Editor’s note: Four FER students (Chris McGowan, Maria Polizzi, Patrick Carlin, and Shaw Stanford) worked on trail-building crews across the state for the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps (NCYCC) in Summer 2014.
Below, each of them shares stories from their summer experiences.
Chris McGowan, Environmental Technology and Management
Have you ever wondered how trails come into existence? You may have assumed they magically form after a group of people walks through the same path often enough. However, anything over a mile was likely planned and physically dug into the ground. Enter the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps (NCYCC). The NCYCC hires 16-24 year olds to work on a variety of conservation projects throughout NC, aimed at making the great outdoors more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. I found out about this organization in the spring of 2013 through the online jobs board for the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources.
That summer, I worked in the Croatan National Forest, and enjoyed it so much that I returned as an assistant crew leader in 2014. I had the opportunity to work on local projects at Jordan Lake, Falls Lake, Harris Lake, and Ellerbe Creek in Durham. The NCYCC offers the choice to either work on a community or roving crew. These crews do the same type of work during the week, but differ in scheduling and offer different experiences.
A community crew works 9-5 and goes home every day after work, while the roving crew lives together at a campsite for the whole 7 week session. Both crews have their advantages; my preference is the roving crew because living with your co-workers forms a tight community because you eat, sleep, and work together. However, this past summer I was on the community crew which was still enjoyable because it offered luxuries like more personal time and the ability to sleep in your own bed (with air conditioning) every night!
As an Assistant Crew Leader it was my job to manage and work alongside the 8 crew members with my co-leader as we completed various conservation-related projects. This often meant dividing the crew up so that we could get each project done efficiently and keeping morale high. Other duties included managing relations with project sponsors and parks staff to ensure things were going smoothly and driving and parking a 12 passenger van and trailer. Luckily, I had a fantastic crew and co-leader so everything went extremely well.
Even when things got a little messy or difficult we always managed to work together and pull through, often completing projects ahead of schedule. For our two weeks at Falls Lake we worked on a series of smaller projects including clearing brush to create a better viewing area of the lake, removing sweet gum trees from pine stands to give them more space to grow, digging a pond to create habitat for amphibians, making a small canoe trail leading to the edge of the lake, and even creating a natural playscape for children. During our last week, at Ellerbe Creek, we constructed about 40 feet of footbridges/boardwalks over areas that were often too wet to walk on and made about a half mile of trail surrounding a marsh.
Like any job, the NCYCC does have some challenges, mainly related to working outside. We had plenty of exposure to ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. Some days it rained and that was no fun. However, overcoming these challenges as a team really brings everyone together. I learned many things about myself and the job, many of which I was not expecting. I really enjoyed working with a team on every project because we could always talk and joke around while working and that made the days go by much quicker. I had never been in a leadership role before, but I felt comfortable leading my crew members even though many of them were close to my age. I found that showing them respect and being honest was effective because they were more willing to treat me the same way. At first, I struggled to discipline crew members who were causing issues with group dynamics. I realized that taking action sooner in those cases would have been more beneficial to the team.
I also learned how much logistics and planning even the smallest tasks can take. This was something both my co-leader and I struggled with because we both have laid back, go-with-the-flow personalities. We both made strides in looking ahead and planning for the future. Another aspect of the work I was slightly nervous about was communication. Again I found that being honest and stating your goals and opinions was crucial in making sure projects got done on time and everyone was in good spirits.
Working these past two summers has been extremely satisfying because not only has it given me valuable work experience, but I was able to grow as a person while simultaneously benefiting the great outdoors. The NCYCC is a fantastic opportunity for high school and college students if you like the outdoors!
Maria Polizzi, Environmental Technology and Management
Have you ever wanted to know what living without the luxuries of modern technology, architecture, and plumbing would be like? This summer I got to experience living and working outside in a few of the beautiful state parks of North Carolina. That includes, yes, the bugs, heat, humidity and rain; however, it was a once in a lifetime experience to live out in the elements for seven weeks and truly be able to understand many of the things we take for granted.
Stationed in the coastal region, my crew worked with Carolina Beach State Park, Fort Fisher, and Cliffs of the Neuse. Our projects included constructing fences, mulching trails, rebuilding a dilapidated boardwalk staircase, installing a handicap access ramp for picnic tables, clearing brush and trimming along roadsides. Our crew consisted of two crew leaders and eight Corps members, who lived and worked together for the duration of our trip. During the day we worked to complete whatever assignments our project sponsors selected for us, and in the evenings we prepared meals, made fires, baked bread, and maintained camp.
This position was unique because if offered not only hands-on work experience, but also applicable life-skills. We cooked for ourselves every day over a camp stove or fire. Each meal required planning as the food had to last throughout the week with only a small cooler and bins for storage. Instead of buying sandwich bread at the store we baked our own to save money and prevent it from going bad. Conserving water was taken to a whole new level, as nobody wanted to carry the 35 lb. jugs back to camp after refilling.
The most noticeable adjustment, however, was that when it rained, everything got wet. It is surprisingly easy to forget what a little rainstorm will do if you’re not inside. Water somehow gets into everything, and on a regular basis we would wake up to put on soggy clothes from the line, throw away food that had gone bad due to water damage, or fall asleep on a slightly soggy sleeping bag. These storms may have put a damper on our day in more ways than one; however, they did make us appreciate clear skies and how they made everything seem better.
The work was hard and the sun was hot, but the job was full of fantastic moments, great people, endless lessons learned, and a sense of pride in our accomplishments. It was an amazing feeling to see park visitors using what we had worked on. The project sponsors were also extremely supportive and appreciative, which made the job more enjoyable. Our crew worked at a surprising speed, and often had the problem of running out of projects instead of the other way around. Overall, I gained much from being a part of this experience; even more importantly, however, I was able to give back, and do something to improve our state and its natural habitats.
Patrick Carlin, Natural Resources – Ecosystem Assessment
As a North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps Crew Member I spent seven weeks living out of a tent, building trail, and growing my beard out. For five weeks in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge I helped construct a portion of trail on Little Bear Wallow Mountain.
My average day in the mountains began by waking up at 5:30 am and eating oatmeal for breakfast, which I never got used to. Then the crew would pile in the van and drive to Little Bear Wallow Mountain. After circling up and stretching we would hike a half mile straight uphill to the work site, which was a nice little morning workout. Once tools were counted and teams were formed we began working for the day.
Most work on Little Bear Wallow Mountain was rock work. Rock work consists of moving rocks as small as 20 pounds or as big as 1,500 pounds. These rocks are moved into place where they can be used as steps in steep areas, stepping stones in muddy areas, and retaining walls in areas where trail must be held in. Also, ugly rocks that could not be used for the previously mentioned purposes are used as gargoyles to discourage hikers from leaving the trail.
Moving rocks was done using bare hands or rock bars. When using rock bars a crew member inserts their bar underneath rock, levers it up and holds it until another crew member could push it up further. Once a rock is in place it has to be adjusted until it is stable enough to be jumped on without budging, which could take half a day. Therefore rock work is both physically and mentally strenuous.
Also rock work is dangerous, especially when moving rocks up or down slope, which was both scary and exhilarating. There was always the danger of being crushed, even when we were not working. During one lunch break I was napping, and uphill a fellow crew member rested her foot on a rock which immediately slid downhill, stopping about a foot from my head. However, other than a few crushed fingers and some scrapes and bruises, there were no serious injuries.
This summer, our crew completed close to ninety stone steps and a half mile of cleared and accessible trail where there was once essentially wilderness. Our section of trail will eventually be part of a trail network that will spread throughout the Hickory Nut Gorge.
Shaw Stanford, Natural Resources – Ecosystem Assessment
We had two projects this summer as part of a ten person crew. Our first project was located in Salisbury, North Carolina where we helped to refine and improve an existing trail in Spencer Woods. Forty-two acres had been saved from being sold and turned into a subdivision just a couple years beforehand. During our two weeks in Salisbury, our crew made over 2500 feet of trail more accessible, built two bridges across a creek and a washout area, and put in 3 culvert drainage pipes to eliminate steep drops into ditches before entering the pristine forest.
On our second portion of the trip we spent 5 weeks in the Hickory Nut Gorge area of North Carolina working on Little Bearwallow Mountain. On this adventure we would hike roughly a mile up the mountain every morning to begin our work. This work was much more dangerous and exciting than what we were used to coming out of Salisbury. Our main objective was to make the trail as accessible as we could which meant that we would have to build stone staircases and stepping stones out of the rocks that we could find in the surrounding area. Doing this consisted of moving rocks up to 1500 pounds down the side of the mountain with simple tools and bare hands. This required very precise and definite verbal communication to ensure the safety of each member of the crew.
We faced a very simple style of living when we returned “home” each evening. What we were calling home was a 2 person tent that was to be shared with another Corps member. Lucky for us, at both of our locations we stayed in campgrounds that had a bath house equipped with toilets and showers. Camp life consisted of the breakfast cooks getting up at 5:30 a.m. to start boiling water for our ever-delicious meal of oatmeal. Fine dining would mean including brown sugar, raisins, and/or peanut butter to your oatmeal for an extra kick. After our oatmeal, we would pack our lunches. Mine usually consisted of two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, a snack bar, and chips. After packing lunches and having everybody complete their morning routine, we were to be in the van ready to drive to work by 7:00 a.m.
Living in the woods for seven weeks brought about some of the tightest bonds that I have ever experienced. People who were no more than strangers at the beginning of the trip became a ten person family at the conclusion of the summer. As with any family, there were a few times of tension. We learned quickly that if we wanted to get a point across safely in the field while working in dangerous conditions, we would have to limit the tongue-biting and learn to express ourselves so as to not hurt another’s feelings.
Our work site at Hickory Nut Gorge was adjacent to an energy-efficient neighborhood. Two extraordinarily hospitable people named Ryan and Jane lived in a house in the community. Towards the end of our stay, they invited the entire crew over one Saturday for dinner. They prepared a meal that trumped any other that we had throughout the entire seven weeks. While there some other members of the community came by and chatted with us about how they really appreciated our hard work and dedication, undertaking such a massive project. It meant a lot to each member of the crew to know that our work was respected and will be utilized in the future.
These seven weeks with the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps have changed and defined me. I have developed a strong work ethic that I plan on taking into my senior year of college. I have also learned quite a bit about the environment and how North Carolina takes pride in preserving and conserving its natural resources and environment. I was able to make a difference in the communities of Salisbury and Hickory Nut Gorge and I am walking away a well-rounded individual for having been a part of such a great organization. We bettered communities by serving and working to improve public access to great outdoor treasures.