This summer, five agencies came together to create a ten-week outdoor career program for Anchorage youth, aged 17 to 20. The program took them from city parks to the Chugach National Forest, clearing trees, building bridges, and cutting trails. The students’ last project was at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where they spent a month building a new trail and learning about the environment — and the employment options — in their own backyards.
Every morning at about 6:30, seven students and four crew leaders scramble out of their tents to make breakfast and hit the trail… the one they’re building, that is.
It’s not easy work by any means, but 18-year-old Shawna Strain says it’s been an amazing summer.
“I want my career to be something like this,” Strain says. “I know I can’t do trail building all my life. When I’m 80 I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to cut down trees anymore. But I would totally love to be a park ranger or something, something outdoors, someone that teaches others about nature, how to appreciate it more and preserve it. Because it’s depleting, so it’s like, ah! I want to save it.”
Five different land management agencies want to help her and other young people do just that. The Chugach National Forest, the Student Conservation Association, the Bureau of Land Management, the municipality of Anchorage, and the Anchorage Park Foundation all applied for a federal cost-share grant to help create a summer experience that put students to work on city lands, BLM lands, and in the Chugach.
Trail crew leader Lauren Sinnott says part of the attractiveness of this program is the fact that these students are all from Anchorage, or nearby.
“What’s really exciting about this program is that it’s all locally recruited,” Sinnott says. “So it’s a great opportunity to work with a population that is connected to the land and the environment in a more personal way.”
And, since most of this crew are alumni from an Anchorage-based program called Youth Employment in Parks — or worked on local projects with the Student Conservation Association — the idea here is not just to drop kids off in the woods for a few weeks. It’s also to help them think about what it would mean to get involved with land management in the long term.
“It’s really a next step program,” Sinnott says. “We have students we want to be able to work for Chugach in the future, or to work at the BLM. To become a park ranger in their own backyard. We’re helping leaders become leaders… mentoring mentors.”
And that’s exactly what Shawna Strain says she’d like to do.
“I think its very important for youth and young adults and even kids to get out here and do this kind of stuff,” she says. “It shows them that you don’t have to always be in an office and doing things you don’t like to do. Personally, I hate being inside.”
At Spencer Glacier, students are building the first mile and a half of what will eventually be a 17-mile trail connecting the Spencer Whistle Stop to the Grandview Whistle Stop. David Ilse, Public Services staff officer on the Glacier Ranger District, says they definitely started from scratch.
“It was raw ground when they first got here, covered in alder, vegetation… dense dense ground to get through,” Ilse says. “They had to do all the chainsaw work, brush clearing, the treadwork, so doing the earth moving, and scratching line — putting in a brand new trail.”
That was a new experience for Shawna Strain.
“I could’ve never imagined that we were going to make a trail out of straight forest,” Strain says. “I walk on a trail almost every day and I didn’t know what it takes. It’s like, oh, a trail — it probably just appeared out of nowhere. But when you actually build a trail, it’s likem oh my gosh, people will have no idea how much hard work it takes to build this trail, so I’ll never look at trails the same way ever again.”
“I think trail construction is a really neat way for youth to get involved,” says David Ilse. “And we want people to have that connection with the Forest Service. They’ve put this energy into it, they appreciate it, they value it, they know what’s behind it.”
And yet, trail crew leader Lauren Sinnott says, it never gets too serious.
“What I love the most about it,” Sinnott says, “is that we’re having fun. We’re having a lot of fun while we’re doing it.”
Dimond High School student Noah Otto says the experience has been pretty worthwhile. And working outside, for Otto, is one of the best parts.
“You look up and it’s blue, you look down and it’s green, and that’s all you need. It’s hard work. You feel tired, you feel accomplished, but you can really see what you’ve done. I mean, in an office you probably can, but I’d be more impressed with a mile of trail than a stack of papers.”
Shawna Strain agrees — just being outside is enough.
“Personally, this is where I get my sanity back,” she says. “I get away from all the temptations of the city, come outdoors and see what the world is really all about, I think. It’s something I’m always going to remember and I think it’s going to be one of my favorite memories, just to say that I actually did this.”
It could be the first of many memories that Shawna Strain and her peers will make working outdoors.