Program offers opportunity to experience the woods and learn life skills
By Tom French
Have you ever happened upon a beautifully built stone staircase miles from nowhere in the Adirondacks and wondered who built it?
Bridges, stone staircases, log ladders, and bog boardwalks are the backbones of our trail network. Dozens of professional trail crews from several organizations complete the arduous work, but one is unique in that they recruit a fresh cadre of workers every year as part of their mission to “build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of the environment.”
Since 1998, the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national organization, has partnered with AmeriCorps and the DEC from their base at the old Whitney Headquarters along Little Tupper Lake.
Often, “members” arrive with little or no experience. “If they haven’t camped or backpacked before, that’s okay, because they’ll learn here,” according to Julia LaReau, program coordinator of the SCA Adirondack Corps.
Steve Guglielmi, a DEC Forester in Region 5, has worked with SCA for his entire career of 23 years.
“They may not have a lot of hands-on experience when they start, but with the training they get and the leadership SCA provides, they accomplish quite a bit,” he said. “They have an energy and enthusiasm that’s refreshing to see. You can see their satisfaction when they complete a project.”
Training begins with wilderness first aid, and includes Leave No Trace, logging and chainsaw training, rigging and griphoist use, conservation work skills, and a number of trail construction techniques including use of native timber and stonework.
“We’ll go camping and backpacking to go through all the motions and practice set up and take down,” LeReau explains. “They’ll cook on Whisperlight stoves to get used to the finesse. They’ll dig latrines if they’re spike camping and do rock work on Coney Mountain to practice.”
Getting their assignments
After the training, the members disperse into the field for five- and 10-day “hitches” to complete any number of projects throughout the Adirondacks. This summer, 13 people were assigned to over a dozen including a stone staircase on top of Poke-O-Moonshine, a 50-foot bridge across Beaver Brook near Raquette Lake, and rehabilitating cobblestone bridge abutments originally built by the CCC on the Tongue Range. The work is done under contract with the DEC and funded by New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund.
The first hitches were for five days. “I try to schedule projects that allow folks to get their feet under them, get used to camping, and the standards we have.” Members “brushed” several trails including sections of the Northville-Placid Trail and a remote area of the Lost Pond Trail in the West Canada Lake Wilderness. Another early project was removing disused irrigation piping from the 100-year-old Craig Wood Golf Course. They hauled almost three hundred, six- to twelve-foot sections of PVC for 1.5 miles, removed metal piping from a stream, and naturalized the area.
Later, crews spent two, 10-day hitches on the Cascade Reroute and twenty-five days camping on Poke-O-Moonshine. According to Project Leader Jake Ganley, “Poko was one of our hardest gear hauls – bringing up giant rock bars and sledgehammers on top of our food, so it took multiple trips getting up there.”
Boulders for the staircase were prepositioned by helicopter. At the end of the project, the crew carried out the 91 heli bags used to carry the rocks to the mountain.
Talking to the members reveals how challenges with wet boots, cool nights, black flies, and living outdoors in all kinds of conditions are offset by “the community” and experiences of “working from the top of a mountain,” or just seeing one.
Seth Palmer from East St. Louis applied to the Adirondack Corps because, “We don’t have mountains. Illinois is flat. I’ve never seen a mountain or a hill.”
Franklin Diaz, from Florida, expressed excitement at “testing our limits and learning how much we can do together while adapting to a different way of living and learning to thrive in a different atmosphere. It’s taught me a lot about self-reflection and looking inward. You actually experience the weather and the humbling of the mountain.”
Moving 43 privies on Lows Lake was especially memorable for many.
“We got to camp at different sites and make each one our home,” said Megan Jacobs, a 2022 graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a wildlife conservation biology major. “We were really clean about it. We had two-by-fours that we drilled into the sides. We dug the new hole, cleaned out the fireplaces, and put the ash in the old privy (before) capping and filling it in. Then we would pick another site to camp at. That was pretty spectacular. We fixed them up and made them special, and the people we encountered were so grateful.”
LaReau explains how the Student Conservation Association program is “geared for people who want to get hands-on experience in the conservation field.” Part of LaReau’s job is providing emotional support. “Members are transformed by the end of this experience and empowered, but sometimes challenges come up in terms of crew dynamics and once in a while a project leader will call and say, ‘Hey, I could just use some help for this conversation.’”
Homesickness also happens. “It’s a big adjustment. That’s why our training season is five weeks – to allow space for members to adjust to new people, routines, and the remoteness of the Adirondacks. We focus on team building and skills that will be used for the rest of the season and possibly their lives.”
LaReau also provides technical and logistical assistance “like how to get two, 52-foot stringers up on cribs for (the Beaver Brook) native timber bridge.” Use of chainsaws is prohibited in Wilderness areas, so the crew used crosscut saws to drop five trees selected by DEC personnel.
LaReau stresses SCA’s mission to “develop the next generation of leaders through hands-on conservation work.” In pursuit of that, members are assigned to be “Hitch Leads.”
“It definitely helped me with communication skills and conflict management,” Kristen Broadbent of San Antonio, Texas, says. “Everyone’s tired and sometimes things slip by the wayside and you have to tell people, ‘You still have to do this.’ But you also have to keep in mind – that person is very tired as well.”
“The chores definitely tend to be on the crew leads,” adds Ryan Van Dyke. After graduating from Wheaton College, he realized he “didn’t want to sit at a desk my whole life.
With an undergraduate degree in music education and master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems, Annie Kelley, from Jacksonville, Alabama, applied to the Adirondack Corps to explore how place and people interact with natural influences to create music.
“What do I hear in the environment? And how can I create that on an instrument? There’s a symphony always around you, and the birds! I’d never heard a loon or a hermit thrush. When we were on Cascade. the hermit thrush was a swirl of echoes. It was like I was in front of an organ.”
Other projects included work on Owls Head south of Malone, 265 feet of bog bridging on Floodwood Mountain, a bridge demolition on the Elizabeth Point Trail in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, and a new bridge on the Balm of Gilead trail near the Garnet Hill Lodge.
When asked about her biggest lesson, Broadbent says, “Bring extra socks,” though Elisa Balcaen from Idaho is more circumspect. She can’t wait to get home to do more chain sawing.