seen bit of nature: a Virginia sunset. After a crisp, fresh, locally-produced salad, the perfect end to my evening came in the form of harmless flirtation from a waiter who was easily half my age. I liked Cape Charles.

After a morning run through the town’s quaint streets and along its public beach, I sat down to a full, gourmet breakfast prepared by Carol, a former writer for a national cooking magazine. In addition to being a great cook, Carol happens to serve on the board of Virginia’s Eastern Shore Tourism Commission. What luck! With half a day to spend in the area before embarking on my volunteer excursion, I could use some guidance from Carol. For a little perspective on the local history and ecology, Carol suggested I visit the Cape Charles Museum and the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

At the Cape Charles Museum, I learned that up until 1883, the town did not exist. Like much of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the region consisted of small, scattered towns focused on seafood and agriculture. Around that time, William L. Scott, a coal and railroad magnate, and Alexander J. Cassatt (brother of the famous painter, Mary), an engineer, linked the agricultural centers of the South with the major cities of the North by extending the Pennsylvania Railroad down the peninsula. This also involved the creation of a water link over the Chesapeake Bay by which fully loaded railroad cars could be floated across to Norfolk, VA. With the railroad complete and the harbor dredged, Cape Charles came to life and became an economic hub. By 1912, the Cape Charles harbor was handling 2,500,000 tons of freight a year. For many years, Cape Charles continued to be a bustling terminal for passenger and car ferry service across the Bay. With the decline of the railroad industry after World War II and the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Yes folks. It’s a bridge AND a tunnel), things in Cape Charles slowed down. Today, the town seems to be emerging from a slumber, with people quietly renovating homes, opening businesses, and drawing in tourists. I was glad to be one of them.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is a 725-acre wonderland of maritime forest, myrtle and bayberry thickets, grasslands, croplands and fresh and brackish ponds. Located at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, the refuge straddles one of America’s most important avian migratory funnels.

From the moment I stepped out of my car in the visitor’s center parking lot, I was blown away by the wildlife. Accompanied by an unending symphony of songbirds, hawks, ospreys and eagles soared above me. Swallows swirled about. Butterflies danced in front of me as I walked along the refuge’s empty trails. I half expected a team of happy, little bluebirds to fly alongside me in heart formation.

My visit to the refuge helped me understand the network of landscapes into which my volunteer project fit. Bearing the brunt of the ocean’s force, the barrier islands protect coastal saltmarshes and provide sanctuary for thousands of colonial nesting birds and migratory shorebirds. The islands’ dunes serve as a resting spot for colonies of brown pelicans. The shrubs on the landward side of the islands are home to wading birds. The barrier islands are so critical to the survival of birds that they are actually protected as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The intertidal saltmarsh, sheltered between the barrier islands and the Delmarva mainland, contains a rich food chain of fish, shellfish and invertebrates. Terrapins and seahorses live among the eelgrass I’ll be helping to restore. The marshes serve as important wintering grounds for many species of ducks and geese and provide nesting habitat for several species of gulls, terns and rails. The inland sheltered shrub thickets and forested uplands provide even more habitat and ecosystem services.

I could have easily spent several more hours at the refuge but the time had come to meet my volunteer group at the boat ramp back in Oyster. Upon arriving at the ramp, I met my fellow volunteers and our leader, Bo Lusk of TNC. Bo welcomed us with a brief orientation and description of the work we’d be doing. He pointed out a facility across the harbor, where the seeds would be separated from the shoots we gather and safely stored for germination. The sky was overcast, and, in what was perhaps the understatement of a lifetime, Bo warned us that our boat ride out to the project site might be a little bumpy.

We boarded a small boat for what turned out to be a wet, spine-jarring, but absolutely thrilling ride out to the barrier islands. Bouncing along the choppy bay water, with sea spray dousing me in regular, four-second intervals, it was hard to imagine that the web of life I read and learned about really was just under the surface of the water. (I pitied the seahorse that was anywhere near the pounding bow of our boat.)

Within 20 minutes, we were docked at barge several hundred yards off the coast of Wreck Island, which is located near the southern terminus of the chain of barrier islands along Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It felt like the middle of nowhere. I ignored a rising feeling of agoraphobia and embraced the tranquility of the site. We were soon joined by a boat of VIMS scientists, who would be joining us in harvesting reproductive eelgrass shoots.

Fortunately, my TNC-issue size small (ahem, men’s, that is) wet suit fit just fine. As instructed, though somewhat reluctantly, I hung the mesh bag noose-style around my neck. I put on my mask and snorkel and slid off the barge and into the 70-degree water. I was surprised to discover that although it was high tide, the water was only up to my waste.

Then, another surprise. Snorkeling to search for reproductive shoots of eelgrass in a coastal bay is not quite the same experience as, say, snorkeling along a reef in clear Caribbean waters. The turbidity of the water, along with the strong current and cloudy sky, made for very poor visibility. I would not be seeing any terrapins or seahorses on that day.

It was not difficult, however, to spot the reproductive shoots of eelgrass. Unlike regular shoots, these were slightly puffy, with little rice kernel sized seeds stacked along the blade. Nonetheless, I quickly became used to the rhythm of the work…plunge, look, grab, pull, stuff, resurface. As the tide receded, the water level dropped to almost knee level, making the cycles of repetition shorter and shorter. This continued for a couple of hours, when I finally filled my first bag.

Working underwater was very interesting. With the sounds and sights of the above-water world shut out, everything becomes very peaceful and solitary. Working in a wet suit, and concentrating on your work, you also don’t know how cold you are until you suddenly realize that you can no longer feel your fingers and your guide tells you your lips have turned purple. Good time for a break.

While waiting for the sensation to come back into my fingers, I chatted with Scott Marion, of the VIMS Department of Biological Sciences SAV Monitoring and Research Program. Scott explained to me what would ultimately happen to the seeds we harvested after they are placed in their storage tanks.

As the seeds mature, they will fall out of the reproductive shoots and fall to the bottom of the tanks. The vegetated material is then winnowed out so only seeds are left at the bottom of the tanks. The VIMS and TNC folks then use a series of flumes to separate the seeds. The densest seeds are pulled out and stored in re-circulated sea water. In the fall, they are either broadcast by the handful – meaning they are throw over the side of the boat – or they are planted with one of VIMS’ new planting technologies. For example, they have a seed planter that can inject the seeds right into the bottom, which results in slightly better germination rates.

With the beds as productive as they are this year, Scott estimates that over the harvesting period (May and June) over ten million seeds may be harvested.

Scott made me feel great about volunteering. “Volunteers are critical to this project,” he said. “This is about numbers of hands stuffing seeds into bags. Some of us have been doing this for years and are very fast at it, but you can’t make up for the number of people that are out here helping to stuff seeds.”

Bolstered by Scott’s comments, I went back into the water, eager to grab more reproductive shoots. While I didn’t quite fill another bag, I did experience a heroic moment when I rescued a wayward, stuffed bag of shoots that had come untied from barge. At the end of the day, I was amazed at how many stuffed bags our volunteer group and the team from VIMS collected.

If the ride back to Oyster was as rough as the ride out the project site, I didn’t notice. I felt too happy, inspired, proud and glad to be out of the wet suit to notice. I thought, instead, about the question I set out to answer by taking this trip. Is eco-voluntourism accessible by someone like me?

I did a quick assessment:

Because my travel day fell on a weekend, I only missed one day of work. The kids were safely stowed and happy. I spent $40 on gas and tolls traveling between Baltimore and Oyster (a carbon footprint I hope will be at least offset by my effort on the restoration). Admittance to the museum and refuge were free. My fabulous dinner at Aqua was only $15 (with tip!). The priciest part of my trip was my room at the Cape Charles House ($120). While this cost was comparable to the cost of a room at a roadside chain hotel, the quality of accommodations, hospitality, attention, and great food offered by Bruce and Carol is worth twice that much. To eliminate that expense the next time (and yes, I will likely be a repeat volunteer) I may camp in nearby Kiptopeke State Park for under $30.

As the boat docked back in Oyster, I realized that my cheeks were actually sore from smiling. That’s when I arrived at my answer: yes.

For more information about the seagrass restoration project or any of TNC’s volunteer opportunities, visit The Nature Conservancy web site.

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