Building bridges to future careers
The program provides an opportunity to experience the forest and learn life skills
Written by Tom French
Have you ever seen a beautifully constructed stone staircase miles from anywhere in the Adirondacks and wondered who built it?
Bridges, stone steps, wooden ladders and moor paths are the backbone of our trail network. Dozens of professional track crews from many organizations complete the hard work, but one of them is unique in that they hire a new cadre of workers each year as part of their mission to “build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong environmental stewardship.”
Since 1998, the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national organization, has partnered with AmeriCorps and DEC from their base at the old Whitney headquarters along Little Tupper Lake.
Often, the “members” arrive with little or no experience. “If they’ve never camped or traveled before, that’s OK, because they’ll learn here,” said Julia Lareau, program coordinator for the SCA Adirondack Corps.
Steve Guglielmi, a DEC Forester in Region 5, has worked with SCA his entire 23-year career.
“They may not have a lot of work experience when they start, but with the training they receive and the leadership SCA provides, they achieve a lot,” he said. “They have an energy and enthusiasm that is refreshing to see. You can see how satisfied they are when they complete the project.”
Training begins with wilderness first aid, and includes logging and chainsaw training, rigging and use of greywort, conservation work skills, and a number of trail building techniques, including the use of local timber and stonework.
“We’ll go camping and backpacking and do all the moves and practice setting up and taking down,” LeReau explains. “They’ll cook on Whisperlight stoves to get used to the quality. They’ll dig latrines if they’re camping and do rockwork at Coney Mountain for practice.
Get their assignments done
After training, members disperse into the field for five and ten days to complete any number of projects throughout the Adirondacks. This summer, 13 more than a dozen people are set to do it, including a stone staircase up the Poke-O-Moonshine, a 50-foot bridge across Beaver Brook near Raquette Lake, and the rehabilitation of the cobblestone bridge abutments that CCC originally built on Tongue range. The work is being performed under contract with DEC and with funding from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund.
The first obstacles were for five days. “I try to schedule projects that allow people to get their feet under them, get used to camping, and the standards that we have.” Members “combed” several trails including sections of the Northville-Placid Trail and a remote area of the Lost Pond Trail in the West Canada Lake Wilderness. Another early project was removing abandoned irrigation pipes from the 100-year-old Craigwood Golf Course. They moved approximately three hundred and six to twelve feet of PVC sections over 1.5 miles, removed metal pipes from a creek, and landscaped the area.
Later, crews spent two 10-day hitches on the Cascade Reroute and twenty-five days camping on the Poke-O-Moonshine. According to project leader Jake Ganley, “Poko was one of our toughest equipment moves – giant rock bars and sledgehammers were brought over our food, so it took several trips to get there.”
The staircase rocks were placed by helicopter. At the end of the project, the crew carried 91 helicopter bags used to transport rocks up the mountain.
Talking to members reveals how the challenges of wet boots, cold nights, black flies and living outdoors in all kinds of conditions are offset by “community” and the experiences of “working from the top of the mountain” or just seeing a mountain.
Seth Palmer of East St. Louis applied to the Adirondack Corps because “we don’t have mountains. Illinois is flat. I’ve never seen a mountain or a hill.”
Franklin Diaz, of Florida, expressed his joy “testing our limits and seeing how much we can do together while adapting to a different way of living and learning to thrive in a different atmosphere. It taught me a lot about self-reflection and looking inward. You actually experience the weather and the humility of the mountain.” .
The transport of 43 pigeons on Lows Lake was particularly memorable for many.
“We camped at different sites and made each one our home,” said Megan Jacobs, a 2022 University of New Hampshire graduate with a major in wildlife conservation biology. We’ve been really clean about this. We had two by fours that we drilled into the sides. We dug the new hole, cleaned the stoves, put the ashes in the old (before) toilet and covered and filled it. Then we choose another site to camp. That was so amazing. We fixed it and made it special, and the people we met were very grateful.
LaRue explains how the Student Conservation Society’s program is “for people who want to get hands-on experience in environmental conservation.” Part of LaReau’s job is to provide emotional support. “Members are transformed by the end of this experience and empowered, but sometimes challenges arise in terms of crew dynamics and every once in a while the project leader will call and say, ‘Hey, I could just use some help with this conversation.’”
Homesickness also occurs. “It’s a big adjustment. That’s why our training season is five weeks long – to allow members room to adjust to the new people, the routine, and the remoteness of the Adirondacks. We’re focused on building the team and skills they will use for the rest of the season and perhaps their lives.”
LaReau also provides technical and logistical assistance “such as how to place two 52-foot stringers on the cots of the original timber bridge (Beaver Brook).” The use of chainsaws is prohibited in wilderness areas, so the crew used crosscut saws to bring down five trees selected by DEC staff.
LaRue emphasizes SCA’s mission to “develop the next generation of leaders through practical conservation work.” To achieve this, members are appointed to be “connection leaders.”
“It definitely helped me with my communication and conflict management skills,” says Christine Broadbent of San Antonio, Texas. “Everyone is tired and sometimes things go wrong and you have to tell people, ‘You still have to do this.’ But you also have to keep in mind that this person is very tired, too.
“The chores definitely tend to fall on the crew,” adds Ryan Van Dyke. After graduating from Wheaton College, he realized that “I never wanted to sit at a desk my whole life.
With an undergraduate degree in music education and a master’s degree in geographic information systems, Annie Kelly, of Jacksonville, Alabama, applied to the Adirondack Corps to explore how place and people interact with natural influences to create music.
“What do I hear in the environment? And how can I create that on an instrument? There’s always a symphony around you, and the birds! I’d never heard of a madman or a hermit thrush. When we were in the Cascade. The hermit thrush was a vortex of echoes. It was It’s like you’re in front of an organ.”
Other projects included work on Owls Head south of Malone, a 265-foot-long marsh bridge on Floodwood Mountain, demolition of the bridge on the Elizabeth Point Trail in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, and a new bridge on the Balm of Gilead Trail near Garnet Hill Lodge.
When asked what the biggest lesson she’s learned is Broadbent, she said: “Bring extra socks,” though Elissa Balkin of Idaho is more cautious. She can’t wait to get home to do more serial deployments.
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