The baylands’ swampy smells and power lines are distasteful to many. But to Eileen McLaughlin, Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge was unknown territory to be explored. This energetic woman started volunteering at the refuge in 1998, going out to closed areas of the refuge on airboats with biologists to help replant native species, and turning up on rainy nights to count salamanders. Her efforts have been richly rewarded by Mother Nature; she’s had up-close sightings of gray foxes and “a pair of jackrabbits swimming, their black-tipped ears flat atop their backs, when a high-high tide flooded their marsh.”
In addition to helping scientists, McLaughlin gives bird walk tours, trains other docents, and leads the Wildlife Stewards, a group that recruits new volunteers for the refuge. Recently, she has been providing tours of the refuge’s newly acquired salt ponds, focusing not on wildlife but on the details of the restoration project. “People are curious about what is going to happen, how soon, and what’s going to change about their access to the Bay,” she says.
To McLaughlin, the best part of leading refuge walks are what she calls “aha! moments.” There was the time when a man who regularly fishes from a local pier came on a tour. Upon seeing one of the salt ponds filled with startling red-orange water, he said “It looks like they’ve gotten around to adding the iodine again.” McLaughlin was able to explain to him that the garish colors are due to the growth of salt-tolerant algae and bacteria, not added chemicals. She also recalls a lifelong South Bay resident saying he had never seen a healthy tidal marsh before being shown Greco Island, the largest surviving tidal marsh in the South Bay, on a recent tour. “It’s very rewarding to see people’s minds open to new possibilities,” she says, and she looks forward to taking people out again and again as the possibilities embodied in the restoration process unfold on the refuge landscape.