Volunteer Voices: "Life is Good"
Volunteer Voices: "Life is Good"
Jerel Steckling grew up in Wisconsin, about 100 miles north of Fountain Lake Farm, where John Muir spent a good part of his younger years. As a student at John Muir Junior High, Jerel learned a bit about its famous namesake naturalist, but had little knowledge of Muir’s beloved western landscapes.
You might imagine that the early connection to Muir sparked a thirst for adventure that drew Jerel toward the California mountains; in reality, a company transfer brought him to the state. Regardless, he made the move. Decades — and a lot of learning — later, Jerel has now spent years exploring the Sierra backcountry and volunteering in the park he’s come to love: Yosemite.
Do you remember your first trip to Yosemite?
Growing up in Wisconsin, my knowledge of California was firmly grounded in data gleaned from Beach Boy records and TV programs like Dragnet. I remember reading about Yosemite in National Geographic, and being fascinated by an article about the John Muir Trail — I think it was the part about skinny dipping in hot springs, something that was not done much in Wisconsin.
My first Yosemite visit was part of a vacation that included meeting up with friends in the park. We were living in Idaho at the time, and had no concept of California's scale. Idaho is a big state, but an inch on the California map is a lot of driving. (Note: A paper map is a thing stored in the glove box and only looked at when it’s too late.) I’d like to say that I remember the waterfalls, the sheer walls, the vistas from that first trip, but mostly I remember the fellowship of friends in a faraway place.
Later, we moved to California’s Central Valley, about 100 miles west of Yosemite. In those first years, we came to the park on a few day trips. I was always impressed by the granite, the views and the wonder of the trees, but I still knew little about the park.
How did you learn about the Conservancy?
I was introduced to the Conservancy through its two predecessor organizations (which merged in 2010): the Yosemite Association and the Yosemite Fund. In 1994, my wife, Jane, saw an article about a Yosemite Association introductory backpacking course. I had no backpacking experience. I borrowed antiquated Boy Scout equipment from a neighbor and was soon off for a three-day trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes and back.
The next year, I completed a three-day trek from Tamarack Flat Campground to Olmsted Point. In 1996, I joined ranger Dick Ewart for the advanced Yosemite Association trip to Twin Lakes. Those backpacking trips opened my eyes and senses to Yosemite in a new way.
I learned about the Yosemite Fund when I encountered a trail crew while backpacking over Red Peak Pass. Here were these young kids (young to me!) wielding trail equipment and maneuvering large rocks to create steps. I was impressed. As I continued down the trail, a helicopter flew in overhead to drop a load of supplies to their camp. The crewmembers said that they were working on a project supported by the Yosemite Fund. I knew I had to support the organization.
What inspired you to become a volunteer?
The nights prior to my 1990s backpacking trips, we camped in Tuolumne Meadows with Yosemite Association volunteers. I was impressed, intrigued and charmed by their joy and enthusiasm. One of the volunteers, Jim, pulled a beer out of his bear box for me — a stranger. It was a Full Sail Pale Ale. I mean, you almost have to come back after that.
I continued taking advantage of programs through the Association, and later the Conservancy, including plein air painting and Outdoor Adventure day hikes to the back corners of the park. All this time I anticipated volunteering one day.
What volunteer roles have you played in Yosemite?
I spent a weekend helping out with habitat restoration at May Lake (reestablishing trails with rocks and logs, decompacting soil, and harvesting and planting seeds from native plants) so long ago that the glaciers had hardly left the Valley floor, and John Muir was still digging wells in Wisconsin. Okay, it may have been a little more recently.
I first volunteered as a visitor information assistant in July 2012. To my surprise and joy, I was assigned to serve in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. For the next three summers, I spent my Julys under the trees that President Theodore Roosevelt once called “a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man." Life is good.
Since then, I've also volunteered in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, some years in two locations for a month each. I have served as volunteer team leader in Wawona and the Valley.
What’s your favorite memory from volunteering the park?
Before retiring, I was one of the “go to” people at work. It’s a nice feeling to be a “go to” person again, and it’s always a bonus to spend time with people who share my love for parks. My favorite memory has to be standing under the giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove and talking to kids from all over the world about life in the forest and the goodness that has been bestowed on this land.
What’s the funniest (or most striking) question a visitor has asked you?
The most amusing question was, “Where are the geysers?” The obvious answer was, “Take 395 north and turn right in Reno.” On many days after 10 a.m. the hardest question is “Where can I park?” It is always disheartening to talk to someone who has come on their dream vacation and now can’t find a place to leave their car. Volunteers always try to accommodate. In one case a bridesmaid was struggling to park prior to the ceremony, and a volunteer helped her find a spot.
How do you spend your free time in the park?
Most first-time Yosemite volunteers spend their free time hiking long-planned routes and going to all the summer programs, presentations, bird walks and bear talks offered in the Valley and high country. In Wawona, people let loose at the barn dances and listen to Tom Bopp’s piano tunes.
For returning volunteers, like me, the time spent with fellow volunteers is the most joyous, whether hanging out at the campground or heading out for a stroll. We never get tired of long hikes, either.
Why do you think it’s important to volunteer in national parks?
Life has been good to all of us, we must give back. We must do everything we can to make every park visitor’s experience the best that it can be. We must do our part to instill a love for all parks in all visitors. Those visitors will be the future protectors of the parks.
Jerel has come a long way since he first learned about John Muir, California and Yosemite: He’s now an experienced hiker and backpacker, a dedicated park supporter, and a well-seasoned volunteer with a deep well of Yosemite knowledge to share with visitors. In 2017, he was named Yosemite’s Individual Volunteer of the Year, an annual award given to an outstanding volunteer in recognition of exemplary service to the park.
And, fittingly, he has now hiked the John Muir Trail — but hasn’t yet tried skinny dipping in the hot springs.
We’re grateful to Jerel and all of our volunteers for donating their time to help out in the park! Curious about our volunteer opportunities? Click here to check out the descriptions and application information.
All photos courtesy of Jerel Steckling.