By JANE MICHAELS
Some might consider a month of shoveling gravel eight hours a day a sentence of hard labor, but a Lyons Township High School senior found it an adventure in the wilds of Alaska.
“It felt like a different world out there,” Andrew Stables of Western Springs recalled about his month-long stay in Eagle, Alaska, as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association.
“No one has indoor plumbing, and diesel engines provide most of their power, though they are starting to do more with alternative energy sources,” Stables said. “We were three hours from the nearest town.
“There was one dirt road, and it was the only way in or out.”
After hiking with his family through Acadia National Park in Maine a year ago, Stables bumped into a group of teens restoring a trail and began researching similar opportunities.
“We all love hiking in my family. My parents just aren’t as big on camping and outdoor activities,” Stables said. “If I wanted to get involved with those type of things, I’d have to go out with a group like this.”
Research led the enterprising teen to the Student Conservation Association, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps and formed in the 1950s to tap student volunteers for projects in the national parks and later, other ventures.
Stables said he applied to serve in the Pacific Northwest and was surprised and pleased to be assigned to a work crew in Alaska at the former Fort Egbert. Arriving in Fairbanks June 15, he slept in tents for the next month while restoring or building trails around the outpost built following a gold rush in the 1890s along the Yukon River.
“Our crew was the first to work in Eagle, Alaska. It was special to have a new location,” he said. “There have been crews for 15 years in Yosemite or Denali, but in a small town, they don’t need one every year.”
Though he was physically spent each night, Stables said the workdays didn’t drag and weren’t as exhausting as he had expected.
“I thought it would be worse than it was, but I just got into a rhythm and it didn’t seem like labor,” he said. “It was fun when you’re with new people from the West Coast and East Coast with all sorts of lifestyles and backgrounds. When you’re hearing people talk of their lives, it makes the work go fast.”
Bedtime required one initial adjustment, however, of getting used to nights that never got darker than twilight, because Eagle is so far north.
“It was actually comforting that I could still see everything,” Stables said. “It took a few days to get used to it, but I was so tired I would just fall asleep.”
Eagle’s population of fewer than 100 residents swells to more than 150 during the summers to accommodate hardy tourists who arrive by bus after a 10-hour ride from Fairbanks, or a two-hour ferry trip from Dawson, across the Canadian border and the Yukon River.
“The town very much embraced us, particularly for their Fourth of July festivities,” Stables recalled. “We got to be in the parade and they invited us to their potlucks. We played in their baseball games by the river.
“While we did a lot of work it still was just as much fun out there. It was just a different type of entertainment.”
A lack of technology and showers once a week also required an adjustment.
“We didn’t have TV or cell phones, which we turned in at the beginning of the trip. We were pretty disconnected for a month,” Stables said. “We made the Postal Service happy with lots of letters and postcards. They only do mail five days a week, except when it’s stormy; the planes don’t fly.”
For the crew’s last three days together, the group of six high school seniors or recent graduates plus two young adult leaders decided to camp and hike in Denali National Park and the lesser known nearby Denali State Park.
“My favorite memory is just looking out over the mountains through the clouds almost like it was a different world. I’ve never seen anything close to that,” Stables said. “It was astonishing, just breath-taking.”
Stables said he has interested his younger brother in volunteering for the program next summer, and he hopes to spread the word about the experience’s benefits to fellow students at LT, where he plays trumpet in the marching and jazz bands and runs cross country.
Although students aren’t paid and must fund their own transportation costs, no tuition is required due to many participating sponsors, he said. He gained valuable experience in cooking, camping and such outdoor skills as splitting logs, chopping down trees and clearing brush.
“Before I went on this trip I wasn’t sure if I loved being out on my own, able to get through airports and get along with everybody I met, but now I feel very much able to do things on my own,” Stables said. “I’m ready to go to college.”