I wonder sometimes why I’m so motivated to clean things up and leave things better than how I found them. As I search my memory, I remember a very important experience I had while I was a camper at an overnight YMCA summer camp.
Summer camp was three weeks long, and it was on 150 acres located in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, with waterfront on Lake George. From there, we could leave the camp and get directly on the hiking trails that led to a series of mountain peaks that allowed overnight camping.
My counselor would gather up his cabin of kids and take us on a seven-day hike that included many mountain top peaks with spectacular views and wildlife. On my first hike with a bunch of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, we arrived at the first campsite and had to scramble to gather firewood, because there was nothing there.
We all worked hard chopping and splitting the wood by hand but had a great fire, singing songs together that first night. The next day after breakfast, our counselor told us that before we headed out, we needed to cut and split up some more firewood before we left.
As little kids already with sore arms from all the chopping, cutting and splitting of wood the night before, we protested. Why should we cut up more wood for someone else because there was no wood when we got here last night? My counselor told us that he would be proud of us if we learned to leave things behind better than we found them.
We grumbled among ourselves but figured he was in charge and we had better cooperate. We all started working, and then he joined us and we all worked together and got it done. We left behind a nice neat stack of dry firewood under a tarp for whomever came along next.
We hiked to the top of another mountain peak that day and as we were coming down off the top, we could see storm clouds moving in. We had to hurry to the next campsite before it started raining or there would be no hot food that night. The rain came down, and by the time we got to the campground, we were all soaking wet, shivering, and it was dark.
With flashlights on, we all crammed into the leen-to cold, wet, hungry and miserable. But, there to our surprise, we found a bunch of dry wood already chopped and ready to start a fire with under a canopy someone had built on to the leen-to. We were so happy to be able to dry off and cook some hot food.
That night, we talked about how we bet whoever found our old campsite that night was grateful for the dry wood they had found there. We all went to bed safe and sound that rainy night.
The next day, our counselor didn’t have to tell us to chop extra wood, we understood and were more than happy to do it. Actually, it was kind of fun, and we all felt good about ourselves and grateful for whoever left that dry wood behind for us. And we were going to return the favor. It probably saved a few of us kids from getting hyperthermia, as it was a cold rainy night in the mountains, far away from civilization.
As the summers went by, we became more sophisticated in the improvements we would leave behind after spending the night at a camping spot. Sometimes we would rebuild a fire pit, first cleaning it out and then gathering more rocks to make it more contained to prevent sparks from getting away that might start a fire in the woods. Other times we would build another leen-to.
As I grew up, it became a tradition at our summer camp to also do a summer project that involved all the campers together, all ages, with the counselors that every year improved the camp, like a new cabin, or a new trail up the mountain or even making a new campground with leen-tos high up on a mountain peak for next years campers to enjoy.
In later years, I became a counselor and always tried to be a good role model and pass on the respect, not only for the environment, but for other people that I had learned growing up. It was giving respect and caring for people I may never meet, leaving behind things better than I found them.
In Florida, it’s the beautiful freshwater springs that caught my eye. I first discovered Hunter Springs in 2003 and at that time Citrus County was using weed harvesters to keep the boat channels open, but no one was working to clean up the swimming area for the kids. I., of course, jumped at the chance to do my part to help and eventually started the One Rake at a Time project.
I went to Crystal River city hall meetings to check things out and learned that the property around Three Sisters Springs was about to get developed into a condo complex that the locals feared would destroy the springs. I joined with others to “Save Three Sisters.”
In the end, we raised $10.5 million to buy and save the springs from development, and now it is a world famous National Wildlife Refuge for manatees in Crystal River.
This year during the Manatee Festival, I was invited to set up a One Rake at a Time tent at the refuge along with other educational groups. I was amazed at what a beautiful wildlife park we had created that allowed thousands of visitors to see the resting manatees in a protected, restored Three Sisters Springs. We had come a long way.
Not only was Three Sisters saved and restored, but all of Kings Bay is vastly cleaned up now and continues being restored every year. The water clarity has come back along with the wildlife, and the eelgrass that was planted in the natural white sandy bottom of Kings Bay is now providing forage for manatees.
Taking the knowledge and experience I have learned over the years, I have joined with other local people to Save the Rainbow River. As we find it today, it is in decline and being invaded by hydrilla and toxic Lyngbya algae. The real solution is to work with the State of Florida and get the permits necessary to clean out the hydrilla, Lyngbya and years of muck that is killing the native eelgrass, before the ecosystem collapses and the river dies.
Let’s all join together and leave this beautiful, unique, spring-fed river in the heart of Florida better than we find it today. It will take hard work and money, but everything helps.
To learn more, visit OneRake ataTime.org.
Art Jones is president and founder of One Rake at a Time.