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Manes: A delightful mix of paddling and nurturing nature

Maggie Byrne prepares kayak while vacationing PuerRico.  |  Supplied photo

Maggie Byrne prepares to kayak while vacationing in Puerto Rico. | Supplied photo

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Updated: June 24, 2014 7:25AM



“To me, one of the best faces America has ever projected is the face of a Peace Corps volunteer. That face symbolizes this country: young, curious, brimming with idealism and hope — and a real, honest compassion.”

— Teresa Heinz

Maggie Byrne is a grant specialist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and is on the board of directors of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.

Byrne, 39, is single, lives in Griffith and was raised in Lansing, Ill. She graduated from T.F. South High School. A few years after college, she joined the Peace Corps.

***

College?

“Ball State University,” she said. “I have a degree in natural resources and environmental management.”

You work for the DNR.

“Yes, their Lake Michigan coastal program. I’ve been there for two years.”

Where did you work before that?

“For seven years, I was with The Nature Conservancy. My job title with TNC was conservation coordinator, but I did a lot of wildlife habitat restoration work. I also did some land acquisition projects and was with the Indiana coastal cooperative weed management area for a couple of years.”

Phragmites, purple loosestrife and garlic mustard feared you.

“Yes.”

Why did you leave TNC?

“It was a great job and I learned a lot. But this job opened up and it was a better opportunity. I get to work with people a lot more now. Today, I’m based at the (Indiana Dunes) State Park and that’s really kind of awesome and a dream come true.”

Good for you. Tell me about your kayak adventure in Puerto Rico.

“We paddled halfway around the island last summer. We were in Puerto Rico for 16 days, but we actually paddled for 11 of those days. We started in the southeastern corner and went north and west.”

Some pretty cool sights?

“Very cool. I got to see manatees, sea turtles and lots of fish, of course. We didn’t see any dolphins, but we saw monkeys on an island. They weren’t indigenous. It was like a research island where they study monkeys. We tried to land, but there was a DNR officer who wouldn’t let us.”

You could’ve told him that you work for the DNR, but he probably wouldn’t have believed you.

“Probably not. Plus, my Spanish isn’t that good.”

Your next excellent adventure?

“In August, I’m going with a group of people up to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior for about 10 days. “

Aren’t you some kind of paddling instructor?

“Yes, I’m certified by the American Canoe Association.”

What kind of kayak do you have?

“I actually own four kayaks. Two of them are sea kayaks. None of them are tandems.

“We offer kayak classes through the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association. I wish more people would take advantage of that. Kayaking is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.”

The Peace Corps.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, so far. I arrived in Cameroon, Africa, on Oct. 31, 2001. We were supposed to arrive on Sept. 25 but were delayed because of 9-11.”

How long were you in Cameroon?

“For 31/2 years. It was challenging every single day, but it was a great experience. The people were so wonderful and friendly and open and giving. They see a white person and they want to know what you are doing there. They’re very curious. The Cameroonians assume you have a lot of money so they want you to buy their stuff.”

Most young people in the Peace Corps aren’t exactly lighting their cigars with $100 bills.

“It’s funny, it’s sort of like you’re a celebrity. It’s kind of annoying at first, but once you get used to it, it gets to be kind of fun.”

How did you help those folks?

“I worked with subsistence farmers as an agri-forestry extension agent. I tried to teach them how to raise nitrogen-fixing trees so they could improve soil fertility, prevent erosion and grow their own firewood. Deforestation was a huge issue where I was posted.

“I speak Pidgin English, by the way. The vocabulary is pretty much the same, but you use the verb tenses differently.”

Example?

“For instance, in America, we’d say, ‘I came’ or ‘I went.’ In Pidgin English it would be ‘I done come.’ It’s more about the inflection and pronunciation than it is about the actual words. When I speak Pidgin in this country to people from Africa they’re shocked at how well I speak it. It’s so much fun because they’re so excited: ‘What is this coming out of you?’ ”

***

Maggie Byrne obviously enjoys the wonders of nature, oftentimes viewed from the seat of a kayak.

And from the coast of Africa to the coast of Lake Michigan, she’s been doing her part to preserve natural resources or help heal this planet’s ills.

I call that gratitude.



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