March 16th marked Zack Rowatt’s and Erica Watkins’ first day as interpretive interns at Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. That’s also the day the White House issued a work-from-home advisory, the Dow fell 3,000 points, and America moved into a new phase of the coronavirus outbreak.
More than a month later, Zach, 25, and Erica, 21, are still at Oregon Caves, along with a handful of National Park Service staff members. “They told us we’re more akin to a family unit than co-workers,” says Zack. “We live in dorm-style housing and we’ve developed procedures should anyone display symptoms. We’re all comfortable with each other and things are in a good place.”
“We’re 30 minutes away from civilization,” adds Erica. “We’re ultimately safer here than anywhere else.”
Their work plan has changed, of course. Cave tours were suspended soon after Zack and Erica arrived, so they’ve shifted to online research, program development, and social media. “And we’ve been kicking around the idea of putting together some programs to present on Zoom,” Zack says.
“The SCA folks are doing great work,” declares Chief of Interpretation George Herring. “It feels good for me personally to know that treating the team as ‘family’ has [enabled] a meaningful experience that will impact their future.”
That “family” concept is a recurring theme at the Monument. The interns report staff are in frequent contact to make sure they are both safe and comfortable. “I feel so appreciated,” says Erica, “and I think that love goes both ways.”
“Zack and Erica are super stars!” states Ranger and Education Coordinator Jamie Cleaver. “They are each engaged on some worthy projects during their ‘telework’ service with all visitor operations shutdown. They are rolling with the punches.”
When facetiously asked if he ever considered riding out the pandemic in the Cave, Zack easily dismissed the notion. “It might seem comforting to be swaddled by the earth, and it was for us the few times we were able to go in,” he notes. “But you wouldn’t want to be down there with someone coughing or sneezing –“
“– In such a tiny space,” says Erica, finishing his sentence. Just like family.