people posing in front of wind cave sign

nicole segnini – latino conservation week camping adventure!

S’mores, late-night card games, embarrassing stories, trying to light up a fire, seeing bison for the first time, learning about Lakota culture, and seeing cave boxwork for the first time. That’s a summary of what I did for two days with a team of inters from the Mosaics In Science and Latino Heritage Internship Programs, with some of the Environment for the Americas staff.

In front of the park’s sign

Our team: Yuyavan (boy-band aficionado.. or… zzZzz), Paola (our fire whisperer!), Brooke (my team Rosé-biased girl!), Will (mister ‘I’m too tall for literally everything’), Shanelle (our resident elephant expert), Griselda (she likes her camping food… charred….), Sheylda (Benito’s former teacher), and Jedi (most popular kid in town). The team was full of incredibly smart people whom I learned so much from in the only 2 days that I was able to hang out with them. I never thought I would learn so much about wildlife in such a short time, and be interested in learning more. I have always cared about animals and wildlife and their conservation. But hearing all of them talk about specific issues, encouraged me to learn more and be more proactive in learning about important wildlife conservation efforts.

Our trip was short, but so much fun (and very educational!). We went to South Dakota, land of lots of cows, and Wind Cave National Park. We stayed at a camping site at Custer State Park, about 40 min from the national park, for two nights. It was for Latino Conservation Week. During the trip, we learned about the park’s extensive prairie landscape and its wildlife (especially bison and prairie dogs) and helped the park’s wildlife biologist do a count of bison.

MONDAY:

I arrived Sunday night and stayed at a motel in Custer, a tiny town about 30 minutes away from the national park. I had a good rest and the staff of the motel was super friendly and helpful. I had to wait for Brooke (who is an intern at Wind Cave) to pick me up. After she did, we went to the park and got to know each other and talk about our job at the parks. Also, we became friends quickly because we have similar tastes in music (and k-pop idols!).

When we got to the campsite where the others were, we finally were able to meet EFTA’s staff in person, and they were all super sweet and fun. Meeting other interns for the first time was fun too because we were all able to share our experiences as people of color, and as interns at the park service. It is always nice being able to share your struggles and successes with people who understand you and have shared similar experiences. We also are all passionate about nature and the outdoors, so it was just easy to camp together. We slept in tents and some had interesting issues sharing a tent (ehem snoring ehem…) but overall, it was a great bonding experience. We cooked hot dogs and s’mores. At night, we played cards and maybe talked about funny embarrassing stories (that I promise I won’t tell!). 

TUESDAY: 

We woke up (very) early (somehow) and headed out to Wind Cave after breakfast (I don’t really remember what we ate..). A great car ride if I do say so myself since my new friend Brooke shares my same love for Blackpink (don’t listen to the others who will tell you that they had the best party car!). 

At Wind Cave, we did a Natural Entrance Cave Tour and learned about its discovery, where it got its name, and its significance in Lakota culture. I wrote about it here!

We saw its incredible and unique boxwork throughout the tour. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. At one point the lights were turned off, so we could see how it really looks inside the cave. I may have (or may have not) been a tiny bit scared… it was pitch black. It is crazy to think that back in the day people would explore the cave with just a candle…

After some sandwiches, we headed out to “hunt” bison (not actually hunting, just looking!). Our guide, Angela, who is actually Brooke’s supervisor and the park’s wildlife biologist, was amazing. She talked about the park’s bison herd and conservation efforts, but she also taught us about other wildlife in the park, like pronghorns and prairie dogs! For our Latino Conservation Week activity, we did a bison count or bison survey. This means: we found the park’s herd and counted how many bison and calves were in it. A regular count helps Wind Cave keep track of how fast the bison population is growing and can monitor the herd to make sure the animals, and their habitat, are protected and conserved for future generations. By the end of the count, between 110 to 130 bison, including 12 calves, were observed. I counted about 114. Of course, our count was done from a safe distance. (We did NOT pet the fluffy cows!! and our binoculars were up!!).

This was not only a great educational opportunity for us, but it was also a great way to connect with people who share the same love for nature and conservation and to experience the outdoors as some of us had never done before. Some of us had never even seen a bison (now I have seen quite a few!), others had never gone camping (like Paola)! This trip also encouraged me to learn more about conservation efforts and wildlife at our parks and to head outside to discover unfamiliar and unique places and enjoy their beauty and history.

I am very thankful to Environment for the Americas for allowing me to be part of this amazing adventure! I am so happy I met Brooke, Yuya, Will, Paola, Shanelle, Griselda and Sheylda. I think we were a great team and worked well with each other. I loved hearing from them about their work, projects, passions, backgrounds, and families and sharing things in common with one another.

Also, you can check out the National Park Service’s post on Instagram about our trip here!

BONUS!

Bison from the state came to visit us at our camping site!

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