by Rachel Driver, ’03, ’05
In 1973, Jim Colbert boarded a cross-country Greyhound bus to Denver, embarking upon his idea of a fun and interesting summer spent camping in the wilderness. Little did he realize that it would ultimately lead him to where he is today – an Associate Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology at Iowa State University and Admiral of the “Skunk River Navy.”
Jim was a member of SCA’s conservation crew at Rocky Mountain National Park that summer. Crew leaders Les and Jane led their coed crew of high school students from across the country on a two-week project at Fern Lake. The crew was responsible for temporarily maintaining an old structure near the lake by restoring it with a functioning tarpaper roof. Jim recalls that before actually beginning work on the structure, the crew had to improvise a ladder from raw materials found near the crew’s backcountry camp.
Other projects the crew undertook included deconstructing a deteriorated CCC camp and transporting large pieces of it two miles down the mountain. Their method included balancing metal scraps upon their hardhats and hiking the mess out of the backcountry to an access road. He chuckles at the memory of the balancing act and the plethora of trips up and down the trail.
As a flatlander from Iowa, Jim’s first experience with the Rockies created some of his most striking memories, as he drank in the towering mountain peaks and endless snow field. He also recalls a very chilly plunge into the cold spring water of Fern Lake, and an exhilarating afternoon of rappelling down small rock outcroppings under the tutelage of his crew leader Les. After two full weeks of hard work, the entire crew packed up and took off on a weeklong excursion into the mountains. Jim remembers working hard, playing hard, and thoroughly enjoying being out and active.
Although that SCA crew is now a distant experience, Jim has several incredibly vivid memories and lasting impressions that have stuck with him throughout the years. A few of the SCA fundamentals have even managed to become inextricably intertwined with his life experiences. The SCA summer crew was his first encounter with teenagers working hard in an outdoor setting for the natural world in a dynamic forum for gaining knowledge as well as developing key skills.
Now a dedicated Biology Professor at Iowa State, Jim still likes to get outside and play. As an avid fisherman he often takes solo trips out on the Skunk River to fish for smallmouth bass. Along the way, Jim often has to steer his canoe around large pieces of discarded farm equipment and trash. Named for the skunk cabbage that historically grew along the banks, the Skunk River has become a watery waste bin for local farms and inhabitants, as well as agricultural run-off and sediment.
The Skunk River Navy is Born
As a regular user of the rivers and streams of central Iowa, Jim became concerned by the increasing problems facing those waters – his regular encounters on the river with tires, farm machinery, and beer cans finally sunk in. Jim realized that it just wasn’t right, and had a moment in which he realized that he should do something about it rather than just shake his head. One particular sandbar had an enormous claw-foot bathtub buried deep within the sand and Jim was determined to get it out. And, as a creative teacher of enthusiastic and energetic students, Jim was struck with the brilliant idea of merging the two concept – and the Skunk River Navy emerged.
Thus Jim came full circle back to the same concepts acquired from SCA 25 years earlier, implementing his own version of inspiring young people to participate in conserving and learning from the natural world. The fundamental notion of working hard for the environment is the underlying concept of the Skunk River Navy. As the Admiral of the Navy, Jim rounds up crews of his first year students for a hands-on volunteer trip into the wilds of central Iowa and the Skunk River.
Over the years, Jim has developed a distinct teaching style through which he engages young students in a sort of ‘wikipedia’ approach to learning by personally forming their own definitions of concepts through experience. Jim provides actual physical examples of curriculum through local avenues. Through the Skunk River Navy volunteer program, Jim has created a learning community that institutes a dynamic relationship between the students and teachers and emphasizes connection to the local world and each other, adjustments to college responsibilities, academic support, and social opportunities through service learning projects. Not only is the Navy a community service opportunity but also an educational opportunity, as the students and volunteers learn about and experience issues such as water quality, organismal diversity and stewardship for the natural world. "Admiral" Colbert’s original idea continues to expand knowledge and improve the local environment.
Each year, the Navy volunteers take several trips to Skunk River in various weather conditions, equipped with canoes and various hand tools that may include a tow chain, bolt cutters, shovels, and saws in order to tackle whatever trash or fallen trees might be strewn along the way. The Navy wades through stretches of the river collecting trash in the canoes, rigging impromptu solutions for removing odd, large objects, and observing natural occurrences in the rivers, including such things as the reproductive acts of moss, the presence of insect larvae, and tracking footprints. Jim always encourages questions of any type and fields them all seriously.
Although the Navy removes several pieces of ‘trophy trash’ such as port-a-potties and bathtubs, the real accomplishment is the hands-on experience the students obtain in their own backyard with local animals and environment. Although it may have been right there all their lives, the students may actually see and experience it for the very fist time in college and engage in the real world. The trash is mainly an aesthetic fix, since Iowa is a literal sponge for runoff pollution. Since 1998, Jim estimates that the Skunk River Navy has hauled out 41 tons of trash from a 30-mile stretch of the river. However, the experience of wading through the Skunk River mud and trash augments and highlights the classroom course objectives while imparting real world experience and a shared sense of engaging in the environment.
Although Jim admittedly didn’t immediately realize the impact of his SCA experience, upon reflection, he considers the fundamental concepts of SCA as a factor in shaping his life experiences. Jim believes SCA has potential in the lives of students and throughout communities. There are certainly continuous threads of connections throughout his teaching career, and personal exploits of hiking, camping, and fishing, that highly correlate to the complete SCA experience. And, in very different forums but with the same base concepts, SCA and Jim Colbert have progressed beyond engaging volunteers with the land and a sense of place to making very human, very real connections that endure and surface at random moments in the real world.
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