An alternative Block 8 challenge: DiRtBaGging with Homer Wilderness Leaders

It’s 9 p.m., and light is streaming in through windows overlooking Kachemak Bay. It’s in the low 40s outside, and I’m underneath two blankets, working to keep my eyes open. Today, I organized 30-odd kids’ efforts to pick up trash from the roadsides and beaches of Homer, Alaska. Over the weekend, I led a paddleboarding trip on the Bay. It’s been a wild and strange start to Block 8.

I’m here on a combination of an internship with Homer Wilderness Leaders, or HoWL, and an independent-study senior Capstone Project for my education minor. My official title is HoWL’s “DiRtBaG Intern.” It feels fitting. DiRtBaG here, though, stands for “Discount Rates to Boys and Girls”—a moniker for the non-profit’s scholarship opportunities I’m helping to organize and promote.

I visited Homer and the surrounding wilderness for the first time roughly a year ago with Colorado College Wilderness and Spirit summer block and fell in love with the vibe here and the dramatic landscapes. Led by CC alum Libby Bushell (class of ’07), we backpacked to glaciers, climbed rocks next to the sea, and spent awhile alone on a volcanic island.

Bushell has been running HoWL since 2009 as a way to enable and inspire kids from her hometown to get outside. “I basically learned to backpack and to explore the wilderness through the ORC at CC. That inspired me to start a program in my hometown for kids to do the same,” says Bushell.

The program is more successful each year, sending upwards of 500 kids into the field each season. Many of these kids receive scholarships for their courses. This financial aid is one way HoWL carries the belief that fun in the outdoors should be accessible to everyone, regardless of background or finances.

As DiRtBaG Intern, there’s no typical day, and tasks range from errands and phone calls to day trips. Last night, we headed out in an ATV and scrambled up a boulder while scouting out new locations for a rock-climbing-on-the-beach summer trip. My primary duty is running DiRtBaG Clean-Up Week, a chance for motivated students to collect pledges for each bag of trash they pick up. The Kenai Peninsula becomes even more beautiful and the money goes to HoWL’s scholarship fund: a win-win.

2It’s Tuesday, Day Two, and roughly 30 kids have already collected 21 tires, 62 bags of trash, and 29 bags of recycling.  The numbers are impressive, but more satisfying are the proud smiles these kids wear as they drag entire car bumpers into the HoWL Headquarters parking lot and the way they babble on about all the glacier explorations they’ll be able to partake in this summer.

The work is meaningful, the place is beautiful, and I’m enjoying these moments to take some deep breaths before returning third week and diving into the final days of Block 8 (eek!).

3One final product of my time here will be a manual dictating how to run Clean-Up Week for the DiRtBaG Intern of next year, potentially another CC student. Libby will also be looking for more interns in the fall, both to work remotely from Colorado on various projects and, possibly, to come up here for a block to run the Homer Outdoor Film Festival.

If you’re interested in similar opportunities with Homer Wilderness Leaders, contact howl@howlalaska.org, and feel free to ask me any questions; I can’t say enough good things about this work, this place, and these people.

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