New York students get taste of West in Steamboat Springs |

New York students get taste of West in Steamboat Springs

Sky Strang, left, helps remove the handrail of a bridge near the Carpenter Ranch in Hayden. Strang is one of three high school students from New York who arrived in the Yampa Valley earlier this month to work at the ranch during a monthlong internship.

Wading through neck-high grass along the Yampa River on Monday, Raymond Rodriguez was far from home. The incessant hum of petulant swarms of mosquitoes in a muggy marsh and the gurgling of a river are sounds Rodriguez doesn't get to hear very often back home on 107th Street in Manhattan's Spanish Harlem.

"When I first arrived here, it was like waking up; it was like taking a breath of fresh air," Rodriguez said. "Back home, I'm used to seeing building after building, and it's hard to see nature out work. But out here, it's completely different. It's a blast of cold water to the face."

This week, he's living in a cottage on the Carpenter Ranch near Hayden with two other high school seniors from New York. The students arrived in the Yampa Valley two weeks ago to begin a monthlong internship with the Nature Conservancy that aims to introduce urban students to the intricacies of the natural world. They've cooked their own food, done their own laundry and learned that on the ranch, bug spray is as essential as bottled water.

Rodriguez said the Manhattan lifestyle and the country lifestyle have their own advantages and disadvantages, but for the past two weeks, he's enjoyed his taste of the West.

He has used beaver dams as bridges, worked to maintain rustic trails and woken up early each day to enjoy his view of mountains through the window of a small cottage at the ranch.

"We'll be walking through neck-high grass … and you look off to the side and you can't believe where you are," he said. "This is raw, natural beauty."

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Rodriguez and fellow New Yorkers Keon Flavius and Sky Strang on Monday started dismantling a bridge that was swept away by a flooded Yampa River in the spring and later will rebuild it.

"This is actually one of our easier days," Flavius said as he worked to dislodge the bridge's metal handrails. "But one of the things we wanted to accomplish while we were here was also to become physically stronger."

Flavius, who traveled to the Yampa Valley from Brooklyn, said he spent his previous two weeks at the ranch learning about pollination and identifying ways the Yampa's watershed supports a variety of wildlife. He learned how the 1,000-acre ranch, which serves as his classroom, is maintained and spent his time off with other interns trying archery and going whitewater rafting near Kremmling

"Back home in New York, it's congested. You never really get a chance to get a full shot of nature," he said. "I mean, everybody has some gardens, but out here, you really get to see how deep nature goes."

The Carpenter Ranch is one of 18 preserves across the country this year that is hosting the Nature Conservancy's Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program, which aims to train high school students for environmental careers. But this year's program in Hayden marks the first year the internship program, which is funded by Toyota, has come to a western state.

Carpenter Ranch facilities manager Betsy Blakeslee said that while her ranch benefits from the work of the interns, the Big Apple residents also leave with an experience they won't soon forget.

"Urban kids don't often have the opportunity to get out and explore the landscape like this," she said. "It gives them a sense of empowerment when they've accomplished so much work. I love watching people establish this place in their heart and in their brain … that they've never been to before."

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