Pulling Weeds and Removing Fences in Patagonia-the-Place: Patagonia Inc Employees Reflect on Volunteering

Soon-To-Be Patagonia National Park Photo: Colin Pile

Soon-To-Be Patagonia National Park
Photo: Colin Pile

The application deadline for 2014-2015 volunteers is around the corner! Apply before June 1 at http://www.conservacionpatagonica.org/makeadifference_v.htm

Here in the northeast, spring is finally here. Flowers are blossoming, the birds are back, and we can finally peel off our winter layers and soak up a little sun. Still, even a month after we’ve returned, a part of us is still in Patagonia.  In February and March of this year, Alison Kelman and I (Colin Pile) spent three weeks in the volunteer program at the future Patagonia National Park. We both work for Patagonia Inc, where we’ve had the chance to follow the park’s creation closely through the company’s involvement in the project. Though Alison and I had never met in person before our trip, our Patagonia, Inc connection made us feel like old friends once we met in the park.

Patagonia offered us this shot at a trip-of-a-lifetime. Each year, a handful of employees have the chance to take some time away from their work and volunteer for up to two months with a non-profit environmental organization, secure in the knowledge they have a job to return to.

Hiking the guanaco trails above The Chacabuco Valley Photo: Colin Pile

Hiking the guanaco trails above The Chacabuco Valley
Photo: Colin Pile

In 2005, Patagonia Inc sent its first group of employee volunteers to Chile to lend some manual labor.  They pulled fences that blocked the natural movement of the valley’s wildlife, and removed non-native plants to restore the ecosystem.  Nearly a decade later, Conservacion Patagonica’s volunteer program has expanded to five three-week sessions a year, with volunteers traveling from all over the world to contribute their time in the park and Patagonia Inc still sponsors several employees a year to make the trip.

This year, Patagonia Inc volunteers included the two of us – Alison Kelman (Washington D.C.) and Colin Pile (New York, Meatpacking) – as well as Maureen Kent (Salt Lake City), Beth Sullivan (Dillon), Richard Thornton (Austin), Fredric White (New York, Meatpacking), Hannah Whitney (Salt Lake City), and Lisa Kinigadner (Munich).

Beth and Maureen’s volunteer group celebrate a job well done Photo: Nico Sala

Beth and Maureen’s volunteer group celebrate a job well done
Photo: Nico Sala

We were the last group of volunteers to come through the program this year, which had its pros and cons. Pro: Projects at the estancia seemed to be winding down for the season, making for high morale and a lighter workload. Con: We had the last of the provisions allotted for the season, meaning luxuries like apples and granola were bartered like gold, and lentils were all too abundant. We met the rest of our volunteer group – our group leader Nico, from Buenos Aires; a married couple taking a year off to travel South America; a certified yoga instructor who’d spent the last three months in Bali; and a student from Santiago on her first big outdoor adventure – and spent a couple days getting oriented and touring the park before heading out.  Our first campsite lay at the base of a moraine, which provided 180-degree views of the sun setting across the valley. Within walking distance, the mighty Chacabuco River (approximately 10 feet wide and not too deep this late in the summer) provided some much needed baths after a hot day of cutting cicuta. The level grassland was also perfect for daily morning yoga sessions with our resident yogi/volunteer Erica Stanulis.

Resdent Yogi/CP volunteer Erica Stanulis teaches a headstand workshop Photo: Molly Bogan

Resdent Yogi/CP volunteer Erica Stanulis teaches a headstand workshop
Photo: Molly Bogan

Our mission for the first half was to remove exotic plant species from one section of the park. Seeds tend to travel along the road, carried by livestock or vehicles. Thistle, lamb’s ear, and cicuta were our main targets. The purple thistle flowers and yellow lamb’s ear blooms were easy to spot, but it was the never-ending groves of tall, fibrous cicuta that nearly broke us. You could spend an hour freeing a cluster of trees, only to round the corner to find another grove 20 feet wide. While cicuta felt like an uphill battle, a day and a half of cutting down small pine trees provided some sorely needed measurable progress. While other invasives had traveled to the park on their own, the pines were planted by previous landowners with the intention of harvesting and selling them.

The last of the pine grove Photo: Alison Kelman

The last of the pine grove
Photo: Alison Kelman

After a couple well-earned rest days at park headquarters (hot meals and dessert every night at the restaurant!), we headed to the other side of the valley to our next backcountry campsite.  Our second mission was to remove three kilometers of barbed wire fence, set farther up the mountains on the north side of the park. Here the winds blew stronger and the sun beat harder, but we were determined to take down the entire length of fence within the week.  We worked through the end of summer heat, winding barbed wire and kicking down posts, while enjoying stunning views of the valley to the tune of an aviary of parakeets and the rotund and curious Wet Wet bird (“Wet! Wet!”). By day three, the infamous Patagonia wind picked up, breaking or blowing away three tents. Miraculously we pushed through a day early, celebrating back at the estancia with some cold beer and a lamb asado.

Hauling wire Photo: Jason Lederer

Hauling wire
Photo: Jason Lederer

The infamous fence Photo: Colin Pile

The infamous fence
Photo: Colin Pile

As our small group disbanded after three weeks together in the wild – to head home, or back to school, or with more travels ahead – we had a shared sense of wonder and amazement at having spent this time together in such a unique part of the world.  We each came for our own reasons, and left knowing the collective work we had done would last well past our short stay.  In telling the story of our volunteer group, we hope to encourage and inspire the next round of park volunteers, visitors and supporters to see this amazing area firsthand for themselves, to find their own adventure and contribute to its protection in their own way.

No fences!! Photo: Colin Pile

No fences!!
Photo: Colin Pile

About the authors: Colin Pile is the store manager at Patagonia’s retail store in New York City’s Meatpacking District; Alison Kelman is the environmental programs and events coordinator at Patagonia’s Washington DC retail store.

About the authors: Colin Pile is the store manager at Patagonia’s retail store in New York City’s Meatpacking District; Alison Kelman is the environmental programs and events coordinator at Patagonia’s Washington DC retail store.

5 thoughts on “Pulling Weeds and Removing Fences in Patagonia-the-Place: Patagonia Inc Employees Reflect on Volunteering

  1. Sunday May 18th, 2014 at 04:32 PM

    I am interested in donating time to visit Chile and pull weeds, take down fences in the Conservacion Patagonia Program, howver I am not a patagonia employee, is this a problem….? can folks from outside the Patagonia store volunteer for the wonderful program/

    please reply soon, I am very interested.

    Sincerely yours,

    Geoffrey Pagen

    503.750.3365

    1. Conservacion Patagonica
      Wednesday June 11th, 2014 at 08:28 PM

      Hi Geoffrey! Thanks for your inquiry. You are most definitely eligible to be a volunteer! Patagonia just has program for their employees to come down and volunteer, but volunteering at the park is not exclusive to Patagonia by any means. We hope to see you down here soon!

  2. Jimena Calvo
    Friday July 18th, 2014 at 01:07 AM

    Hi guys! What an amazing story and Colin’s picture WoW (the one with no fences and animals just running freely). Thank you very much for taking care and simply CARE. Patagonia region (Chilean and Argentinean) are gorgeous. But we need more of this. I would love to see this type of conservation in my side of patagonia which is in Argentina. I would love to volunteer to go there and help (both regions). I know very well Tompkings work since my family and I are from Mercedes, Corrientes so please If you need any help or another hand you can contact me. I have a tinny experience with those task in the wild nature! Regards and tons of love to all of you!

    Jimena Calvo

  3. Friday September 19th, 2014 at 01:28 PM

    Thanks to Beth and Maureen’s volunteer group…
    To spend lots of time and interest to give useful information about weed and its control. Such a great story about volunteer!

  4. Leonides Azevedo
    Tuesday June 9th, 2015 at 01:21 AM

    Olá, sou Brasileiro e estudante de biologia. Trabalho aqui com aves (ornitologia), na conservação de uma especie endêmica, e também com Herpetologia. Gostaria muito de ter alguma experiencia como voluntário fora do pais. Gostaria de saber se alguém poderia me ajudar ou indicar algum trabalho voluntário pelo Chile… No mais agradeço pela atenção. Abraço

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