On Rain, Brush Cutters, & Comfort Zones: Life as an SCA Intern in the Chugach National Forest, Alaska

Baltimore Meets the Alaskan Wilderness- It’s Hard to See, But I’m Wearing an Orioles Baseball Cap!

“I have no idea what I’m gonna do this summer,” I told my friend Andrew as we sat on his couch this past winter break. “Do an SCA internship,” he said. “A what?” Andrew told me about his two SCA experiences-first doing trail work in the White Mountains of Western Alaska in high school, and then creating an educational program as a junior ranger ambassador at Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas the previous summer. As Andrew explained that the SCA provides hands-on conservation opportunities in beautiful locations all over the country, and that there were over forty pages of paid internships to apply for on the website, I thought it all sounded a little too good to be true-or, perhaps, that actually getting chosen to do an SCA internship was way over my head, and there was no way I would be selected. Nevertheless, I applied for a few internships, figuring that the worst thing that could happen was rejection, while the best would be having an incredible summer in a new location, and doing conservation work that mattered to me.

Well, making the decision to apply certainly paid off. As I write this I am in the midst of my seventh week as a trail crew member for the Chugach National Forest in Cordovaa small, rainy fishing town in South-Central Alaska. The brunt of my internship is trail maintenance and construction, which mainly consists of removing overhanging vegetation impeding trails and constructing and repairing stairs and bridges.

Trail Crew Hard at Work Widening Tread

I will also get to do waterfowl nest observations, cabin maintenance, and even preparation of campsites at Child’s Glacierone of the most notable calving glaciers in Alaska! My internship requires 10-hour days of manual labor, often in the pouring rain (Cordova gets about three times as much rain as Seattle annually!), and has pushed me far beyond my preconceived notions of what I am capable of physically and mentally. I have learned an incredible amount in the past seven weeks alone, and seen some of the most incredible views that Alaska has to offer along the way.

The View at the End of Saddlebag Glacier Trail, Chugach National Forest, Alaska

Today is a perfect example. I woke up at 5:45 a.m., prepared breakfast in the crowded kitchen of the bunkhouse designated for seasonal Forest Service workers (the trail crew starts work earlier than all the other employees, but there were still seven of us trying to cook breakfast at the same time!) and arrived at the US Forest Service compound at 7 a.m.. I wore all of my rain gear in preparation for the day aheadlong black rain pants, big, heavy-duty rain boots, and a rain jacket. Today, my crew split up to do trail maintenance in three different parts of the Chugach National Forest. I went with my crew leader Mike and two fellow SCA interns to the Heney Mountain Ridge trail, a three-mile trek through temperate rainforest, muskeg, and steep mountain slopes.

For about nine hours, we used brush cutters to remove vegetation that was growing over the trail, cut trees that had fallen over the trail with chainsaws, and took pictures of work that was left to be done for another day. I spent the first half of the day operating a brush cutter, which required that I wear a brusher helmet, chaps, and a harness, as well as safety goggles, ear plugs, and work gloves. I looked like this:

In the afternoon I traded my brush cutter with another SCA intern and swamped for her, meaning I followed behind as she brushed to remove vegetation from the trail. I enjoyed the day, despite the rain and cold. However, I was definitely sore from hiking six miles to the end of the trail and back while wearing a one-hundred pound pack, in addition to carrying heavy tools.

If you had told me as of Winter break that this is how I would be spending my summer, I probably would have had a hard time believing I’d be up for the challenge. If you’d gone on to tell me that seven weeks into this internship I would be chainsaw, bear spray, and first aid/CPR certified, know how to fix power tools, sharpen chains, axes, and Pulaski’s, bark trees, and would even have used a nail gun to install the decking of a bridge, I would have called you crazy. But this is what an SCA internship entailsgaining an abundance of knowledge over a short amount of time in order to do vital, necessary conservation work. No wonder it was my friend Andrew’s immediate suggestion for my summer!

In addition to all I get to experience at work, this internship involves a lot of added perks. By getting to live in this incredible location, I have had some of the coolest experiences of my life on my days off here. I have gone fishing in Prince William Sounda beautiful body of water full of seals, whales, and more otters than you can countclimbed mountains, and even hiked across glaciers. The icing on the cake is the constant thanks my crew gets, whether from hikers out on the trails or locals at the grocery store, for keeping the trails in good shape! The SCA has given me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be here, and I am thrilled to continue learning, growing, and surpassing my personal comfort zones in the weeks to come.

The End of a Work Day at Sheridan Glacier Trail, Chugach National Forest, Alaska