As Eugene Rowe snowshoed through Yellowstone National Park in the winter of 1993, he carried with him some conventional wisdom: You must steer clear of the buffalo, and you can't go backward on your snowshoes.
Rowe was heading to an observation post where he could safely monitor the winter feeding habits of the park's animals. He had just learned how to snowshoe; his legs were sore. As he slogged up over a slight rise he found himself 20 feet from a massive bull buffalo.
"You can go backward on snowshoes," says Rowe emphatically. "If you're terrified."
Let's consider, for a moment, the key elements of Rowe's situation: freezing cold, hard work, unscheduled meeting with an ugly, unpredictable quadruped.
Let's also consider this: Rowe was on vacation.
Every year thousands of Americans like Eugene Rowe volunteer their precious vacation time to help others instead of pampering themselves. They trade room service for camp chow, suites for dorm rooms, deck chairs for hammers and shovels.
Most of this volunteer work involves projects in four broad categories: environmental--repairing hiking trails or maintaining campgrounds in U.S. national parks; humanitarian--building low-cost housing in Mexico, training medical workers in Tanzania; cultural--renovating medieval buildings in Europe, building community parks in Turkey; field research--digging up dinosaurs in Montana, counting songbirds in Puerto Rico.
Volunteer vacations are often strenuous and aren't necessarily cheap. While most projects offer free room and board, volunteers generally pay their own transportation costs. And organizations specializing in scientific fieldwork also require hefty "contributions" to support the research.
So, why would anybody put up with this?
To get an answer, let's return to Yellowstone and, as he back-pedals from a huge and possibly cantankerous buffalo, ask Eugene Rowe.
"No. 1, it's fun," Rowe says. "No. 2, I learn a lot. No. 3, I can give something back to the environment."
Rowe, 68, a retired veterinarian from Virginia, speaks of his volunteer experiences with passion and a Southern accent like the late Red Barber's. Since 1983, he has joined 43 projects sponsored by Earthwatch, the leader in scientific research volunteerism. Along with his Yellowstone experience, he has tackled kangaroos in Australia, studied baboons in Ethiopia, monitored pollution in Russia's Lake Baikal. He's planning to join four more projects this year.
"I've been on cruise trips and to resorts, but no vacation gives me what Earthwatch gives me," Rowe says. "I'm elbow to elbow with some of the top scientists in the world."
So far, I'm 41 projects behind Rowe, but I understand his enthusiasm. My own two volunteer vacations were indelible experiences.
The first, connected with the University of California, involved an archeological survey in southern Israel. In essence, this meant we wandered the countryside looking for ancient stuff.
It was easy. You can't spread a picnic blanket in Israel without covering up some bit of old pottery or mosaic tile. We found Neolithic arrowheads; household items from Byzantine times (around 300 to 700 AD); shell casings from Israel's 1948 war of independence.
In fact, we found artifacts from almost every era except the Philistine (circa 1100 BC), which, sadly, was what the project's researcher wanted. In the end, the four volunteers had a blast and the researcher tried again the next season with a new crew.
My second volunteer trip, five years ago, was with an Earthwatch expedition studying ancient Aboriginal art painted and carved on rocky outcrops in northern Australia.
Our team of 11 volunteers was divided into three work groups, fancifully dubbed Rovers, Owls and Argonauts. I joined the Argonauts because their job was to wander around looking for stuff. This time, however, it wasn't easy. Take our search for the red kangaroo, for example.
Some local ranchers had spotted a spectacular painting of a 9-foot-tall red kangaroo with two spirit figures under its belly. Guided only by a fuzzy photograph of the painting and an X penciled on a topographical map, the Argonauts piled into a Land Rover and drove toward a sandstone escarpment a few miles past an oasis called Johnson Waterhole.
When the terrain got too rough, we stopped and got out. Nigel Peacock, one of the researchers, checked a compass heading and the five of us strode off into the outback. Every few hundred yards, we tied pink surveyor's tape to a tree branch so we could find our way back.
We got to the escarpment around noon. The air temperature was at least 100; heat poured off the sandstone. We had lots of water in the Land Rover but, stupidly, hadn't brought enough with us. To make matters worse, some tick bites on Peacock's legs had begun to fester, leaving him weak and slightly feverish. We sat under eucalyptus trees, waiting for the sun to drop.