Youth corps takes on tough jobs

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

Aaron Singleton stepped onto the riverbank across from the Russian River Ferry and prepared to get down to business.

Like a lot of folks on the water that day, Singleton was hoping to fill his bag before heading home, but unlike a lot of folks, the teenager wasn't planning on doing it with a rod and reel.

This may sound like quite a task, but at 6-feet, 7-inches tall, Singleton's height was exceeded only by his Jim Carey-ish exuberance for life and his work.

He knew he could do it.

He scanned the shore looking for his quarry, head moving from left to right, eyes darting back and forth, and then he saw it a crushed beer can, three cigarette butts and a tangled wad of fishing line.



Youth Conservation Corps workers labor on a cabin at the Outdoor Education Center. The crew has done building repairs, trail upgrades and cleaned campsites on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Singleton wasn't there to fish. Rather, he was there to clean up the mess left behind by fishers and other recreationalists. Community service of this kind is not a common way for teens to spend their summer, unless ordered to by the courts, but that wasn't the case with Singleton. And he wasn't alone.

To tackle the task, Singleton had with him six other youths who make up this year's Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) a tight-knit team of teens that complete high-priority projects in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

YCC is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge program open to anyone 15 to 18 years old, provided they have reliable transportation to and from work. Participants apply in April, and those selected work for eight consecutive weeks through the summer, earning minimum wage pay for their efforts.

So far this summer, the YCC group already has completed a variety of work projects, including trail clearing on the Keen Eye Trail near the refuge headquarters, boardwalk installation at the Moose Range Meadows, clean up of all the campsites along the Swanson River and maintenance to the portage trails through the Swanson River canoe system.

These projects weren't easy. They required many long days and lots of hard work to see them through. But the youths of YCC said the rewards they get back far exceed what effort they put in, no matter how laborious.

"Sometimes the work is hard, but it's not just work. You learn all the time, so it's more rewarding than some summer jobs," said YCC member Brandon Swartz.


Brandon Swartz, right, heads into the woods last week to retrieve trash near the Kenai River as other members of the Youth Conservation Corps unload from a pair of rafts. The crew used the rafts to access popular areas of the river between Cooper Landing and Sterling.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've learned a lot that could be applied to other jobs, so it's been a great stepping stone," he added.

"I've gotten a lot out of it," said YCC member Zack Pearson. "Since this was my first job, I learned a lot about work ethic. I've learned about finishing what I start, working hard, team work and communication."

"The trail maintenance was pretty physically difficult, but very rewarding," said YCC member Cherie Campbell. "The work we did on the canoe portage trails was very apparent. We cut the over-growth back, clearing it out and making it easier to travel. It made it look much crisper, too."

YCC member Steve Jicha said he also found the work of restoring trails, streams and other natural areas very meaningful.

"There's a lot more involved in trail maintenance than I thought. There's a lot of tool sharpening, measuring and tree cutting."

Jicha said he didn't just learn about how to perform the work, he also learned about group dynamics. He saw how the variety of backgrounds, different skills and experience levels of the crew added to the success of the project.


Aaron Singleton models an improvised rain suit to the amusement of Steven Jicha and Brandon Swartz while the YCC crew waited to load into rafts to pick up trash on the Kenai River last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We bonded pretty quickly, which was good because teamwork was important to making it all work. You need a lot of help working on trails. It's better when two or three people help each other, rather than everyone trying to do something by themselves," Jicha said.

Kelly King was in YCC last year and enjoyed her experience so much, she returned this year as a youth leader.

"This year has been a lot more exciting because we've done so many different projects. We've also done a lot of spike camps this year, which are really fun," she said.

The "spike camps" she was referring to are four-day excursions where the youths live and worked in the backcountry in an effort to teach them how to enjoy life without the comforts of home.

The lack of electricity, running water and other modern conveniences made the spike camps particularly challenging experiences, but all the kids said they thought wilderness living was a blast.

"We would work all day, then come back to our base camp at night. We would cook dinner, swim in the lake and hang out around the campfire," Singleton said.


A YCC worker digs trash out of a fire pit alongside the Kenai River. They've cleaned campsites along the Kenai River as well as the Swanson River canoe routes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We would roast hot dogs and cook hobo pies made by wrapping hamburger, ketchup and onions in tinfoil then roast them over the fire. We made lots of s'mores, too," Campbell said.

"We would stay up until 2 a.m. talking and goofing around, but then get up at 7 to go to work," said YCC member Christy Cupp.

Cupp said the overall experience of YCC was a wonderful one.

"I would recommend it to anyone, whether they've lived here a while, just moved here or are just up for the summer. I've lived here 13 years and I've done a lot of things that I've never done before. We've been all over the peninsula and seen a lot of neat things," she said.

All the youths were in agreement that they had learned a lot about their surroundings, each other and themselves during the weeks they spent together, and they all said it wouldn't have been nearly as great without good leadership.

"The leaders and supervisors are totally cool. I wouldn't change a thing about them. They won't act bossy and tell you to do work. They say, 'Let's get this done,' and then they help, too," Pearson said.


Max Welten of Switzerland thanks YCC Coordinator Michael Bernard and Steven Jicha for their efforts during a Kenai River bank cleanup project last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Despite the accolades, YCC coordinator Michael Bernard was modest about his part in the program.

"We just try to pick jobs that need to be done, that the kids can do and that they'll enjoy," he said. "I think most of them see whatever we do is important whether it's in town or out in the bush. I hope they all go away with more pride and a better sense of responsibility after knowing what they contributed to was a good cause.

"I try to push them, but I still treat them how I would want to be treated. I don't ask them to do anything I wouldn't want to do myself. It's about working hard and working safely, but it's also about having fun."

Apparently Bernard's efforts weren't in vain, since the kids already were feeling melancholy at the thought of how little time is left in the program.

"I'll be sad to see it end. You get close to people when you spend eight hours a day, every day with people. You get attached to each other," King said.

"I didn't know anybody when I started, but it was cool I got to meet a bunch of new people," Swartz said.


A patch on a uniform identifies a Youth Conservation Corps worker.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Two members of my crew go to my school, so I'd like to keep up with them when school starts," Campbell said.

How many of the youths will to return next year is anybody's guess, but at least one of them already was making plans.

"I'm definitely putting in an application for next year," Pearson said.

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