On the Trail

Youth Corps helps shape lives in the backcountry


— By 6:38 a.m. the east-facing mountains surrounding Seneca Lake in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest were awash in bright sunlight.

Songbirds perched in white bark pines and stunted willows offered up melodies that carried easily through the cool, thin air. Swarms of hungry mosquitoes known to infuriate visitors to the Wind River Range were up to their same old tricks. Seek. Find. Bite.

On a gentle rise just a few hundred yards north of the high-mountain lake, a group of seven young adults waited, ready to begin another exhausting day in their effort to build and repair sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

Like a team of wildland firefighters, the crew -- a subset of the Steamboat Springs-based Rocky Mountain Youth Corps -- marched out of camp single file with their hard hats and REI-donated daypacks in tow.

They came by choice -- some for an experience their college couldn't offer, some to discover what exists beyond the white walls of an office job. The crew members, all between the ages of 19 and 26, had assembled in Steamboat earlier in the summer, where they met as strangers and set out for 10 weeks of labor together in some of the most scenic areas of the Rocky Mountains.

"You understand coming into it that you are part of a community," said Dylan Weller, a 23-year-old crew member from Santa Fe. "I would have thought we would have more conflicts with 10 people living together, but it has been really nice, especially considering some of the unique people we have."

On this day, a short hike north on the Seneca Lake Trail brought the crew to a relatively flat, flowing expanse of elevated granite where they spread out to begin the safety and stretch circle -- a pre-work routine to identify job hazards and loosen tight muscles. Ready for the workday, the crew continued its hike toward Lester Pass, where it would spend the next week maintaining and building a trail that had been neglected for years because of limited funding and personnel.

The work is always similar and always labor intensive -- a lot of digging dirt and hauling rocks. But as the crew members said time and again, there is more to building backcountry trail than sweat and pickaxes.

"It's kind of a way to feel out who you are; to become comfortable with yourself," said 19-year-old Rebecca Brunston of Aurora. "I've learned so much from these people about patience and about giving."

Forming the Corps

Gretchen Van De Carr's own youth corps experience in Eugene, Ore., made a lasting impression on her.

"It made a huge difference in my life," said Van De Carr, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. "It changed my whole perspective... and the changes are lifelong.

"What was particularly striking for me was that you could get kids from all different backgrounds to come together on a crew. They shed their images, they wear the same color hard hat and work shirt. It doesn't matter what music they listened to or the reputation they had. It lets them start over and figure out who they want to be -- not who they think they are, but who they want to be."

In 1992, the city of Steamboat Springs hired Van De Carr to form a positive program for local teens. A year later she took her summer budget of $3,000 and copied Northwest Youth Corps' program, forming three summer backcountry youth corps crews in Steamboat.

The youth corps concept isn't new. It began in the early 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps in his attempt to win a battle in the war against the rampant unemployment brought on by the Great Depression. The crews worked to curb soil erosion and protect the country's dwindling timber resources, according to the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni.

All told, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds of thousands of young Americans, providing them with job skills, a steady income and a keen awareness of the environment.

The goals haven't changed much in 70 years.

"Teenagers need to make money and they need to learn how to enter the working world," Van De Carr said. "Part of our whole goal is to introduce kids to the whole job training experience. And it's not easy. It's pretty tough stuff out there."

Growing the program

Van De Carr had no trouble finding local 16- to 19-year-olds to join the crews of her new city program. Finding projects for the crews was a different story.

"The first year it was begging agencies to let us work for practically free," Van De Carr said. "For them, it was like, 'Teenagers are nothing but problems.'"

One summer changed the agencies' perceptions.

"Everyone loved the work," Van De Carr said. "Now, agencies are knocking on our door to give us projects."

Van De Carr's city program continued to expand until 1998, when she established it as a separate nonprofit organization.

"It enabled the program to grow in size, geographically and programatically," Van De Carr said. "I just really started from scratch again. It was really scary, but I knew it was a worthy program that would work."

She left the city with the Community Youth Corps aspect of the program, which this summer employed 70 local teens.

The newly independent RMYC added older crews, began work in Utah with Ute Indian children and formed the Yampa Valley Science School.

Van De Carr employed fewer than three dozen youth in the program's first year. This year, more than 80 youth participated in the program, each earning between $240 and $300 per week. Rocky Mountain Youth Corps now has an operating budget of $800,000 mostly generated through earned income and grants.

"Things are really good right now," Van De Carr said. "We feel the supply and demand is at a good level."

Building trail

The crew in Wyoming -- the Continental Divide Trail Alliance Youth Corps -- was there because of a recent partnership between the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance. Led by 26-year-old Julie Gwyther of Argentina, the crew spent its time working on one of the nation's most popular -- and spectacular -- trail systems.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is a mostly continuous primitive backcountry trail stretching from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The goal of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance is to complete the 3,100-mile path. Right now, about 70 percent of the trail is usable. But much of the trail, the alliance said, is in desperate need of repair.

Such is the case in areas of the Wind River Range, where Gwyther's crew made its home for the last five weeks of the program. In this area, the Continental Divide Trail winds up and down through glacial-carved valleys and along hundreds of lakes and ponds.

Up to 1,500 volunteers work the Continental Divide Trail each year, said Bryan Martin, a field operations coordinator for the trail alliance. But more work is always needed, and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance Youth Corps has more than proven itself.

"The skills and dedication these kids bring to 10 straight weeks of fieldwork is something we can't put a price tag on," Martin said. "We feel the crews we put out there are some of the best in terms of understanding the science of trail building."

Long days

It is the middle of July, and Gwyther's crew is in the midst of its work deep in the backcountry. It has only been a month since they were removed from civilization, but the three male crew members -- Weller, Kevin Heyse and Carl Nelson -- have grown shaggy beards that mask their ages.

A two-way radio is the crew's primary source of contact with the outside world. Gwyther checks in daily with the Pinedale Ranger Station nearly 30 miles to the southwest, where rangers monitor the crew's progress and coordinate the mule trains that haul in weekly food supplies.

Time -- often an afterthought for most backcountry travelers -- is critical to the crew members. The wake-up call comes at 5:45 a.m. and the workday begins by 6:30. The crew's first break is about 9:15 a.m., followed by lunch at noon and quitting time at 2:30 p.m., though schedules often flex as needs arise. One thing that can't change is the 40-hour work week required of the crew.

Dinner is usually served by 6:30 p.m. so Project SEED -- a youth corps initiative to promote daily discussion on issues ranging from job ethics to social and moral issues and environmental impact -- can begin and end by dusk. Many of the crew members are asleep before darkness sets in.

The process repeats itself each day save Saturday and Sunday, when group day hikes and other activities offer a break to the corps' regimented lifestyle.

Making progress

Progress on the Continental Divide Trail is measured in water bars, steps and check dams -- mechanisms that preserve the trail and make its navigation easier for hikers, many of whom are unaware of the work involved.

This day, the crew gathers less than a mile from the summit of Lester Pass to listen as Matthew Dehlavi, a trail construction foreman with the Forest Service, gives a lengthy lesson in trail building.

Dehlavi is working with a group of young volunteers in the same area of Lester Pass as Gwyther's crew, and he offers his experience to help the crew members hone their trail-building technique.

"It's not rocket science, it's rock science," Dehlavi said as he chiseled away at a rock during a demonstration in building erosion-proof water bars.

Building and maintaining trail is difficult work, particularly when the trail traverses steep, rocky mountainsides, as it does throughout this remote and rugged section of Wyoming.

But the crew takes its job seriously -- its work is expected to withstand years of harsh Alpine conditions -- avoiding shortcuts and moving on to the next task only when the previous one meets the lofty expectations.

Dehlavi's advice is welcomed by the crew, which huddles around him for closer inspection.

"There's a philosophy behind trail work," said Sarah Schill, a graduate of Ohio's Kenyon College who worked for an architecture firm in Washington, D.C. before joining the crew. "There's an art form to it. That was nice to learn, that it's an art, not just labor. We take a lot of pride in what we do."

Dehlavi's lesson is briefly interrupted by a group of four backpacking Brits, one of whom asks for a picture of the crew. "Thank you. You guys are doing great work," he says before he and his group disappear into the vast expanse of the Bridger Wilderness.

"It's good for people to see that there are people working out here on the trails, that (trails) aren't just something that happen," Schill said.

"But I think even if people weren't walking by, it would still be rewarding, just knowing you put in a hard day's work with everybody else."

Learning to persevere

Brunston, a University of Colorado sophomore, spends much of the day installing a step -- a large, entrenched rock placed in the middle of a trail to provide stability in slippery terrain and a stepping point for hikers.

From heavy rocks not up to task to unstable placement, the seemingly minor job is a test in perseverance for Brunston, who says she has learned a lot about self-determination in her time with the crew.

"The first couple days of work I didn't know if I was going to make it," she said. "I didn't know if I could do (the work), but it had been a personal goal that I was going to make it through the summer and keep a positive attitude.

"After the first week, I realized I could do it, and I've been loving every minute of it since."

Especially after she and other crew members received mosquito nets that were sent in by pack mule along with other supplies.

Spawned from more than 2,000 area lakes and ponds, Wind River mosquitoes prey on anything that moves from dawn 'til dusk. High-powered DEET offers some protection, but nothing compared to the mosquito nets.

Brunston, whose arms, legs and neck are polka-dotted with bites in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes, wears an eternal smile and has an easy laugh that often keeps the crew in good spirits.

"What's up now, buggies?" she taunts while parading around camp with her new net.

Seeking solitude

At the end of each workday, the weary crew members trudge back to camp, anxiously awaiting what little personal time they have.

Nearly all corps activities are group activities.

The crew rotates cooking duties and always eats its meals together. Everyone washes dishes and cleans the camp each morning and evening. They hike to work as a group and return from work as a group. Though the constant togetherness can be frustrating, complaints are few. They've come to realize they need each other.

"Everyone's actions tend to affect the whole group in some way," Williams said. "You rely on each other so much. If someone doesn't wake up to make breakfast it puts everyone in a bind. It's surviving."

Still, time alone is a valued commodity.

"Spending 24 hours a day with the same group of people is intense," Schill said. "If you have a bad day, they're there. You can't disguise anything."

"I really enjoy the solitude of being out in the woods," said Weller, who is working on his doctorate in political theory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But you don't get a lot of personal time."

Crew members get their personal space where they can. Most stake their tents as far from each other as possible, and camp is often quiet and deserted before dinner, when some take a dip in a nearby lake to wash away sweat and dirt or spend an hour or two rock climbing. Reading and writing is a favorite solo activity.

"I think personal time out here is very valuable, and having enough time at the end of the day to reflect is important," said 20-year-old Marli Williams of Chicago, who will attend the University of New Hampshire in the fall. "There have been weeks where everything has felt so busy and draining."

Mail call

Nothing is more personal -- and valuable -- to the crew than mail.

When RMYC field coordinator Jeff Davis arrived in camp unexpectedly on a Wednesday afternoon, crew members were on him quickly. "Did you bring mail?" was their first question.

Gwyther calls mail "corps gold."

"It's like cigarettes in prison," she said.

Davis delivered, placing a stack of letters and oversized envelopes atop one of the crew's numerous bear-proof food boxes. This is, after all, grizzly bear country.

"Being out here makes things like getting mail so exciting," Brunston said. "It's crazy. Everyone gets so excited and on edge about mail."

The crew picked through the mail and carried off the pieces, retreating to private reading spots like predators protecting their kill.

Portions of letters are read aloud. Four weeks after meeting as strangers, the crew has become an extended family.

"I've definitely learned a lot about how I interact with other people," Williams said. "Living and working and breathing with all these people I've never met, you learn not to judge and to be understanding and patient, compassionate and empathetic. We all have our strengths and weaknesses."

Dealing with loss

One envelope remained unclaimed.

"It's like 'Survivor,'" Schill said as she walked past the lone letter addressed to a crew member who had to return to civilization on a pack mule because of an unknown illness. "It's like we're voting people off."

The standard Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew starts and ends its summer work with 10 members.

But barely one month into its work schedule, this crew, for the second time, had been depleted to seven.

"It's definitely a challenge with all the people coming and going," Williams said. "Dealing with the change in our group has definitely been the toughest part."

One member simply never showed to pre-work training in Steamboat and a second was forced to withdraw because of asthma complications. A third left to be with his ailing grandmother.

Two members were added just prior to the crew's northward journey to Wyoming. One of the replacements barely lasted a day. And the second, to whom the letter was addressed, fell victim to an illness that left him tent-ridden.

The unusual turnover was hard on the crew. With each lost worker came the weight of additional responsibilities for the remaining members.

"The group learns to depend on one another for stability, so losing people is tough," Gwyther said.

"People compensate. We figure out how to get everything done. I think seven is pushing it, though."

Winding down

Each crew member winds down after a hard day's work in his or her own way.

On this night, the group gathered under the green kitchen tarp as night came to the Bridger Wilderness. Weller pulled out an acoustic guitar from a black case and plucked a couple strings before breaking into song.

The lyrics sang out of his lips as he swayed back and forth under the darkening Wyoming sky. His black silhouette revealed little more than the outline of a shaggy beard and his five-string guitar.

Sitting nearby, Williams and Gwyther sang along to the song, Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" ...

If you're lost you can look, and you will find me

Time after time.

If you fall I will catch you,

I'll be waiting

Time after time.

The song ended and the crew members scattered to their own little sections of forest to catch a few hours of sleep.

They would be awake again by 5:45 a.m., and lined up for work shortly thereafter, ready to begin another arduous day on the Continental Divide Trail high in the Rocky Mountains.


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