By Tom Woodman
Maybe as you’ve hiked an Adirondack trail you’ve come across a trail crew of the Student Conservation Association and wondered about these young people doing the heavy lifting that makes your hike accessible and enjoyable: placing boulders for steps, digging water bars to keep the path from washing out, building log-and-stone cribs to hold a bridge of massive spruce stringers. Why are they doing this for five and ten days at a stretch, sometimes for twelve hours in a day?
Well, it’s not for money. These are volunteers. A token stipend and some help with college bills through the AmeriCorps national service program is their compensation. That and all the camp food they can pack in and cook.
But if, once you took in what they were up to, you said, “Thank you,” you should know that meant a lot.
“We got a thank-you note on the windshield of our car while working on Baker Mountain,” said Kadie Mercier, a twenty-two-year old Rhode Island woman working this summer with SCA. “That was really cool. We saved it.”
And even if you never met the work crew but sometime later stepped up their path or walked over their bridge you are a big part of their reward.
“We worked on a couple bridges that were pretty far back,” Kadie said. “We didn’t see anyone, and we wondered, ‘Are these bridges even going to get used?’ On our way out we saw four people walk in, and we’re like, ‘Oh, they’re going to use our bridges!’ You see that hiker walk down the trail, and you think, ‘I just made it so much better for them.’”
Part of a national organization that sends three thousand workers into the field each year, the Adirondack SCA has eighteen members who work nine hundred hours each from May through October. Evenly divided between men and women, the members break into three work crews that head out on five-day or ten-day hitches. In the short breaks between hitches, they return to home base at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s William C. Whitney Wilderness headquarters on Little Tupper Lake.
Along with physically demanding work, the summer tests their team-building and communal-living skills. Camp life means laboring together and tenting side by side, sharing cooking and cleaning chores while enduring bugs and whatever the weather throws at them. Living quarters at Little Tupper are no less chummy. Eighteen members share two small residential buildings. But at least there are showers there.
“It kind of feels like college all over again,” said Jared Hinken, a twenty-four-year-old from Michigan.
“I like the communal living and the teamwork,” said Kadie. “We’re really close. I know if I have to carry this big rock by myself I’m going to hurt myself. I have to trust this other person to help me carry it.”
Don’t underestimate the physical demands. Crews carry in everything they need, including mechanical contraptions that help them move boulders or two-thousand-pound logs. With gear, clothing, and food, a worker may carry as much as seventy pounds on the way in to a work site. No power equipment is allowed in Wilderness Areas so trees must be felled with two-person crosscut saws, not chainsaws.
Adirondack SCA Director Jeremy Burns says the women more than hold their own and adds that the whole crew learns “it’s more important to work smarter than harder.”
Like most of the members, Jared and Kadie have graduated from college with a strong interest in conservation work and a desire to be out in nature instead of in an office. They describe a summer that strengthens them spiritually as well as physically.
“Just going outside and feeling the breeze, seeing the sun brings a peace,” said Jared. “I want that not only for myself but for other people as well. That could be what drives me to be in this field.”
Nature provides its own restoratives.
“There was a morning where it was mid-hitch and everyone was hitting that proverbial wall and dragging,” said Jared. “And I heard the clicking of a belted kingfisher, and it just—zoom—goes over the river, and my gosh, my day just got so much better.”
“I spent my whole life wanting to be outside,” said Kadie. “Even when I’m tired here I still feel 95 percent better than if I were home and slept ten hours. I feel so much more like myself when I’m outside.”
The summer’s work gives them firsthand experience, connections through the SCA network, and experience on the resume that highlights service to the community as well as valuable work skills.
The SCA’s mission, says Burns, is to develop “conservation leaders,” and each member is given leadership responsibility for a crew at some time during the season.
Burns has led this program for two years but has worked in trail maintenance for eighteen years, including a number of years working with incarcerated youth.
The program, with the great draw of its Adirondack setting, is clearly attractive to many. Burns says he receives hundreds of applications annually for the eighteen slots.
For some, the motivation is to help people, and the summer can set a direction for life.
“I’m thinking about going into wild-land firefighting as a career,” said Jared. “It’s a way to help. There’s been a lot of situations in my life where someone needed medical attention or something was happening and I couldn’t do anything. I was completely powerless. It was one of the most awful feelings I could have. We got Wilderness Advanced First Aid Training here. Now I could actually do something. It’s very comforting to know I could help.”
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