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I didn’t think I’d still be struggling to breathe after over 2 weeks in Colorado. But carrying surprisingly heavy, awkwardly-shaped sausage-like links of aspen wood chips down the lumpy face of a mountain wetland can really take the wind out of you. More than once, I surprised myself by not rolling my ankle. By the time I reached the bare face of the wetland where the rest of the team was hammering in aspen bales, my face was bright red, my hair was filled with wood chips, my breathing was shallow, and I couldn’t have been happier.

One word that I would use to describe our ACE trip would be “authenticity.” Whether in the context of the people we worked with, the grit and determination we put into the labor we did, or the way I decided to wear sweatpants on our one night out for dinner in Gunnison, everyone and every experience in Colorado was completely genuine.

Each person we met was so openly enthusiastic to share their environmental knowledge. Listening to people so close to our age discuss everything from marmots to sedges to broad forking to wildfire statistics with the utmost passion and expertise was more than inspiring. At Coldharbour Institute, Sean the Dirt Guy had us digging in the ground, feeling and smelling the difference between healthy soil and dirt. Without fail, we were encouraged after every community partner visit to reach out over email or text if we had any questions, or if we were ever in Colorado again. Spare rooms were often offered for future visits.

Listening to people so close to our age discuss everything from marmots to sedges to broad forking to wildfire statistics with the utmost passion and expertise was more than inspiring.

– Christina Ferrari, Duke Women’s Fencing

However, the authenticity of the people we worked with would have been lost if it weren’t for the equally genuine curiosity of our ACE team. No one was afraid to ask questions or try new things. No one hesitated to grab a Pulaski while trail building or touch a caddisfly larvae in the river. I was constantly in awe of the openness and support from my teammates. It made learning easy and difficult physical labor even easier. Being hopelessly out of breath was okay, as long as we were all in it together and giving it our best.

Amongst groups of people with the same drive to better themselves and the planet, I was never afraid to be myself. I also discovered the person I aspire to be in the future. I hope that I can continue through life with the same passion and authenticity that I saw in our ACE group and in the people we met at over 10,000 foot elevation, sloshing in mud and covered in aspen chips

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