Thousands of high school students have participated in SCA’s tuition-free Conservation Crew programs. In the following pages long time SCA advocate Pete Miles and twenty-one SCA volunteers share their Student Conservation Association experiences.
Opportunity awaits...Now is the time for SCA Christopher Holbrook [Portland, ME; Grand Teton National Park, WY; Denali National Park, AK; Seattle, WA], Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School (South Paris, ME) '00
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The Best Water Comes from Moab, UT [Canyonlands National Park, UT], Angie Brown Wynn, Indiana University (Bloomington, IN), ’99
With a Roving Crew in Yosemite, 2003 [Yosemite National Park, CA], Brian Quarrier (The Putney School, VT), '05
Working and Playing in Yellowstone, 1982 [Yellowstone National Park, WY], Ru Amagasu, GS '84
Coming of Age in Yosemite [Yosemite National Park, CA], Joanna Bassert, GS '77
A Foundation That Endures [Acadia National Park, ME], Elizabeth Bowen, GS '77
It's the Journey that Really Matters [Mount Rainier National Park, WA], Evan Escamilla, Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI), '09
Getting Down and Dirty with SCA [Appalachian Trail], Shauna Foster, Chatham High School (Chatham, NY) '03
Boulder Movers on the Rio Grande [Big Bend National Park, TX], Joan Stookey Harring,
My Calling to Work for SCA [North Cascades National Park, WA], Kevin Kaiser, GS '79
Transformation on the Tundra [White Mountains National Recreation Area, AK], Simone Olivieri, Taconic High School (Pittsfield, MA) '08
Four Weeks in Paradise [Cinnamon Bay National Park, US Virgin Islands], Heath Piester, Taconic Hills High School (Craryville, NY) '01
SCA Helped Shape My Career [Mount Ranier National Park, WA], Nathan Jeremy Poage,
Reflections on an SCA Summer [Bryce Canyon National Park, UT], Emily Schottland-Royo, GS '78
A Pivotal Summer in the Backcountry [North Cascades National Park, WA], Gregory Smart, Roosevelt High School (Seattle, WA), '06
Two Unforgettable Summers with SCA [Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN; Olympic National Park, WA], Deborah Waddington Smith, GS '79
In the Backcountry of Zion [Zion National Park, UT], Cindy Beltz Soltys, GS '82
Leading SCA Crews in the Smokies [Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN], Nancy Starmer, Head of School, George School
SCA Expanded My Life [Bryce Canyon National Park, UT], Heather Stiers-Dorn, GS '83
From SCA to Rockville Climbing Center [Arapaho National Forest, CO], Clay Tyson, GS '81
How SCA Changed My Life [North Cascades National Park, WA; Rocky Mountain National Park, CO], Ernest C. Wong, GS '77
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From the Desk of Pete Miles
I am a retired English teacher from George School, a Quaker high school for boarding and day students in Newtown, PA. I live in upstate New York and have been referring young people to the Student Conservation Association for over 30 years.
Again and again in my visits to national and state parks and forests, I have seen work projects where SCA volunteers and interns have been on the job – building and maintaining trails and bridges, leading tours, and completing other essential work for shorthanded and underfunded park and forest agencies.
Looking back, I’m glad that I encouraged George School students to apply to SCA’s tuition-free Conservation Crew program and helped them with their applications. Over time, I saw dozens of our students participate in SCA projects throughout the country. Each autumn they would return with stories to tell of their experiences – of skills learned, friendships made, jobs done, and recreation trips taken at the end of their projects.
Students would do a slide show, which would invariably help recruit next year’s “crop” of SCA applicants. They spoke of personal growth – how SCA had helped them develop confidence, self awareness and leadership skills and work as part of a team in nature’s classroom, the great outdoors. Their presentations were always inspiring and from the heart – the most effective student-to-student appeal imaginable.
After leaving full time teaching, I obtained SCA project slides and made my own presentations in local schools. I’ve learned that SCA is often little known to high school teachers and their students – all the more reason, I’ve felt, to publicize its work and mission.
While students are more likely to choose a paid summer job over a volunteer position, they need to realize that work with SCA has practical as well as social values: through their involvement with SCA, they can travel, meet new people, and learn of careers in conservation.
The inspiring story of one student who learned about SCA while in high school underscores SCA’s motto of “changing lives through service to nature.” As Chris Holbrook, a 2004 zoology graduate from the University of Maine, explained to me, “It was during Wilderness Leadership class [in my sophomore year of high school] that I first heard about SCA.” This led to his participation in three SCA projects before entering college – trail crews in Portland, ME (1998); Grand Teton National Park, WY (1999); and Denali National Park, AK (2000).
After his second summer with SCA, Chris wrote in his college essay: “The four weeks I spent in Wyoming with SCA were truly unforgettable. Our crew of six students and two leaders worked together extraordinarily well to produce a beautiful new trail, a new awareness of the environment, lots of laughter, eight new friends, and a connection to the natural world that can only be gained through living in conjunction with it.”
In summer 2001, through an expense-paid SCA Conservation Internship, Chris earned an education award for college working on a United States Geological Survey project in Washington and Oregon, which, he later told me, helped prepare him for his career as a fisheries biologist, “the step I’d been waiting to take since I was 13 years old.” Chris’ extensive earlier experience with SCA led directly to his selection for this highly competitive SCA internship.
Thinking reflectively of his four years of involvement with SCA, Chris wrote me: “I have grown in many ways that were unimaginable before. I have had opportunities that many people will never be given in a lifetime. All of this happened through SCA, and for this I am eternally grateful.”
As you consider the impact SCA has had on Chris Holbrook, imagine how your students could benefit. By participating in SCA during their high school years, your students, like Chris, will help preserve our natural world, experience incredible personal growth, make new friends, learn about important career opportunities, and have an outstanding and memorable time.
I encourage you to acquaint yourself with SCA by visiting their Web site [www.theSCA.org], and to take an active role in helping your students learn about and apply for high school positions through SCA’s Conservation Crew program.
Opportunity awaits...Now is the time for SCA, Christopher Holbrook '00, Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School (South Paris, ME)
Looking back on my experiences with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), I shudder at the thought that they almost didn't happen. In truth, when I first heard about SCA, I passed it off with little interest. The idea of volunteer work was so overpowering that I would not consider it. It was that "V" word - volunteer - that caused me to overlook the organization. Luckily, one moment of inspiration followed.
A four-day winter camping trip was coming to an end, as I lay under the stars on a foot of snow in western Maine. I became captivated by a moonless night, a sky littered with tiny stars, a breeze that carried crisp air over the pond and into silhouetted fir trees that loomed in the distance. But the solace was interrupted by a moment of panic. I wished the trip didn't have to end. In that moment, I saw before me the opportunity that SCA offered . . . to extend this trip an extra month.
And so I made the call in the days to follow, only to find that I was too late! All crews had been filled . . . except one. I accepted a position and found myself constructing a multi-use trail with other high school students in Portland, Maine1, less than an hour from my hometown. There in Portland I found what I'd been searching for. Hard work, good food, and a simple lifestyle immersed in nature resulted in the healthiest summer of my life.
As I became confident in my ability to swing a pulaski or sharpen an axe, I also became confident in my ability to meet new people. I found fellowship with wholesome individuals who cared as I did for the world around me. One of the most remarkable results from that first experience was that it nearly eliminated my shyness. My parents had left me with total strangers, and we grew to become like a family. All of the relationships I made during that summer were made because I took the initiative. It was a summer marked by personal development at an astounding rate.
Even before my first Conservation Crew experience was over, I knew there would be a second. As I lived and worked in the soil, and fresh air cycled through my lungs, I hoped again that the experience would not end. Visions of a career in the out-of-doors began to take form. The seeds of those dreams had been planted many years before, and with SCA they began to sprout.
With my addiction for the Conservation Crew lifestyle established, I applied for a second term, and after my junior year of high school, I found myself waist deep in the wildflowers of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming2. It was there, at 8,000 feet of elevation and miles from the nearest road, that I spent my second summer with SCA. In the Tetons, there was a dazzling combination of beauty, power and fragility in the world around us. We bathed in a chilling stream, constructed footbridges of massive lodgepole pine, and admired the simplicity and perfection of a floral display beyond the ranks of many others. We maintained and restored trails in one of the most beautiful places I have been on earth. Once again, I felt in harmony with the world around me.
The simple lifestyle was incredibly rewarding. Nature dominated the senses. Even when our eyes gazed at the ceiling of a nylon tent, our ears were filled with the sounds of a rushing creek. My experiences in the Tetons were so fulfilling, that they led to a third summer with SCA, this time in Denali National Park, Alaska3.
Denali was simply magical. Though the work was sometimes grueling, and the rained seemed relentless, nothing compared to the sight of the tallest peak in North America looming in the distance, trailed by the Alaska Range. We were entertained by caribou and grizzly bear, as well as moose, fox, dall sheep and others. We witnessed the tundra turning from green to yellow and red, and were graced by a display of the Aurora Borealis that surpasses all that I have seen in the heavens. I left Alaska mesmerized by its immensity and the power of its natural forces. Each member of our crew was captivated by the drama that had played out on its peaks and in its valleys.
Each summer, while I slept in mountain meadows and worked in the open air, my friends, confined by concrete walls and tiled floors, fried chicken, flipped burgers and washed dishes. They didn't do SCA because they were saving for college or a new car, but the truth is, I received more scholarship money in recognition of my work with SCA than I could have earned in the time I spent away. Volunteering really paid off.
After my first year of college, I sewed on that purple and yellow (SCA) patch for the fourth time-this time as a Conservation Intern. I worked side-by-side with biologists on a Chinook salmon study on the Metolius River in Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, performing tasks that many college freshman only dream of. My time was split between this site and the United States Geological Survey Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle, Washington4. For as long as I have been serious about my future career, I have dreamed of becoming a fishery biologist, and the internship has helped me approach that goal. My knowledge of fisheries management grew that summer to the extent that my personal life grew in Portland, and the result is a higher motivation to learn about the field.
I have spent the last four summers working in the woodlands and waters of some of this country's natural gems. Similar opportunities are available to all high school students beginning at age fifteen. When they realize this, they will understand that "Now is the time." A summer of work with SCA shows dedication and commitment to the environment. This display of character is exactly what the National Park Service, as well as many other agencies and organizations, seek in their employees.
The Conservation Crew experience has made me a stronger individual, boosted my career in conservation, and built a collection of memories that will stay with me throughout my life. I hope for all young people a moment will come, whether it be a night under the stars, or a day in the garden, when they will see what I saw, and that this moment will blossom into a month, or a year, until they find themselves on that trip that never seems to end.
1 SCA Conservation Crew - Portland, ME 1998
2 SCA Conservation Crew - Grand Teton National Park, WY 1999
3 SCA Conservation Crew - Denali National Park, AK 2000
4 SCA Conservation Intern - USGS Western Fisheries Research Center, Seattle, WA 2001
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A Foundation That Endures, Elizabeth Bowen '77
Every teenager has insecurities and doubts. It is an awkward time of independence and fears - and questions you are afraid to ask. I was one of those teenagers in the summer of 1977 when I set off for Isle au Haut to work for the Student Conservation Association.
Isle au Haut is a pristine island off the Maine coast and is accessible only by the mail boat that services the tiny lobster village at one end. The island had recently been acquired by Acadia National Park and by federal mandate had to be made available to the public.
My SCA crew arrived on Isle au Haut as fifteen strangers. The world and the people we knew had been left far behind. There was wilderness and beauty and an instantaneous bond. Our project was to explore every deer trail, beach, cliff, and wooded inch of the island, and to map and mark trails, create trails where none existed, and make habitable a cabin for the new park ranger.
The work was hard and dirty. We cooked over open fires after long days and showered in cold waterfalls. We were alone, it was exhausting - and it was MAGIC! Every day was a lifetime of challenges. We were encouraged to be individuals, but to work together and share the joy of each accomplishment - a new bridge, a finished trail, CLEAN HAIR!
We swam with the seals, drank out of crystal streams, talked the moon up and down, caught lobster, shared blueberries with the deer, and became a family. We relied on each other and confided in each other. It didn't matter where we'd come from, how we got there, or where we would go after Acadia, and each of us had returned home.
It astonishes me to reflect that this experience was only four weeks (a three week work project and a one week recreational trip to Baker Island and Swan's Island) out of my life. I have gone on to travel the world, live overseas, learn three languages, earn a master's degree, and make many friends along the road. But most experiences are forgotten and do not become part of what you consider your "whole."
My SCA experience, especially our leaders, gave me the security as a teenager to continue to say "yes" to new experiences, to accept challenges, and to make the choices to explore new worlds and new friends.
I would not be who I am, I would not have made the choices I have made, I would not look at the world the way I do, if it had not been, in part, for my "family" on a small island off the coast of Maine.
A foundation of confidence and spirit once given - endures!
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Boulder Movers on the Rio Grande, Joan Stookey Harring '84
When asked to write about my experiences with the Student Conservation Association, my mind flooded with fond memories.
It was 1983 and as a 17 year-old high school student, I was not wanting a traditional camp experience, and yet I did not want to waitress or do some other minimum wage job at home in NYC. When I learned in a school assembly about what others had done with SCA, I thought, "That's for me!" I liked the idea of working in a park doing essential projects, challenging myself physically, and seeing a different part of the country. After being accepted on a trail crew in Big Bend National Park on the Texas/Mexico border, and seeing the equipment list, I thought, "What have I signed up for?!" But I went ahead and got my boots, long-sleeve gray work shirts, gloves, jeans, wool socks, and other needed items. The trip to the park was long and through arid terrain that was foreign to someone from the Northeast. However, by the time we arrived at the basin in Big Bend and I saw the mountains where we would work, I was eager to begin.
Our main work site was a nine mile hike up in the Chisos Mountains - quite an experience the first time with a heavy pack, not very well broken in boots, and not really knowing whom I was heading into the mountains with for a month. But that trip became very easy and familiar over the course of our stay there. In fact, I recall doing it on two occasions just to be able to go to the basin and use the restroom sinks for a proper sponge bath, only to turn around and hike back up the mountain in the hot Texan sun.
Our project was to preserve existing trails by building log bars, digging trenches, and doing grading to minimize future erosion. We came to call ourselves the "boulder movers," since we spent a lot of time moving boulders to hold log bars in place along the trail. It was much needed work, and it was very satisfying to see the "before" and "after" trail conditions.
During our recreational trip, we explored other parts of the park. My favorite part of that week was a fabulous three-day canoe trip down the Rio Grande. We canoed through some amazing canyons, paddled through several white water rapids, and floated in our life jackets for what seemed like miles. On several occasions, we went ashore on the Mexican side of the river so we could say we had visited Mexico!
At the end of our project, I was sad to leave my new friends and the area which had come to feel like home. At the same time, I was not sorry to put the work shirts away and take a nice warm shower.
I am grateful that I was able to participate in SCA that summer; it was a memorable adventure for a quiet girl from Brooklyn. Over the years I have thought how nice it would be to return to Big Bend as an adult to check out the trails we worked on and to see the park again. Unfortunately, the fact that it is in Texas and I am in Minnesota does not make it an easy trip to do. When they reach the appropriate ages, I would be thrilled if my daughter or son could also work with SCA, because it is an excellent way for youth to have a wonderful summer experience while volunteering their time and energy.
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Coming of Age in Yosemite, Joanna Bassert '77
In 1975, shortly after turning 16 years old, I traveled for the first time, by myself. My application to work with the Student Conservation Association had been accepted and I had been awarded a scholarship that covered transportation expenses. All I needed to do, I thought, was to assemble the list of required equipment and make the journey from Philadelphia to Yosemite National Park in California, where I had been assigned to work. However, life rarely comes as an easy flow of events, and as it turned out, I had not foreseen the real challenge.
Though my older brothers had been pushed to embark on adventures at the same age, my father was reluctant to allow me to make such a long journey. My mother, having herself been a 16 year-old girl, was an understanding and critical supporter. The news of my acceptance had transformed me into a bee humming with excitement, a horse in a starting gate, a pacing panther, and an overall nuisance. It was excruciating to endure the discussions, hesitations and vacillations of my anxious father, though as a parent myself I now understand his concern. The trip was not a simple one. To reach the floor of the canyon, I had to take two planes, a taxi, and two buses. There was a lot of opportunity for getting lost, losing tickets and luggage, or worse! My mother and I persisted, and in the end, she made it all work. Equipped with a step by step agenda, complete with flight numbers, times and emergency contact information, I made a flawless trip west. It was the beginning of a life-changing experience and one that I will always treasure.
I arrived on the evening of the summer solstice, just as the setting sun was splashing orange onto the 2000 foot cliffs that loomed above the canyon. Half Dome and El Capitan stood before me like famous monoliths. As a rock climber, I was awestruck, and as a human being, I was humbled. I had never before witnessed such beauty. The air was clean and scented with pine when I dropped a seemingly limitless number of coins into the pay phone that was anchored to the wall of the Information Center. I absently watched a scrub jay peck at the remains of a sandwich when my mother said, "Hello." Euphoric and proud to have successfully made the journey, I blurted out the laundry list of events that was my day and described the incredible scene that surrounded me at that moment. "I'm here! I'm here! I'm here!!!"
Following the instructions that had been mailed to me by the SCA leaders, I made my way to a campsite where my group was to assemble. Several students had arrived before me and were seated on fallen logs that surrounded a campfire. I smiled at them as I checked in with our group leaders who consulted their records and kindly asked about my trip. As I joined the seated students, I became enveloped by their silence and quiet tension. Thoughts focused on the uncertainty that lay ahead, on last minute doubts, and on the unknown of being with strangers. Though we spoke little on that first night, we quickly recognized that we were a mixed group, representing a spectrum of races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, and that we hailed from diverse regions of the United States. By midnight, long after most of us had fallen asleep, the last straggler arrived.
Our objective was to maintain 15 miles of trail in a remote region of the park. Our leaders had arranged for provisions to be carried on the backs of mules, but we were responsible for carrying our own belongings. We would be driven as far as we could go by truck and then would walk the rest of the way.
We were awakened at dawn and had a quick breakfast of granola, unidentifiable dried fruit, and bananas. My stomach fluttered with anxiety and I had no interest in food. Few spoke as we inventoried our equipment. Everything was sorted into two piles, those things that would be carried into the backcountry and those things that would stay in the canyon until we returned four weeks later. Having never hiked longer than one day, I struggled over my decisions. Each item had to be essential or I would carry the burden of its weight in vain. We were reminded that soap and shampoo were not permitted in the backcountry, because of their negative impact on the environment, so I added them to the “will stay in the canyon pile,” and considered the full ramifications of four weeks of camping without soap or shampoo. It wasn’t going to be pretty.
We climbed into the back of a pickup truck and set off into the hills. The morning was cool as we sailed through magnificent forests, climbing higher and higher into the back country. The blowing air ripped through my thin T-shirt and many of us became quite cold. We shouted occasional suggestions to one another about hunkering down or getting behind the cab, but for the most part we were silent. I was grateful when the truck finally stopped and we were able to warm up by unloading our packs. This would be the last time we would see a road for several weeks. Our walk had begun.
During the first several days of hiking I suffered from the high altitude, which gave me nosebleeds, and from the weight of my 45 pound pack, which bruised my hip bones and spread my feet further into my already tight boots. We established a base camp in a protected region of the woods high in the Sierras, and we set up an electric fence that encircled our food and outdoor kitchen. Black bear, coyotes, and mule deer were present in the area, but only the mule deer proved to be troublesome, strolling casually through our camp and pilfering items from unattended packs and tents.
Each day we hiked to the construction site and worked all day clearing trail, building stone water chutes and rip-rap. It was during this time that the valuable bonds and friendships started to form among the kids in our group. We discussed different approaches to solving problems, such as how to move a big boulder, and then worked through the problem as a team. Most jobs were too much for one person to complete alone. Logs had to be moved, trenches dug, cairns stacked. I began to recognize and admire the range of talents that my teammates possessed, and I took pride in our ability to work as a group. I also started to appreciate my own abilities. I was strong and had adapted to the high altitude. I found that I had a great deal of endurance, was even tempered during stressful times, and on more than one occasion, demonstrated the uncanny ability to sense the presence of scorpions under rocks that were intended to be moved. I became skilled in treating blisters and other foot ailments, which proved to be helpful to the group, particularly during our last week. As I learned about myself, gained confidence, and found deep connections with the other students, I was freed from my teenage sense of isolation. I ascended from the limited realm of my private, self-oriented being, and was liberated by strong feelings of connection and belonging. It was an empowering process of personal growth, the essence of the SCA motto, “Changing lives through service to nature.”
During the fourth and final week of our stay in the backcountry, our group embarked on an extended backpacking trip which encircled the canyon and ultimately led us down to the canyon floor. We traveled about 10 miles each day, stopping periodically to marvel at the spectacular views, to swim in waterfall pools, or to slide down some of the fantastic water chutes that are found throughout the area. It was an enchanted walk through grass- swept plateaus, rocky peaks, and spectacular lakes. I vividly remember taking great pleasure in being able to drink water directly from any stream that we came upon. (Now, as a veterinarian, I am well aware of the many protozoa and bacteria that might have made us sick from doing this, but none of us had any problems, as least not of that kind.) I had never experienced nature more completely than I did then.
We were full of humor, and one common practical joke was to surreptitiously put rocks in each other’s packs. At the end of a long day of hiking, one might unpack a huge rock with a note attached saying, “Thanks for taking me with you! ?.” Needless to say, this often lead to a retaliatory water fight or a dunking.
We lived on dried food such as powdered milk, freeze-dried beef stroganoff, raisins and instant chocolate pudding. Canned food would have been too heavy for us to carry, and most fresh foods would have quickly spoiled. Food rapidly became more than just a popular topic of discussion. We thought about it constantly. Even when we were not aware of it, food was on our minds. We talked about it, dreamed about it, and saw it in everything around us. Clouds looked like cheese steaks, cliffs resembled giant ice cream cones. We felt that we were starving!
It is in the context of food that the appearance of the cowboy one evening became a drama about supper. It was dusk when we first spotted him coming toward us on horseback from the other side of a wind-swept plateau. We were tired and had made camp. Reconstituting the standard, dusty powder with water, tonight’s dinner was optimistically called “Chicken a La King.” I remember looking up to see him as he came near. He rode a bay quarter horse, and carried multiple saddle packs, a bedroll and wore chaps and a large ten-gallon hat. The fading light of the day and the crackling of our fire added to the mystical quality of his arrival. As he slowly dismounted, my mind processed that he was the first human being our group had come across since leaving the canyon three weeks earlier. I also marveled at the realization that cowboys really do exist.
We learned that he worked for the park service and knew our leaders. He was jovial and we were delighted to have his company. Since we were in the middle of preparing and eating dinner, the cowboy decided to eat with us and went to his horse for his provisions. He uncinched the saddle and carried it together with the packs to a convenient spot by the campfire. This was a bit of a marvel in its own right, since the saddle alone must have weighed 40 pounds. Together with the packs, I estimated the cowboy had moved about 100 pounds of leather and supplies as though they were nothing. I considered this relative to my own body weight of 110 pounds and the 45 pounds that I struggled to carry every day and concluded that this guy was STRONG. What happened next was even more astonishing.
Having made himself comfortable, the cowboy began to pull out a wide assortment of cooking implements from his packs: a small light-weight frying pan with a reducible handle, a sierra cup, a knife, and a fork. He placed the pan on the fire, steadying it on carefully placed logs, and then to our amazement removed what appeared to be an eight ounce Delmonico steak! I was in shock. I remember hearing nothing but the sound of a soft breeze moving through grass as all conversation ceased. The cowboy was cheerfully oblivious to our state and began to methodically and carefully fry the meat. I looked around to see the group’s reaction. All eyes were on the steak.
The cowboy, having himself been deprived, though in other ways, was more than happy to have the fixed attention of several young women. This unexpected turn of good fortune put him in a particularly gregarious mood and prompted him to tell an animated if not boastful story about his extraordinarily dangerous encounter with an angry mother bear. I did not hear a word. As his story dragged on, the flavor-filled air soon became a torment to our deprived stomachs. I noticed that one girl had her face in her hands as she sat on a log by the fire. Another turned sharply and walked away to escape the savory aroma. A feeling of misery, and later envy, spread through the group. I choked down my “Chicken a La King” as the cowboy absently chewed his meal between sentences.
The next morning, though there had been little sleep, our group was in unusually high spirits as we enthusiastically waved good-bye to the cowboy. There were smiles and the exchange of knowing glances as we watched our guest ride back over the plateau from which he had mysteriously materialized. We were careful not to discuss the events of the previous night in front of the leaders, but wondered privately how the cowboy would react when he discovered the array of creative gifts and notes that were thoughtfully added to his packs.
As the journey came to an end, we neared the canyon and encountered increasing numbers of people. At one point we assisted in the search for a lost child who, as it turned out, had gone fishing. We found him not far from his campsite, patiently waiting for the big catch. The heavy pounding of water from the rivulet where he had stopped had drowned out all other noises, including his parents’ anxious calls. It was a moving reunion when we brought him into the campsite. We had done something very important and we felt big.
We were discussing the pros and cons of being super heroes when we began to descend into the canyon. The trail was narrow and steep, cut from the cliff that dropped precipitously to our left. Though our packs were heavy and the path steep, we felt confident in our abilities to hike down. We had developed legs of steel, lungs that could handle thin air at high altitudes and recently, the ability to rescue children. We were truly incredible! At that moment, Kryptonite would not have been a big deal.
The path narrowed further as it descended into the gorge and we passed several groups of tourists who were plastering themselves against the rock wall as they squeezed by us, ascending to the beautiful waterfalls above. Surprisingly, some began to pull their shirts up over their noses. From nowhere came a comment, like a shot exploding a balloon: “Hey, you people REALLY STINK!”
At first there was some speculation about who “you people” referred to. We stopped and looked around. I remember taking in the form of my handsome six-foot friend whose shoulder length hair had not been brushed in weeks and the rubber band that held it was permanently caught up in a bramble bush of a ponytail. Socks and underwear hung from the bar on the back of his backpack, carefully drying. They were anything but white.
As it dawned on us that we were the odiferous culprits, more comments came. “Where have you folks been? What are you doing? Are you part of some special group or something?” We continued hiking down, answering questions as we went – a parade of tanned, smiling, high spirited backpackers. We were anxious to reach the floor of the canyon, and in particular, we couldn’t wait to eat!
I will never forget the experience of entering civilization. What had seemed unremarkable before our time in the backcountry had afterwards become a miracle. The 25-mile per hour park shuttle bus had become a super fast flying machine as it screamed along the perfectly smooth roads of the canyon floor. We experienced the ecstasy of a hot shower. Milk was like the richest vanilla shake on earth, and a steak with real mash potatoes was better than anything that I have since consumed at the four-star restaurant Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia. The day was a feast for the senses.
During our last night together, we slept as a group on a bed of pine needles. Our sleeping bags and ensolite mats were tightly packed together forming a mosaic floor under an infinite celestial roof. It was a bittersweet time. We had already exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Some would be leaving before light; some would be staying on to rock climb. Others would visit friends in the area before heading home. I was filled with reflection. I thought about the Student Conservation Association application that I had completed months ago. No brochure, no information pamphlet, no pictures could ever have described the impact that this experience had had on me. I knew that I did not want to leave these people. I concentrated on the moment in a futile effort to slow time itself, because I so desperately did not want this incredible journey to end.
The next morning, I absently boarded the wrong bus to Fresno. I did not see the brilliantly blue sky or the mountains that sailed by as I left the park. I was in another place. I was sliding down a water chute and dropping four feet into a pristine pool of glacier fed water. I was helping a friend cut down a limb. I was dressing someone’s blisters. I was banging pots and pans together at four in the morning to frighten away whatever it was that had gotten into my tent. I was a member of a group doing something valuable. I was happy.
I do not know why I reached into my daypack. Perhaps I wanted the remains of the donut from breakfast. Perhaps I had decided to read. As I hunted blindly for what I wanted, my hand fell upon something hard and small. I smiled in recognition and withdrew a piece of granite. It was perfectly round; ground smooth from flowing waters and sand. I tried to recall when we last crossed a streambed and who might have picked it up. I dug in my pack again for any other items and withdrew a note. Slowly I opened it and read the words “So that you won’t forget.”
I never have.
© 2002, Joanna M. Bassert
Joanna Bassert, VMD, is Professor and Director of Veterinary Technology at Manor College, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. She lives happily with her family in the woods.
With a Roving Crew in Yosemite, 2003 [Yosemite National Park, CA], Brian Quarrier, The Putney School (Putney, VT), ‘05
I was sixteen years old in 2003 and not sure what I wanted to do in life. I left in the middle of the summer for Yosemite National Park in California, and it was there that the SCA helped change me into who I am today. I had grown up knowing about SCA because my mother had participated in an SCA project in 1972 when she was in high school. When I was thirteen my mother, brother and I went to the North Cascades National Park in Washington and saw the bridge that had been built by her SCA crew. It was very impressive to see something that my mom had helped construct. I think it was even more rewarding for my mother to see that same structure still standing so many years later.
Since I wasn’t much of a hiker in middle school, it wasn’t until I did SCA that I truly began to love the outdoors. My older brother was much more into the outdoors and hiking, so of course as the younger brother I had to hate it. However, something in me decided to apply to SCA. I wanted to challenge myself and I signed up for the most difficult crew that I could. I was placed in Yosemite National Park on a roving crew. This meant that we were not located at a base camp and had to carry all of our tools throughout the trip; we hiked over 100 miles of trails. Our task was to restore illegal campsites back to their wilderness state. We became experts in planting rocks and removing dead trees. We found ways to hide charcoal in burnt trees. The work was hard but satisfying. At the end of the day we would all be covered with dirt and sweat, and a sleeping bag never felt so good. We ended up removing 174 illegal campsites.
When I was invited to write this essay, I pulled out the old journal that my SCA crew had kept that summer. Here's one of my entries:
"Day 18: Buzz is the best!! Today Buzz came to resupply us. He came with two mules and a lot of food. We had grilled cheese, fish, squash, and tomato soup. It was so good! We caught five fish as well. This morning we cleaned up eleven illegal campsites around Gorse Lake; there weren’t supposed to be any, but we found eleven just on the front side of the lake. Then we hiked to Crescent Lake and we made a record clean up of twenty-four sites! We found some awesome locations there. There was a really cool one that was out on a point and had a sweet view."
The friendships I made with other crew members that summer were incredible. By the end of our project we were one big family.
SCA fostered my love for the outdoors. Because of my positive experience I started seeking out similar opportunities. Every summer throughout college I worked in the hut system of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which kept me outdoors. In my work as an environmental science teacher at Darrow School in New Lebanon, NY, I encourage my students to participate in the SCA and other conservation organizations.
I can easily say that the SCA was one of the best things that I did in high school. It fostered my love for the outdoors, taught me backcountry ethics, how to work cooperatively with others and how to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.
Working and Playing in Yellowstone, 1982, Ru Amagasu, George School Class of 1984
My trip began as it will for many of you – with a presentation in the George School auditorium. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of the students who introduced the Student Conservation Association to me . . . but I do remember their stories. We heard of trips to the beautiful wilds of Alaska and Maine. We heard of long hikes, of building and painting a new ranger station, of trail improvements along a high mountain ridge, and of new friendships. The slides took us to places where, only weeks before, fellow students had stood at the peaks of mountains and above massive rivers. The “stage” for these pictures was stupendously gorgeous mountains, trees, and skies. However, the photos showed something more . . . something much more – for amidst the slides were the photos of smiling, somewhat grubby, strongly chummy teams piled person on person. I was going, I knew it then. This is my story:
The application was an easy affair. The only question I pondered for a moment was location/park selection. I asked Pete Miles, our Student Conservation Association sponsor and English teacher, about my choice. He said it was a popular location. I reasoned that many others would either think the same or be counseled in the same manner. I knew I was going to the great big park with the faithful geyser, the bubbling pits, and the trout. I chose Yellowstone National Park for preferences #1, #2, and #3.
Bozeman - Land of the Big Sky:
After a half summer of Pennsylvanian work and training hikes, two of us arrived in Bozeman, MT in mid-July. It had been a long trip from Philadelphia. Although I was travelling alone initially, I spotted a fellow team member with an identical SCA arm patch on the Chicago leg of our trip West. We became fast friends – I the Japanese-American from New Hope, and he a Jew from New York City. We were learning the trials of modern air travel. Our initial flights had been delayed, re-routed, then cancelled. We overnighted and arrived in Bozeman a day late and a full twelve hours behind the rest of the team. We were to depart immediately in order to catch the team in Yellowstone the next day. With our supervisor Carroll at the wheel of his light blue diesel Rabbit, we headed south. The sky was bigger than any sky I had ever seen before. We drove through the night. I must have slept.
We arrived just after dawn at the Heart Lake trailhead in southeast Yellowstone Park. Without much fuss, we were off into the woods. The landscape was amazing. We passed through stands of trees, some probably 200 feet high to the canopy. The stands were mature and open and inviting. Animals scurried about. We popped in and out of the trees all day. The air was cool and fragrant in the woods. The air was warmer and busier in the fields. Some fields had knee high grasses, others had smaller trees and brush. Others meandered with a stream. It was only later that I realized that the fields and the woods, just like people, mature and grow and change. I sensed the different moods of the land as we plodded along. Fruitlessly, I looked for bigger animals - deer, bear, moose. Maybe we were too noisy. Although I remember peace, I also remember that we moved fast – we had to. I had never seen clouds of mosquitoes before. Over time, our skins toughened and I learned to love the smoke of the fire.
Heart Lake - meeting the team & fishing:
We caught up with the rest of the team at the campsites of Heart Lake. We were introduced to each other. We were twelve in number, five boys, five girls, Carroll, and his fellow supervisor Maggie. It was here that we would spend a couple of days acclimatizing to this type of life. Our base camp would be established elsewhere, but it would be a few days before our heavy gear was brought in by pack horse.
I was intrigued by the lake. Sad but true, the fish called me. At that time in my life I realized I had a much better chance of landing some fish than making the affections of the little dark maned Italian girl. In any case, I had bought my first fly rod and gear for this trip and the time had come to try them out. Under my bare feet, the rounded gravel was relatively comfortable; on the other hand, the water was not. Being glacially and spring runoff fed, the summer lake water temperatures probably never rose much above 40 degrees. The fish weren’t taking what I was offering and I was getting cold, so I chose to explore.
Down the shoreline a half mile I found something puzzling – a warm stream. Evidently, a hot spring lay hidden in the shrubs and its water fed into the lake. I then noticed that other springs welled up from the bottom of the lake with distinct color changes lining the bottom. With glee, I stripped off my boots and waded out. At least if I were going to fish, I might as well fish with some comfort. This comfort seeking was to my lucky benefit.
Looking into the beautifully clear waters, I saw fish seeking the same comfort as I. At the transition of the warm water to cold, there was a shallow drop-off. And there the fish lurked. With noses to the warm water and 40 feet away, the trout finned about watching for something to eat. I was so excited I fumbled with my flybox searching for a good fly. It was all I could do to stop my shaking long enough to tie on a minnow imitation. An hour later I had caught three fish, one quite large, and having released them all, headed back to camp after a most enjoyable quest.
On our second day at the lake we hiked to a fire tower at the top of a nearby peak and learned that hiking a slow steady pace is better than a faster one with more rest stops. At the top we had a July snowball fight and improvised snow cones with lemon tang for a treat. The views were glorious and the lookout was glad to have the company.
The Hike with the Purple Bikini:
Our base camp was to be at the confluence of the Snake and the Heart Rivers. I had heard of the Snake River by watching Evil Kneivel attempt a jump over it. In Evil’s attempt, that river was huge and was a grand canyon with a large river down below. At our base camp, the Snake River was a large stream 60 to 70 feet across. Our hike to this camp took a day from Heart Lake. I titled this section as I did because one of our female companions, the cute Italian girl, was a standing knock-out and wore a fabulous bikini on this part of the trip. My fellow male companions and all hikers coming the other way didn’t much notice anything else over those miles of trail.
Our camp had four tents for sleeping and one dining fly. To keep the delectables from creatures of the wood, our food provisions were either submersed in the river or hung from the trees 20 feet up. On the business side of things, our latrines were dug on the outposts of our campsite.
We centered all our efforts from this station. It was our reference. With work and with play, we would scatter in all directions, but all roads led back to camp. The fire was for cooking, warmth, light, and keeping the mosquitoes at bay. For me, tearing because of the smoke was preferable to donating to the native blood suckers. Most nights after dinner, we all hung around the fire and swapped stories.
Life was efficient and enjoyable. Although we would work six of seven days while at this camp, we mixed things up with fun, too, with a “biggest log” cutting event, and a special meal here and there. Later, as we got to know each other better, there was even some skinny dipping. The rivers were really cold, but the distractions made the idea of a bath a lot more appealing.
Our work task was to re-route a section of trail uphill from where it currently existed. As the trail stood, it was fine but would get washed out every spring. While a couple of people blazed the new trail and added new markers, the rest of us wielded pick axes, pulaskis, hoes, shovels, saws, and clippers. We cut soil to be sure the trail drained well, and we trimmed trees so the people on horseback would not be swept from their mounts. We even spent a couple of days building a rock transition in and then out of a small ravine. All of us worked hard during the day, returned to camp, cooked and ate, finished chores, and then took to some well earned personal time.
We all had our outside interests – some read, some wrote, some talked, some listened. For me at that time in my life, I couldn’t fish enough. I loved finding the fish, seeing the fish, catching the fish. Sometimes, we even ate a few. They were the most beautiful and healthy fish I have ever seen. One evening after a spell of bad luck, a huge horsefly came to take a chunk out of my left arm. I smacked him hard and he fell into the water’s edge. A large shadow moved from the bottom and snatched the meaty snack from the surface. With my jaw agape, I slowly backed away from the edge, gathered my wits, and tied on a big “horsefly” imitation. I was an anticipating, nervous wreck…again. Without hesitation, he rose again to the fly, and slurped it in. He was mine but for a short moment. After admiring his colors and shape, I released him back to his lair.
The Big Hike:
After almost three weeks of work, we finished re-routing the trail. After breaking camp, we headed home, the long way. Our path criss-crossed the Continental Divide in the mountains to our East and North. We traveled some 70 miles back to civilization. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. In many ways, we were spoiled for all time.
Our heaviest day was about 18 miles. We dudes “watered” both sides of the divide in one shot, and we meandered through fields of red Indian paintbrush and baby blue lupine. We climbed above timberline and amongst rocky crags. The whole world seemed to lay out ahead of us. We ate heartily from our stores of dried foodstuffs. We three fishermen stalked Mariposa Lake and felt guilty that the fishing was so good. We all ate fresh brook trout that night. The stars were stupendous. We were told that we should not hurt ourselves here – we were as remote as we would ever be – 32 miles from any road – so any broken legs or ankles would require an airlift.
We traveled a hundred yards apart from each other to enjoy the tranquility – a leader in back and one in front. We all walked a single pathway homeward bound.
Life After Yellowstone:
My Yellowstone SCA trip is full of fond memories – spectacular scenery, gigantic moose sharing the same trail, fresh bear tracks, fishing, a bikini, and fresh bread. But the trip was more than a time of mere freedom and exploration. It was a succession of profound life-changing types of eventsfor me. No, I didn’t win the girl, or fight off any great threatening bears, but I did come to understand myself better and that of myself in a much larger world than I had ever known. For within the month, through the itchy pervasiveness and doggedness of the hungry mosquitoes, I came out a leather skinned and tanned young man. Sure, it took a lot of scrubbing to clean up afterwards, and almost all my possessions smelled of smoke through and through….but if you asked me if I could have had a better trip at a better time in a better place
. . . I would honestly say “no.”
Along with this experience, and through my lessons from the Boy Scouts and a supportive grandfather and father, I learned a great deal. My trip contributed to my own life satisfaction in ways that I am still discovering. Perhaps it can be the same for you.
Sign up if you are at all curious:
If you are at all curious, if you have one inkling of interest, I strongly encourage you to ask questions and share your thoughts with your friends and family. Some may be supportive, some may not. But listen to your heart. If the application calls, fill it out. Don’t let any of this fool you – SCA is not for everyone; it’s for people on their way to adulthood who have an adventuresome spirit. In a way, my experience with SCA was very George Schoolian: Members were heterogeneous, we were a community, and a team. We all took turns taking care of what needed to be done, making dinner, gathering firewood, hanging the foodbags out of harm’s way
. . . or digging a new latrine. Our “needs” were small, our “wants” diminished. In many ways, we as individuals became smaller and our planet bigger. The stars were bright and our sleep was deep.
Our supervisors were athletic, capable, and candid. They treated us as adults, cared for us, and earned our respect as we did our best to earn their respect. The rest of the team included two jocks, a pampered blond, myself, the NY Jew, a sweet and diminutive girl, the Italian bombshell, and a Kansas farm boy. They all became friends who, like my SCA experience, I will forever hold dear.
Good hiking to you.
It's the Journey that Really Matters [Mount Rainier National Park, WA], Evan Escamilla, Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI), ‘09
My internship with SCA began serendipitously. As a recent business and Spanish graduate I felt somehow left behind during tough economic times, as many of my classmates were moving on to begin their careers. I found myself standing in front of an SCA recruiter who offered me a chance to gain life experience at a time when every other recruiter was rejecting me for a lack of work experience. Impulsively I accepted a position that led me on a road trip across the country from Michigan to Mount Rainier National Park . . .
After nearly six months at Mount Rainier, I can look back to overnight trips to fire lookouts and hikes into the back country with friends and sometimes by myself. I challenged myself both mentally and physically, most notably when I reached the summit of Mount Rainier with two others after climbing for nearly 24 hours over two days. During those months filled with adventure, learning, and fond memories, I received both gratitude and respect from politicians, volunteers, and visitors alike for my work promoting and protecting our national parks. As a coordinator of volunteers at Mount Rainier National Park, I saw many of the park's programs firsthand, including the rerouting of the Glacier Basin Trail, and came to appreciate the vital roles volunteers play: In the 2010 season, 1,900 volunteers contributed 75,000 hours of service to the park.
In numerous retellings of climbing Mount Rainier across its glaciers and their crevasses, I was surprised to find myself barely mentioning the moment when I stood on the summit. Instead, I spoke of the mental and emotional challenge; of the breathtaking views at that altitude; and of the bears, mountain goats, ice fields, endless meadows of wildflowers, and pristine mountain lakes in the high country. Perhaps for the first time I began to believe that there may be some truth to the saying, "It's not the destination but the journey that really matters."
During my first two months I endured tantalizing lessons in patience when I took long hikes up to a viewpoint blanketed in a thick heavy cloud completely blocking my view of the iconic mountain. Out of necessity I began to learn the names of trees and flowers. By focusing on my peaceful surroundings, I often found my mind wandering to intimate thoughts coming to me clearly and without distractions from external influences.
The passage of time in a national park like Mount Rainier is measured differently from the time in our instant culture. The rocks forming the mountains have been in place for thousands and sometimes millions of years; there are places where you can walk among living cedar and fir trees over a thousand years old, and even bear grass takes five to seven years to produce its flower. In an environment where resources are scarce, competition is high, and progress is slow, it can be hard to ignore the similarities to life after college. Indeed, the only real chance any living thing has at achieving success is by benefiting from their neighbors through symbiotic relationships.
If in truth the "journey" is more important than the "destination," then I take great comfort in knowing that my SCA internship at Mount Rainier has marked the first steps towards my journey on the path less traveled with the destination unknown.
The mountains of the North Cascades are like no others I've experienced. Even driving through the range on its only highway can be a vertigo inducing experience. The road hangs precipitously to the mountainsides under a sky hemmed in by imposing snow-capped crags with names like Desolation, Fury, and Terror. The mountains are forbidding, and so impossibly steep that summit trails here are often climbed almost as much with the hands as with the feet.
When it wasn't raining, the Cascades had been the site of many family camping trips as well as the backdrop to my childhood in Seattle, changing from green to white through the seasons and helping create the oh-so-enjoyable year-round moisture for which Seattle is noted. They were also a source of wonder. What was contained in the great mysterious green swath dividing the damp coast and the dry Great Basin? I decided to find out, and so did seven other youths from all corners of the country.
My crew's field season began in early June 2005 before school let out, giving me a wonderful excuse to miss finals. I met my partners at the SCA office in central Seattle, and I remember being struck by the group's diversity. The other members included another Seattle native; a British chap from Los Angeles; two dudes from Maryland - one a preppy, the other a nerd; a drama geek from Miami; a girl from Kalamazoo; a quiet girl from suburban St. Louis, and our crew leaders, a supremely competent Canadian couple with a taste for the ridiculous.
Our work was varied; for the first two weeks we actually lived and worked in Canada. We were boated via Park Service landing craft up Ross Lake, an immense fjord-like lake extending north over the border into British Colombia, where we scouted and built a new trail in Manning Provincial Park, maintained twenty or so miles of existing trail, baked fresh bread very day, and swam in the ice-cold Skagit River. Two weeks later, we crossed back south into the US through a border crossing consisting of an open gate. We took up residence on Cougar Island, a tiny rock in the middle of the lake, in the shadow of the massive glacier-encrusted Jack Mountain. We canoed and then hiked to work in the mornings, clearing downed logs and repairing trail on the approach to Sourdough Mountain, site of the fire lookout where Ken Kesey once served. Our work was punctuated by interactions with deer, elk, and black bear, one of which ambled up the hill away from us only to sit cross legged on a log and watch us work. Late afternoons were spent jumping off cliffs into the bracingly cold water, and evenings were passed relaxing around the campfire. By the end of the month our seemingly disparate group had become like an extended family - the wilderness and hard work had really brought us together.
Five years later I realize how profoundly my participation in SCA has shaped my life. Largely due to my experience that summer I have continued working in conservation - first as a student, pursuing a degree in marine conservation at Prescott College; then as a trail crew leader for a local organization; and presently as a field biologist. But mostly, my work with SCA taught me to seek out wild places and to love them all.
My Calling to Work for SCA, By Kevin Kaiser, George School Class of 1979
Every once in a great while, perhaps just a few times in our lives, an opportunity is presented that speaks to us. Some may call it a fork in the road, or a calling to serve. The calling may be for family or loved ones in need of help, a religion, or perhaps your country. Whatever the circumstance, we know that when we contribute, it will have made a difference to those we have helped, and that somehow our lives will be changed by the experience. You will know when you see it, because you will feel deep down that it is something you must do.
My volunteering to work for the Student Conservation Association [SCA] was just such a calling, and it has influenced the direction that my life has taken ever since. I saw a school presentation directed by a teacher, Pete Miles, when I was 16 years old, a junior in high school, that introduced me to other students’ work experiences with SCA. I was in awe of the photographs and stories and the diversity of the work environments. One student may work in the Canyonlands of Utah, another at Isle Royal in Lake Superior, another in the Rocky Mountains. The diversity of park and wild lands in this country is truly amazing. I think that wherever the work assignment may lead, it will be rewarding.. During the summer of 1978, I chose to work in North Cascades National Park, Washington, where our student work crew built a log bridge over Park Creek, a rushing glacial river high in the mountains.
We worked on the bridge for a month, constructing it “cabin style,” with coped and notched joints, using mostly hand tools: axes, adzes, saws, chisels, shovels and wheelbarrows. The work was often hot and dusty. The mosquitoes at times were so relentless that fellow workers wore beekeeper head nets while they worked. We learned how to work together, challenging each other to the task at hand, moving many tons of soil and rock by wheelbarrow. We also learned to work smarter when the huge 40 feet long stringer logs were too heavy for the draft horses to pull across the river. We ended up climbing trees on the opposite side of the river, attaching steel cable to pulleys and hand operated winches, and hoisting the logs across with human power. The horses got a rest day. Yes, it was hard work, and as volunteers we did not get paid. But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
After our work on the bridge, we backpacked across the Cascade Mountain Range past glaciated peaks and through subalpine passes and meadows for about ten days. For the first time in my life I saw snow in the summer.
The following year I moved to Washington state to attend college, and worked three summers for the U.S. Forest Service. Having lived here for 23 years, I’ve enjoyed hundreds of days of hiking, climbing, skiing, and paddling in the backcountry. I have made a career out of woodworking and construction, and am now a manager for a construction company. In many ways this path began with my SCA work experience.
My highest recommendation to anyone considering SCA is this: If a small voice inside you says, “Yes, that’s what I want to do,” take the opportunity to experience this while you can. If it were at all possible, I would gladly do it all over again . . .
Transformation on the Tundra
By Simone Olivieri, Taconic High School (Pittsfield, MA), Class of 2008
The SCA crew that I went on from June 16th to July 19th 2007 changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly; I really went through a transformation during that time and have a different outlook on life, new values, and an unforgettable experience behind me. I volunteered with seven other exceptional high school students from all over the U.S. and two inspirational crew leaders in Alaska’s White Mountains National Recreation Area. Four thousand four hundred miles from home I helped build a new trail, was part of a close knit community, and hiked in the beautiful mountains of Denali National Park. I gained stronger leadership and interpersonal skills and came away with a greater sense of confidence and a better idea of myself and my aspirations. I now know that I want to preserve this planet and study the creatures on it: I’m planning to pursue a degree in environmental science or biology.
The trail building at times was grueling, but we learned how to have fun during the work day by playing word games and occasionally getting into mud fights. Trail work in Alaska is unusual because of the thick layer of tundra that you have to deal with. This “vegetative mat” stores water and makes for an especially mucky work site. We had to build drainage ditches and sump holes to drain the excess water. We worked on the side of Table Top Mountain, which consists
of a burned down forest that looks like a page out of a Dr. Seuss book. Some days we extracted boulders with our rock bars; sometimes we removed buckets of singed topsoil and dried out vegetation; other days we struck ice. We never did strike gold, although we were ever hopeful.
Our free time was spent in the river, at camp, or exploring the surrounding wilderness. Weather permitting, we would usually take an after work dip in the very cold river to cleanse ourselves of the workday evidence. The air temperature was mild and it was usually very sunny. The only negative part of trip was the mosquitoes. We were in constant battle against the little bloodsuckers. Spray and netting were necessities. Activities at camp including cooking dinner, fetching water, or relaxing in the bug tent. We often gathered in the bug tent for refuge, but also for artwork, carving, writing letters, reading, knitting, card gaming, and just plain talking.
Spending 24 hours a day with the same people allowed us to form strong bonds; we learned so much about each other. I found we connected because we were all passionate about the environment, yet each individual brought something new to the table based on our different backgrounds. We compared cities, schools, friends, music, restaurants, words, accents . . . In the land of the midnight sun, we found it easy to stay up for hours, laughing, having a good time,
and enjoying life.
Our AK 1 SCA crew spent the last five days of the trip hiking and camping in the wilderness of Denali National Park. This is where we saw the most wildlife, including moose, mountain goats, and marmots. Our bad singing and loud storytelling kept the bears away. We found excellent campsites and hiked up mountainsides, fighting our way through the tundra to find beautiful views from the windy, rocky summits. After three days in the Denali high country, we descended for a day hike to a glacier, which was my favorite part of our recreational trip. We walked on rocky, level ground beside a roaring river of glacial runoff, with snowcapped mountains surrounding us. As we neared the glacier, we discovered the power of silt. We stood on what seemed like solid ground until the silt started devouring our feet and we sank into the muck. On the glacier we were surrounded by spectacular ice walls which poured out cold air; it was like standing in a giant ice box, which was the natural equivalent to the Ice Museum that we had visited in Fairbanks a couple of weeks earlier.
Joining an SCA crew was one of the best decisions I could make. I almost didn’t go because of the length of time I would be away from home. But in those thirty-four days, I experienced more personal growth, learned more about the natural world, and had more adventure and fun than
I’ve ever had over the course of a few months. We’d gone to Alaska to help the environment,
but the environment helped us too. It made us better people and better stewards of our fragile planet. The whole experience and the people I shared it with will be a large part of me wherever
I go. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the transforming adventure that SCA offers.
Four Weeks in Paradise, Heath Piester, Taconic Hills High School (Craryville, NY) Class of 2001
When I first learned about the Student Conservation Association, I thought of working outdoors in a different part of the country and meeting new people. After I applied for last summer's program, I wondered where I might go and what the project would be like. In early May I received a note from SCA saying that all positions had been filled, but that I was guaranteed a spot for the summer of 2003.
It turned out my doctor was late returning my physical to SCA headquarters, where it arrived several weeks after my application, so a word of advice: Have your physical done as soon as possible, and keep checking with your doctor's office to confirm they've FAXED in your report. Your application is not complete without your physical.
The good news was that I received another letter from SCA inviting me to apply for a position in the Virgin Islands National Park from July 27th to August 29th. Well, I couldn't respond fast enough; from that moment, I was preparing to be part of an SCA crew in the Caribbean. And before I knew it, I was walking off the plane at St. Thomas Airport in the Virgin Islands to meet our crew leaders and the two other guys and three girls with whom I'd live and work for the next month. On this cold January morning, I think we’d all like to be in that tropical paradise right now. But it's pretty special any time of year.
From the Island of St. Thomas, we took a ferry to the Island of St. John where -- would you believe? -- we stayed in a park owned house overlooking Maho Bay. Talk about roughing it! Most of us had expected to be living in tents. I guess you could say we did all right with our awesome view of the bay, our easy walk to the beach, and the picture-perfect sunsets.
We spent a day or so with the national park rangers, who taught us about the wildlife, what wild fruits we could eat, etc., and assigned us our project of rebuilding several of the park's unmaintained trails. Our SCA crew's first task was to make our work plans: we decided three days on and one day off, which worked out great, since after three 8 hour days plus hiking to and from the job site, you need and deserve a break.
From our first day together, our common goal caused us to bond as a group and form close friendships, and it was this close bond that helped us get the job done repairing trails that had been reduced to rocks and ruts.
I'll walk you through a typical day. It rained a lot in the early morning. That's what makes a rain forest a rain forest! It also makes things very muggy and sticky, so carrying extra water to our work site was really worth it. A trail mix of Cheerios, chocolate candy, and peanut butter and jelly go a long way when you're on the trail, not to mention duct tape, which became a lunch time ritual. Your gear takes a beating when you're working: Either your gloves, or your pack, or your boots always need some attention.
The work was hard and sweaty, but it was satisfying going home over a smooth trail and knowing that we were responsible for making it a nice place to hike. Sometimes hikers would pass; they grinned in wonder at us hard hatted kids with our pick axes, rock bars, and water bottles. It was fun talking with them and seeing how much they appreciated our efforts.
Except for the occasional hikers, we were alone on the trail: It was just us, the work, and the forest, so we learned a lot about each other and about ourselves as well. By the end of our stay, we had rebuilt over ten miles of trail and hiked all the other trails on St. John.
Which brings me to our free time . . . On our days off, we'd hike, and kayak, swim, and snorkel in the crystal clear waters of Maho Bay. We also went snorkeling at night; it's an amazing experience to see the underwater world at night with the help of powerful lithium spotlights. Our national park ranger guides Leon and John took us on a boat ride around the island and took us hiking through the main rain forest on St. John. They often came to see our project, and it was obvious we had their respect.
Maho Bay on St. John hosts dozens of yachts and sailboats, and after the sun had set, the lights from the boats reflecting off the water were a beautiful sight. We also enjoyed the island's wildlife, especially the donkeys, iguanas, and lots of other colorful lizards . . . and then there were all the coconuts, mangoes, papayas and guavas which were waiting to be picked. I guess that's why they call this area the Virgin Islands: It's a paradise -- such a scenic, unspoiled, and magical place, and we felt privileged to be able to go there and help maintain it.
The motto of the Student Conservation Association is "changing lives through service to nature." SCA was certainly a basic life-changing experience for me. Here are some of the things I got from my experience last summer:
• SCA broadened my outlook on work and on the world;
• Meeting and living with people of different outlooks and interests have made me a better person. I learned how to get along with other people's styles and habits, and to appreciate their viewpoints;
• I've seen firsthand the importance of cooperation in getting a job done; and I've gained the confidence to do whatever I want to do in life. I take more pride in my work -- both in my job and what I do for others.
• And finally, my SCA experience has helped me realize what I'd like to do with my life, which is to be a forest ranger or conservation officer. Both of these jobs are important to our state and national forest and park systems.
Aside from the fact that SCA is tuition free, I 'd recommend it to you because: I think anyone who loves the outdoors would like the experience SCA offers; it's a great way to help make the world a better place; participating in SCA can give you, as it has given me, a greater sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. I find I'm stronger in character: I'm stronger mentally, just as I'm stronger physically.
To sum up: Was it hard ? Yes it was. Was it fun? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Definitely! The same opportunity to do an SCA project is there for all of you. Go for it!
Getting Down and Dirty with SCA, Shauna Foster, Chatham High School (Chatham, NY) Class of 2003
About this time last year I was thinking about what I wanted to do in life, and I have always had in mind something beyond four walls and a desk. Since I was very young, I have been going on trips such as rock climbing, caving, rappelling, and camping. I have had a lot of experience with the environment and outdoor activities. My parents have run outdoor programs, and I was expected to scramble up rock faces and head underground before I reached kindergarten. So, when my mom brought home an SCA Conservation Crew application, I was thrilled. My family gathered all sorts of gear for me and I held my breath for the time to come. At the time, I didn’t realize the impact SCA would have on me.
My experience started at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, CT, on July 9th of last year. As I walked into the airport, I found myself face to face with a motley group of strangers, who were all psyched for the coming month. My crew consisted of three girls (including myself), three boys, and two coed crew leaders. Before we headed to our first location, a section of the Appalachian Trail on the MA and CT border, the leaders lightened my pack of the antibacterial wipes and power bars my grandmother had given me; I had to learn to live a simple life.
The first site would prove to be somewhat challenging. To get to the campsite, we had to hike about 1.5 miles, which doesn’t sound too difficult until you have to carry a full pack up the steep terrain three times! We had to do this to create our base camp, which would become our home for the next ten days.
Each morning at 6:30, we had to hike two miles from our campsite to our work site. Although this might sound like torture to some of you, it actually proved to be one of the best parts of the day. You are able to see and hear the wildlife of the backcountry without the distractions of civilization. When we arrived at the work site, we started by taking out our tools (rock bars, pick axes, shovels) and gloves, all of which we had stored on site. Some advice: If you do SCA, get a good pair of leather work gloves; they will be used a lot. Each day our goal was to complete a section of the assigned project, like removing obstacles from the trail and working on stone steps. We learned that you have to be patient, utilize your problem solving skills, and work through certain situations. Sometimes our crew would spend several hours trying to fit a particular rock in place, only to throw it out and try another one. This kind of work is hard but worthwhile; you get a sense of accomplishment once you’ve finished and can see what you’ve done. Some of our time was actually spent looking over our project in awe, thinking, “WOW, we made that!”
Not all of the work is pure sweat, blood, and toil, however. You also get to have a lot of fun and joke around. We enjoyed hanging out after a hard eight hour day. Usually we would play cards, read books, or just enjoy each other’s company. We also met ridge runners and through hikers who would stop to share a meal and a story with us. One time we took a candid shot of Danny under a boulder. He was pretty nervous lying there, considering the boulder weighed more than he did. And then there was the time we ran into some adjudicated youth who were completing a solo project. One boy must have done something really bad because his solo was located next to our bathroom. We nicknamed him “Privy Boy.” He was really glad to see us.
While you work you also form friendships with all of your crew members. Since you spend every minute of an entire month with the people in your group, you get to know them like your own family. I was fortunate to be part of a wonderful group whose dynamics meshed perfectly.
Out in the woods you have to be willing to get “down and dirty.” After a while dirt becomes part of you. You sleep in it, eat in it, sit in it, and work in it. Since there was no running water at either of our sites, water was a precious commodity. Each of us had to take turns hiking down to the trickle we called a stream, to fill up our 10-gallon water jugs, which then had to be lugged back up to the campsite. We didn’t have showers; I learned there are more important things than shaved legs, clean hair, and smelling good.
By the time we had moved to our second AT site at Upper Goose Pond, everyone was familiar with each other, and we knew each other’s moods and habits. This made working easier because we were able to pair into groups for efficiency. At this site we were doing the same type of work that we had done earlier, except that the rocks were bigger. This required a lot of teamwork and communication skills, which I know will help me in many aspects of my life. The end product of all our labors was very exciting. We had rebuilt large sections of the AT with the mastery of professionals, or so we liked to think. I am particularly proud of the rock stairs that I built with Andrea.
After we finished at the Goose Pond location, we were ready for our rec trip. Our group decided to go on a three day backpacking trip. I know this sounds nuts, but when you work on the AT for a long time, you want to experience it even more on your time off. It was a wonderful experience to be able to do the outdoor activities you love, with the people you have bonded with throughout the trip. I believe I learned more about my fellow crew members than I have about some of my friends I’ve known for years. Besides being the reward for a job well done, the rec trip is also when you start to say your goodbyes. The hardest part of our month together was not the work or long hikes, but ending such a wonderful experience and going home. Of course you miss your family, but you also know you will miss the quiet of the outdoors, the satisfactions of work on the trail, and the friendships you’ve made.
I found the program to be so rewarding that I plan to do a second Conservation Crew this summer, and then take a year off to do a half to a yearlong Internship with SCA. Even though I grew up in a family that loves the outdoors, the month I spent with SCA has given me a connection to the Earth that our family’s day trips could not provide. Last summer’s experience and my future SCA projects will become memories I will share with my children and grandchildren. Life is short. I encourage you to take advantage of the time you have and experience what the world and SCA have to offer.
Leading SCA Crews in the Smokies, Nancy Starmer, Head of School, George School, Newtown, PA
In the mid 1970s, my husband Jack and I spent two summers leading SCA groups in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In our mid-20s, with three or four year of high school teaching and dormitory experience plus several years of camp counseling behind us, we found ourselves challenged and stimulated by the responsibilities entailed in this work. It was a wonderful learning experience for us – in fact, our two summers with SCA have had a lasting impact on us as parents and educators.
Our “official” project in the Smokies those summers was a fish survey, which took us up into the headwaters of many small streams armed with what the kids came to call “zap sticks”, rods that conducted a mild electrical current that would stun the fish long enough for us to net, weigh, and count them. When we weren’t working with the biologists on the fish survey, we worked with park rangers maintaining trails.
Our students came from all over the country, and since it was our responsibility to read all of the applications and select the group, we were gratified to be able to say at the end that both groups were not only hard working and lots of fun, but got along well with each other and were strong ambassadors for the SCA with both park personnel and the many visitors we encountered in our work. One of the most surprising things we learned in the Smokies was how many people visit this park each year, and how hard it is for the always limited park staff to serve them and the needs of that remarkable environment well.
I have many fond remembrances of our experiences with the SCA volunteers, but [I’ll focus here] on our experiences as leaders. First, the SCA gave us real responsibility and autonomy. As I already mentioned, we selected our own group of volunteers. We met with park personnel in the spring to plan our projects, ordered and packaged all of our food (I still have memories of a production line of freeze-dried vegetables, blocks of cheese, bottles of herbs, etc., in the kitchen of the boarding school dormitory where we lived), and were responsible for ordering and maintaining all of the equipment we would use. It was largely through our work with SCA, then, that we learned the ins and outs of planning back-country trips, something my husband still does regularly in his work with international medical camps and is a skill we’ve utilized many times over the years with school groups or on our own family trips.
In addition, our experience with SCA put us in touch with a group of adults, many of them teachers like we were, who were also interested in service, the environment, and the value of outdoor programs for young people. In those days the leaders met yearly in March in Denver, where everyone would show slides and talk about their experiences and the goals of the program. We learned a great deal from them and a great deal that we would never have known about the National Park Service.
After two years with the SCA, family commitments steered us toward more settled summer projects, but we’ve maintained a love of the outdoors, an interest in the National Park system, and a strong belief in the value of this kind of program ever since. I would strongly encourage other teachers or adults who might have time to devote to these projects in the summer do to so through the SCA.
Reflections on an SCA Summer, Emily Schottland-Royo, George School Class of 1978
Sometime in my childhood – My only overnight outdoor camping experience was cut short by a severe allergy attack while in the woods with my girl scout troop. I was sent home in the middle of the night in an ambulance and was convinced I would never ever feel early morning dew fresh on my face. Ever. I was destined to only experience the joys of a sleeping bag at slumber parties. Until….
Spring, 1977 – I walked into my house, home for the weekend from George School, and my twin sister met me at the door, dangling an open envelope in front of me. “So,” she said, “Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that you didn’t get into your first choice SCA program. The good news is that you got into your second (and third!) choice program.” With that we both shrieked, hugged and danced around the hall. My first choice, an East coast location, had been a compromise with my mother (“I don’t want you hanging off of some cliff”) while my second and third choices (which I listed as one and the same) was Bryce Canyon in Utah, my real first choice. So, there it was, I was on my way to Utah and I was ecstatic.
June, 1977 – I went shopping with my brother for a backpack and a sleeping bag for my SCA trip. I put the empty pack on my back and it already felt heavy and awkward to me. I imagined it filled with 30-40 pounds of stuff and I thought I was going to faint.
July, 1977 – I said good-bye to my mother at Newark Airport and waited to board my first of three flights that was to take me to Utah. I spent most of my time in the bathroom.
Later that day -- O’Hare airport was unbelievably huge and I found my connecting flight without making a single wrong turn. I thought to myself, “I can do this!”
Again, later that day – Lying on a bench in the airport with my eyes closed after a third, very harrowing , very nerve-wracking flight, missing everything about my home in New Jersey. My new-found confidence from Chicago was gone. Period. A gentle, tall woman with short blond hair said, “You have to wake up now. We have a three hour van ride to Bryce and a mile-long hike to our campsite, and we’d like to do it all before nightfall.” I was seriously doubting my decision. For one of the first times in my adolescence I was wondering why I hadn’t listened to my mother.
Nightfall – It was by far the easiest mile I had ever walked, and I was in the most beautiful place in the world and I was okay. More than okay. I was deeply, serenely happy.
Next day – Dug “outhouses” behind the campsite on the slope to the west of us. It took me a while to get used to being winded just walking to the loo. Still deeply, serenely happy. In fact, I could have said that on any day at any moment in my three week stay at Bryce.
Work detail – It primarily involved repairing a five mile stretch of barbed wire fence along the border of Bryce Canyon National Park. Contrary to my pre-conception of spending most of my days toiling in the dry parched sun-bleached land of the canyon, we spent most of our days in the cool beautiful forest surrounding the canyon. (The canyon was to be ours during our week-long backpacking expedition). Our campsite was located right at the foot of the fence that needed repair, so initially we worked where we were camping. By the end we had a healthy five mile walk to and from our work site. Walking ten miles a day and working in between and I still thought I was the luckiest person on earth. Yes, I, Emily, who thought setting the dinner table was too much work and wearing long-sleeve shirts and jeans in the middle of the summer was a fate left to others.
Weather and Friends – About a week into our program, a monstrous thunderstorm overtook our campsite in the middle of the night. We only had one tent, the cook tent, so in pitch blackness we grabbed our sleeping bags and the twelve of us laid our bags down in every possible square inch of that tent. Nobody slept, everybody ate, and it was the best night of our lives. We poked our heads out of the cook tent at daybreak and saw a sky bluer than blue, and we knew we had become a group unlike any other. There was no turning back.
Backpacking – Spent the better part of the day preparing for our week-long backpacking trip. First day on (or off) the trail, we did an easy 9 miles. We made our campsite and I blissfully removed my hiking boot and two pairs of socks from my right foot. Before I could even reach for my left foot, a bee stung me on my second toe. My foot swelled up to the point I could only put on my hiking boot sockless and shoelace-less. Hiked 12 long strenuous miles the next day and only protested the last two, sockless and shoelace-less. Bryce was still the most beautiful place in the world. Day three we hiked up a very steep, very narrow trail. Just as I was doubting my very ability to put one foot in front of the other, we arrived at the most singular beautiful vista I’ve ever to this day seen. Open space as I could never have imagined and color as I never thought existed in the real world. To this day I only have to close my eyes to once again see that sight. Twenty five years later. Amazing.
Home – After three showers I was noticeably cleaner yet still noticeably dirty. I loved it. I knew I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to the most extraordinary three weeks in my life and I knew I didn’t have to as long as the dirt from Bryce was still defiantly and victoriously clinging to my body.
April, 2002 – Walking in Central Park with my six year old daughter who said the most special day for her would be to take a long walk with me in Central Park. Four hours later after lots of walking and talking and laughing and hand-holding, a jogger stops dead in her tracks and yells, “Dirtbomb!” (my nickname for my propensity to acquire dirt on the trail). Elizabeth Sands, one of my SCA Bryce Canyon buddies, was standing face to face with me. Twenty five years had passed and there we were, as if our time in Utah had just been yesterday. And, in a sense it was, because an experience like that lives with us forever and informs us in ways we don’t even know. Those of us who spent those three unbelievable weeks together all carry that experience within us and it can be awakened in an instant, as it was for me that day in Central Park and as it is for me right now as I write. To have those moments in life where what you put in comes back ten-fold in ways you could never imagine is a gift beyond words. In my life now I still seek out the SCA experience in whatever I do, to do what I never thought was possible for myself – to become a professional dancer after starting dancing at the age of 19, to be the blessed mother of two wonderful children, to have a life I value and love, however idiosyncratic it may be. Thank you, SCA.
Two Unforgettable Summers with SCA, Deborah Waddington Smith, George School Class of 1979
The Student Conservation Association was an awesome and rewarding experience for me. It has stayed with me all these years. It was one of those cornerstones among the building blocks of life. It was my journey into maturity. I went in small and came out big. I lost my fears of meeting strangers and of traveling to unknown places. It taught me to embrace the new, and I found out that I gained a great deal of strength by losing those fears.
There is an amazing energy that SCA students get from living in the wilderness. Part of this is the simplicity of your life. You carry on your back everything you need for three weeks, which includes what you’ll wear and what you’ll sleep in, the water that you’ve dipped from a stream, and the food you’ll cook over an open fire. My SCA projects took me into places of magnificent natural beauty where I met incredible people from all over the country who became close friends.
My first placement, in 1978, was in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park where we built six miles of switchback trail. We hung our food in a tree because bears were our neighbors. It was here that I saw my first baby bears, three of them up close and personal. The following year my project was in Olympic National Park. I was part of a small advanced group of SCA alumni that included an old friend from the Smokies. We rebuilt approximately twelve miles of twister-damaged trails high up on a mountain.
One early morning in Olympic Park I was dreaming of seagulls flying around me when our park ranger awakened us. He wanted us to see the herd of elk that had walked right into our campsite. Baby elk make a sound just like gulls and this sound had entered my dreams. To be so close, so present, to these beautiful wild creatures was thrilling.
We’d work six days and then have a day to rest, and that’s when I’d wander off to be by myself. One such day I climbed to the snow-covered mountain top, and sitting on a rock I had my first mystical experience. I looked down and saw that the insects and alpine flowers were moving as one. As I watched, they began to form a purposeful pattern, becoming like a line drawing, interconnected and interdependent. I then truly understood that I was one with everything, that we were one another. At a different time, while bathing in a glacial stream so white with powdered stone we called it mother’s milk, I found I could turn off the sensation of being cold with my mind. And so my shivering stopped.
I promised myself back then that I would become an artist, and so I did. Now, as a professional, I live that dream every day. Twenty years after capturing those elk in my memory, I captured them again, but this time in clay. These sculptures are now sold internationally in bronze.
During my two summers with SCA I learned a great deal about myself and about working with a group. I found out that work is fun and that you need to love your work. Those experiences gave me a deep love for the wilderness and a knowledge that our souls have to have those wild, open spaces for wholeness. I am consciously and subconsciously guided by these revelations every day. This is why I built my studio out in nowhere on the rocky coast of Maine. Most of my inspiration to sculpt comes from nature and natural beauty.
I will always be grateful to George School for understanding the value of such an experience and for making it available to me. It was life-altering and shaped my future. Together, George School and SCA helped launch me on my powerful journey in life.
In the Backcountry of Zion, Cindy Beltz Soltys, George School Class of 1982
My 1981 SCA project was a life-changing experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone, tested my endurance, and taught me that through hard work and creative thinking anything is possible. Preserving trails and enjoying the outdoors were just the beginning. That summer in the backcountry of Zion National Park in Utah did heighten my love for the outdoors, but it also stretched me in ways that have proven to be invaluable in conquering different life challenges. For example, in addition to sleeping under a seemingly endless array of stars, meeting new friends from across the United States, and working to preserve our national parks, I learned firsthand the importance of teamwork and even found myself (one of the most inexperienced hikers in our group) unexpectedly leading – on both trail projects and hiking trips that required some “out of the box thinking” to reach our destination. Good preparation, as it turns out, for life’s journey in the world of non-profits (I later worked for Eden Jobs helping people find employment in the inner city.).
SCA also gave me a rich appreciation for the blessing of our national parks here in the U.S. and the responsibility we all have to “Leave only your footprints, and take only your memories.” I was more than happy to leave behind the oatmeal, which we ate morning, noon, and night in Zion. But I am the richer for the memories of the amazing sunsets, vistas, friendships, and lessons that still guide me today. I am forever thankful for the teacher at my high school and all the others who made the experience possible. I hope my daughter will one day have the same opportunity.
SCA Expanded My Life, Heather Stiers-Dorn, George School Class of 1983
SCA was an experience that expanded my life in many ways – physically, intellectually, and culturally. While my SCA summer project was 20 years ago when I was a high school kid from Connecticut, I still remember the lessons I learned, hold dear the memories I had, and am still blown away by the amazing beauty of the place I was blessed to live in for three weeks.
Looking at the SCA national park list was like flipping through a travel magazine trying to decide where to spend my summer vacation. The only difference was mom and dad weren’t going to come along and I’d be with a bunch of kids my own age. The alternative to volunteering in a gorgeous national park was serving up doughnuts at the local doughnut shop for minimum wage. The decision was a no-brainer. The hard part was choosing which park. While I did not get any of my top three choices, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, Big Bend, I did get my fourth: “Anyplace.” I would be a member of a trail crew in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah.
After being accepted, my adventure began. Dressed in my hiking boots, wool socks, and backpack to break in my gear and build up my legs, I walked at our town beach around Coppertoned people dressed in bikinis. I boarded a plane for Las Vegas dressed for the backcountry (in case they lost my luggage) and sat amongst the three-piece suits with card decks practicing poker and 21. At that moment, living in the desert seemed like light years away. I stopped feeling like a sore thumb when I ran into a fellow George School student [Cindy Beltz ‘82] who was heading to a SCA project in Zion National Park. We were waiting for a puddle jumper in a remote area of the Las Vegas Airport, away from the one armed bandits. We talked about how strange it was to be starting our trips in the bright lights and fake facades of Las Vegas when we were heading into no man’s land. When the glow of Las Vegas diminished and our unpressurized airplane crossed the Grand Canyon and other awesome sights, I felt like I had entered another world.
I was met at the airport by a Mormon van driver who was to take me to Cedar City, UT, to meet the rest of my crew. The two hour plus lecture on the Mormon history of Utah and the Mormon religion I received was unexpected and very informative. As I listened to stories about the early Mormon explorers, I would gaze out the window at the scenery. It was not the Sub-Saharan like dunes I had imagined, but fields of sagebrush, tall grasses, and other vegetation.
Our diverse crew gathered in the Cedar City town square. We had Neal from the farmland of IL; Emily, an Asian-American from Chicago who had never camped; Turena, a farm girl from Lincoln, NE; Ben from Dover, MA; Ben from Princeton, NJ; David Weyerhaeuser from Minneapolis, MN; Charles Alexander from VA; a girl from Germany who lived in Kansas City, MO; a girl from Miss Porter’s School; and finally, myself, from CT. This group became family over my three weeks in the backcountry.
I wasn’t sure I was going to survive after the first 24 hours. Coming from sea level, I had not experienced altitude sickness before. Bryce is situated at an elevation of 8500 feet. We had to carry in all our tools and food to our base camp. The rakes, hoes, saws, shovels, coolers, and ammo containers (i.e. our toilets) seemed to take on added weight at altitude. I felt like maybe I’d made a mistake and I was not in good enough shape to do the job. But I was determined that I was no sloth. Once I got acclimatized and learned not to sleep with my head down hill so the blood would not rush to my head, life seemed a breeze.
We had a several work assignments. The first task was to rework the beginning of the backcountry trail to create switchbacks to prevent soil erosion. Another project was to build stairs to a generator. The last project was to cut down trees in the adjacent Dixie National Forest that would later be used in another SCA work project to build dams in dry river beds created from overgrazing in Dixie.
Lest you have any misconceptions, SCA did not provide us with a little cabin in the woods. We spent our three weeks not in cabins, not in tents, but under tarps – or should I say the best wide screen view of the solar system in all its glory? We were stripped of our watches, Walkmans, and anything our supervisors thought of as extraneous. We got up when the sun came up and went to sleep when the sun went down. Believe me, none of us had a problem going to bed when the sun went down. One could have a shower, but it meant you had to do a little work for it. First, you had go to the spring where you filled up a forest firefighter’s water bag. Then you had to carry the filled bag back up to camp, lay it in the sun, and pray it warmed up the water. Later you hiked the bag into the woods for privacy, hoisted it up a tree to create water pressure, and then had a nice cold shower while mosquitoes tasted your flesh. Needless to say, we loved the afternoon we got to swim in a lake.
The work was doable. Nobody was ever given a task they could not handle. Some jobs were not as glamorous as others – for example, removing the ammo cans for dumping. I learned an incredible amount about man’s impact on his environment, trail maintenance, botany, scatology, ecology, biology, camping, Leave No Trace, history – the list is endless – and in WHAT a classroom – an amphitheater of Mother Nature’s beautifully sculpted red rock formations! While I may not use what I learned every day, SCA has certainly impacted my life. I took my husband on his first backcountry hike in Olympic National Park more than 10 years ago. Now he is the Executive Editor of Backpacker Magazine.
My co-workers went on to Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, University of Nebraska, Smith, etc... and then onto rewarding careers. But I am sure, like me, every once in awhile they look back and remember what a great summer we had.
Our national park system is one of our greatest American treasures. Most people never get to see the national parks the way we got to see and experienced them. So pick up an application, fill it out, and send it in to SCA . . .
From SCA to Rockville Climbing Center, Clay Tyson, George School Class of 1981
At the age of sixteen, we hardly know what we want for breakfast, much less what we want to be when we grow up. I was just settling into a new life at George School as a boarding student when I found out about the Student Conservation Association and the volunteer programs it runs across the country. I had no way of knowing that, twenty years later, my experiences with SCA would connect me to my current career.
The previous summer, I had worked with the now defunct Youth Conservation Corps at Belleplain State Park in New Jersey, and was eager to continue my experiences working in the outdoors in our state and national parks. That might be overstating it. I wanted to get to the mountains and I had no other way to get there than to volunteer with SCA. I submitted my application and was selected to work in Arapaho National Forest, Colorado, with eleven other teens from across the country in the summer of 1980. I also applied for a grant to help fund my airfare and other expenses and was awarded funds from Dewitt Wallace, the founder of Reader’s Digest.
I arrived in the small mining town of Idaho Springs, CO, and met the eleven strangers with whom I would work, eat, and live for the next four weeks. We were from all economic, racial, and social backgrounds, an odd mix with no guarantees that we would be able to get along and cooperate in the high country of Colorado for the next month.
We were assigned to rebuild a seven mile section of neglected trail running from 8,000 to around 12,000 feet elevation. Our camp was perched on a hill over- looking Bear Track Lake and the sheer wall of the east side of Mt. Evans. The first light every morning was the sun’s reflection off the rock of Mt. Evans.
Our team was made up of six boys and six girls. Our leaders, a husband and wife team from Denver, were in their sixth summer of guiding SCA groups in Colorado’s high country. The second day in camp, the horse teams arrived with our provisions for the next month. When they left camp that afternoon, we had to settle in with the idea that for the next month, we would have almost no connection to the outside world.
After a day of setting up camp, we set to work on the trail. The work was hard and the days long. I had been working on various farms since the age of 13, so I was quite used to the physical demands of the job, but for some of my team- mates, this was a very new experience. Some of us did better than others, but we all supported each other and relied on those within the group with specific strengths. What seems now somewhat surprising is that we all became very close very quickly. There were none of the typical teen tensions one might expect. This, I’m certain, was a byproduct of living in the wilderness with a hard job to do and no realistic escape valve. None of us wanted to bail out before the job was done. Each found untapped strength and motivation that helped us succeed as vital individual members of a larger team.
Our assignment consisted of a variety of smaller projects linked together by the seven miles of trail we were rebuilding. We felled trees and built switchbacks into the hillside when the grade was too steep. On swampy sections of the trail we built French drains (stone reinforced shallow trenches filled with coarse gravel). Above tree line we built five foot cairns to mark the trail. This was grueling, boring work that went on for almost a week: carrying rocks and building towers that would guide hikers in the frequent late summer and fall snow storms.
During the second or third week, we took to dragging our sleeping bags out of our tents and sleeping under the stars. The meteor showers at 8,000 feet were like nothing I have seen since. We saw bright streaks, sometimes going from horizon to horizon, every minute or so.
By the end our three weeks of work and one week of backpacking over the continental divide, our friendships were as strong as the trail we had built. I remember very clearly the last night we spent together in Idaho Springs, trading stories and laughter over pizza at a local dinner spot. We each left with a part of the others clutched tightly to our hearts, knowing that we had just experienced something very unique and valuable.
So how did SCA connect me to my present career? My interest in the mountains blossomed into an interest in climbing during my college years. In my early thirties I started climbing in earnest, spending over 40 days a year pursuing all styles of mountaineering. After ten years in corporate sales and marketing, I found an opportunity to help open and run Rockville Climbing Center, a world class indoor climbing facility in Hamilton, NJ. A love of the mountains that was born in Arapaho National Forest in the summer of 1980 led me to my current position and an opportunity to get paid for doing something I truly love.
How SCA Changed My Life, Ernest C. Wong, ASLA, APA, Principal – SITE DESIGN GROUP, LTD.
George School Class of 1977
In this time of economic uncertainty, terrorist threats, possible war in the Middle East, and scandal in one of our country’s largest religious institutions, Americans continue to search for answers to our future. My family is precious to me. My friends are true to me. I find spiritual relief in my awe of our natural resources, brought on by my experiences with the Student Conservation Association.
1974 was a strange time in Chicago’s southside urban neighborhoods. The civil unrest brought upon us by the Vietnam era was just starting to diminish. Gangs, regardless of the political climate, were still very much in power. Drugs were prolific, and choices for young urban teenagers were few. Not much has changed in twenty-eight years.
After fifteen years of what I considered a turbulent life, the Student Conservation Association was suggested to me as an alternate way to spend part of my summer in 1974. My application to work on a trail crew in North Cascades National Park, Washington, was accepted and with new gear packed in my Kelty Tioga, I boarded the plane to Seattle.
With my “bad ass” over two thousand miles from home, among new people and in a new environment, an experience occurred that would forever change my life. The mountains, the hard work, and the joy of doing something constructive with other kids my age – all of this was totally contradictory to scamming something or someone, stealing, or dealing. The North Cascades were breathtaking; drinking water from a stream was mind boggling; being trusted to hold up my end of the workload was inspiring. After three weeks, I hated to leave . . .
My attending George School, a Quaker boarding and day school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, became yet another positive influence in my life, providing me with an opportunity to get beyond my troubles in Chicago and start over with no expectations of proving myself to others. Again, however, I craved the mountains, and in 1976 I found myself on a second SCA trail crew, this time in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The Rockies presented me with an epiphany about life and the miniscule scale we each play in a gigantic universe.
Today, I am a licensed landscape architect. The planning / urban design / landscape architecture firm that I founded in Chicago in 1990 continues to make a major impact in the city. We design new parks in brownfields for the Chicago Park District. We provide master plans for the Department of Planning as well as the Department of Environment. We design “campus parks” for the Chicago public schools and develop landscape guidelines for the Department of Transportation. I chose this discipline after trying the Fisheries and Wildlife program at Michigan State University. Inspired by my work with SCA, my dream of being Smokey the Bear fell short when I realized that statistics and microbiology were not my bag.
Landscape architecture is a way for me to give back to my urban community. It is an opportunity for me to educate about, advocate for, and celebrate nature in an urban setting. My SCA experiences live through me on a daily basis. I encourage my young children to respect and honor our natural environment, with hopes that they too will someday be inspired to participate in the Student Conservation Association, passing their dedication to our country’s natural heritage to the next generation.
SCA Helped Shape My Career, Nathan Jeremy Poage, George School Class of 1983
I spent this past Sunday – the last of April 2002 – hiking up and skiing down Mount Hood in Oregon. I now live in Portland, not far from Mount Hood, and work as a researcher studying old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. How I came to live within sight of Mount Hood is a tale that began for me as a high school sophomore over two decades ago when I worked as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
Early in the summer of 1981 I arrived in Seattle, Washington, after a three-day bus trip from the East Coast. I met up with my group of SCA volunteers in Seattle and – after sorting out packs, food, and supplies – we drove east and south for what seemed to be tens of miles of interstate highway and hundreds of miles of dirt road to Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier, located to the north of Mount Hood, dwarfed anything I had previously experienced growing up in the northeastern United States. Almost one-and-a-half miles taller than the highest peak in the Northeast, the summit of Mount Rainier is shrouded year-round by glaciers which feed the icy, rushing streams and rivers flowing from its mass. Lower in elevation than the glaciers, alpine meadows filled with an almost indescribable riot of flowers are revealed as the winter snows melt away during the brief summer.
I worked with my fellow SCA volunteers in the forest, below timberline. Our task was to construct a new backcountry ranger station at a site on the north side of Mount Rainier, half a day’s hike from the nearest trailhead. Using hand tools, rock, and (somewhat incongruously) logs flown into the park by helicopter, we spent three weeks building the foundation, floor, and walls of the cabin-to-be.
Although I have always liked working with wood and I loved the three weeks of work on the cabin, the memories most close to my heart are those from the last week spent at Mount Rainier. For a week we hiked through what was for me a paradise: the cascading streams, the towering old-growth trees, the varicolored and brilliant flowers of the alpine meadows, the snow fields, glaciers, and – above it all – the ponderous and glorious mountain. In many respects it was the beauty of this week that set me on my current path. In 1991, after a ten-year absence, I returned to the Pacific Northwest. While Mount Hood now gleams in the background, my decision to involve myself with old-growth forest research was very strongly influenced by my experiences with the Student Conservation Association at Mount Rainier.
Perhaps working as a volunteer in a place like Mount Rainier is not for everyone. If, however, you feel even the slightest urge to spend a summer working and living in such a place, I hope you take the next step and apply to work with the Student Conservation Association. It may very well change your life in ways you cannot begin to imagine.
And who knows? Maybe one day you and I will be fortunate enough to meet and share our experiences while hiking through an old-growth forest or skiing in the backcountry. Good luck!
Ever wanted to get somewhere or do something and not know how to start? I have. I sat on the edge of a bed one time, opened a map, put my finger on the state of Utah, and decided I was going there. How? I had no idea. Why? Because it was so beautiful and wild, and it was also “Out West,” my prerequisite for my next adventure/direction in life. I soon found the Student Conservation Association online and began searching for programs that I liked in Utah. I quickly found a volunteer position in Canyonlands. Where was Canyonlands? I had no idea, had never even heard of it, but I did have a good feeling I was on the right track. A few weeks later I was in my truck heading west on I 70. I first drove through Moab and then on to Monticello, where I would be living and working, and on the weekends commuting to Canyonlands National Park. What a commute. I had traded Florida’s crowded streets and congestion for coyotes and wide open spaces. I didn’t realize it, but I was about to fall head over heels in love with this new place. It was not all a walk in the park, as love never is. I was lonely at first and had many ups and downs, and even though I was in the same country, there was a very different attitude towards what I was teaching, than where I had been. I was in a new place and had to adjust to my new surroundings. It is astonishing how many different cultures and types of people there are in the environments and ecosystems in our one beautiful country. How lucky we are.
In Monticello I taught first, second, and third graders about compass skills, primitive tools, and plant functions. I was learning things myself as I went along, mostly about the area’s history. I have to admit at first I tried to persuade myself to not do environmental education, but to try and get into something science related. Boy was I wrong. Environmental education was great, the kids were great, and I had a blast. When the weekends came my volunteering got really interesting. I would drive into Canyonlands National Park and work at the information center planning backcountry trips for visitors, as well as patrolling backcountry trails. One day while on a seven mile loop trail, I came across a frightened lady on top of a really high rock. I climbed up and chatted with her a while before convincing her that “down” was the only way to go. I had various other great experiences with visitors and fellow staff, and was at a loss for words every time I drove into the National Park. There was so much Native American history there. It is a place to be respected. I also lived with some Navajo at the Forest Service bunkhouse in Monticello. My volunteer position lasted less than three months; I started in March 2001, but I stayed in that area until October 2002.
I made great contacts and refused to leave until someone gave me a job. My first assignment was with the Forest Service in Moab. Then I worked as a backcountry field instructor, was a river guide intern, and finally an outdoor educator. The best thing was that these jobs paid! If you ever live or work in the canyon country, I should warn you: It may come at a price. There is a spring near Moab, and it is said whoever drinks water from this spring will forever return to Moab. I drank gallons of the stuff. I now live in New Zealand with my husband and family, and I must admit that when the kids are quiet and the house falls still, I sometimes think back to the canyon country and all its inhabitants, both human and animal. One day I will take us all back there so my family can smell the juniper, hear the ravens, see the red canyon walls next to the brown, muddy Colorado, and hear the coyotes howl up on top of Hidden Canyon Trail. But for now, I still have my painting of Kokopelli playing his pipe next to a Navajo dreamcatcher with the La Sal Mountains in the background. Long live the SCA! You gave me all of this.