When volunteers look upstream

An inspired outdoors day is thanks to a conservation volunteer who always looks upstream.

The quiet leadership and vision of the unselfish environmental achiever sees a meandering creek and a sleepy meadow as a place for otter slides and blue bird houses — not parking lots and plazas.

Throughout my conservation career I have worked with hundreds of volunteers – special people with outdoors dreams as big as their outdoors heart. Their down-to-earth approach to giving back inspires everyone in the organization to go the extra mile. Volunteer attention is persuaded merely by the enthusiastic expression of an idea or a vision and a plan that is executed on the humble call for help.

The volunteer vision is never blinded by disenchantment or neglect. They choose not to talk all day about the work that “someday, somebody needs to get done” – referring to those employed by tax dollars. Instead, leaders choose to get hands dirty, feet wet, back bent and everything else it takes to put in the sweat and tears in the act of ambition. A volunteer is a citizen caretaker for what others simply take for granted. Leaders make the time to purse their ideas and initiative to create dreams people never knew we could achieve. As the saying goes, “those who can do, do, and those who can do more, volunteer.”

Volunteer elbow grease and grunt work is commissioned at-most on the reward of Timbits and coffee or a post event beer.  As one of my conservation volunteers once joked, “it’s amazing how much I will work for a slice of pizza and a t-shirt.”

Predictably, annual attention on volunteer action is placed around the hand-off of the hardware that the grunt work behind conservation is eventually obliged to receive. From Atikokan to Arnprior, local conservation club trophy cases display the dusty old plaques, conservation cups and towering “volunteer of the year” monuments tooled together from a wooden base, bolts and doweling, topped with a plastic gold-coloured figurine. The awards have legendary names, endearing stories and some are even accessorised with antlers or a vintage beer stein. The infamous hardware comes out of the display case for club awards nights’ grip and grin photo ops, then gets engraved with the letters of names that will never be read by people out and about everyday in the outdoor legacy that volunteerism founded. The awards dinner attention is lovely, but the conservation volunteer worked their ass off for nature — not the trophy.

However, if volunteer awards were the mark of greatness, members of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters reached that status in every award presentation imaginable including the nation’s highest honour. In 1978, the Order of Canada was awarded to late OFAH President Jack O’Dette for his volunteer conservation service.

Over 40 years later, the volunteer proof is carried out over the shoulder of apprentice turkey hunters who just put their shotgun bead on a bird that many people said would be impossible to bring back to Ontario. The volunteer legacy is heard in the haunting bugle of Elk throughout some of Ontario’s most scenic highlands. Tens of thousands of volunteer hours are invested annually in the restoration of cold-water streams that send currents over species that could otherwise be gone without them. Meanwhile, on late nights and early mornings (even during holiday weekends and in the stress of a global pandemic) volunteers keep the pumps running and fish fed in community hatcheries that release millions of fish annually in hundreds of public lakes and rivers.

Protecting our natural resources from the spread of invasive species has been the work of government and OFAH partnerships for years – but that partnership success is ultimately delivered through the engagement of caring volunteers.  The OFAH is supported by cottagers, anglers, hunters, farmers, trappers, boaters, and campers who help deliver conservation education, monitor lakes, survey wildlife, report invasive species sightings, plant trees, clean up litter, build nesting boxes, contribute to research, and devote their lives to improving their local forests and wetland areas. They sit on the volunteer boards for various outdoor associations, and they also attend trails, land use and recreation committees while burning work and home life candles at both ends.

Full-time working volunteers juggle demanding careers, caregiving as well as all the special causes and committees that call their name. Student volunteers step up for experience and retirees get the volunteer work done while keeping themselves active.  Young or old, the volunteer satisfaction strikes the same chord.

The gift of mentorship

Just one look at the smiling faces of children who catch their first fish or fling their first arrow at local events, and people can understand how outdoor community volunteers make a difference for our future environmental leaders. For years, a two-minute-online-sell-out of 240 OFAH Get Outdoors camper spots (with subsidized camper registration fees backed by volunteer fundraising) was a result of good-hearted volunteers. Youth mentors went first to their fulltime employers to book their personal vacation days for volunteer time. They gave up paid work to work hard for free – on the shores of OFAH Get Outdoors Summer Leadership Camp. They invested their own gas money, brought their own boats and trailers, scrubbed dishes, hauled equipment, ran registration and camper rotations, and after they coached all day on the archery and rifle ranges and over various fishing spots, they ran evening hikes and led fish and wildlife talks. Most importantly, they gave young people the volunteer gift of mentorship, adult conversation, and attention.

Volunteers are undisputedly the most committed team members that OFAH and our conservation partners know. They are the unpaid, unsung heroes who take on the heavy lifting that membership dues, sponsorship fees, lottery funds and donor dollars could never afford. The OFAH exists on volunteer passion.

Volunteer motivation comes from many paths – a passion for the cause; a desire to give something back; a sense of belonging; and emotional self worth and the validation of a simple pat on the back.

It is fitting that National Volunteer Week, April 18 to 24, leads right into trout fishing time. For the volunteer who always looks upstream, this is the place to celebrate their personal pride in conservation. Their volunteer commitment shines on their face on banks of an outdoors oasis.

Here, the trout stream air sings to the tune of crisp clean cold waters trickling downstream. Over endless time, the creek lives calmly by the peaceful sound of its weaving waters washing through stick jams, picking up speed across the sandy flats and pebble stone bottoms, then gurgling into the auspicious pools and undercuts. And standing on the bank above, another perfect note blends in with the creek’s sweet harmony — the whisper of father and son bonding over a game plan for the perfect presentation to catch the attention of a speckled trout perhaps hiding there.

If you just mentally escaped to the trout stream, you have pride and respect that comes from the heart and your first-hand experience in the woods and on the water. You believe in doing your part to protect natural places.  Your volunteer spirit starts upstream. It is carried downstream to others who learn, by your caring example, why they need real life outdoor escapes, too.  

Keep up the great work.


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