At 96 miles long and about 30 miles wide, there’s a lot of land for the U.S. Forest Service to preserve on Admiralty Island. Luckily, during the summer of 2016 they had some help from local Angoon youth.
Dixie George, Desiree Jamestown, Kevin Mitchell and Elizabeth O’Brien first heard about the Youth Conservation Corps, a summer employment program run by the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior, when USFS wilderness program manager Kevin Hood visited Angoon High School last winter. For all but one of them, this was their first paying job.
It was hard work. During early June and early August, they rehabilitated campsites and updated inventories, monitored trails, cleaned up marine debris, inventoried invasive weeds, reported locations of cultural resources for archeologists and more. But it gave them unique experiences in Admiralty Island’s extraordinary scenery and their own hometown.
“I really liked being out in the field,” George, 17, said. “We went to Hood Bay twice, Young Lake once. I really like the scenery; that’s what makes you stick with the job. Plus I like being able to say I explored all these places.”
The teens underwent training in a variety of wilderness skills, such as first aid, how to bear-safe your food, leave a clean campsite, board a seaplane and how to react if it’s going down and more before entering field. Part of that training included learning how to kayak, another first for the youth.
“If I hadn’t gotten this job, I probably would have never gotten on a kayak,” George said. Kayak training required a lot of teamwork due to the long trips they had to take and they had to be selective in what they brought with them in their single-sitting kayaks when it came to supplies.
In past years, the YCC has brought up youth from across Alaska and the lower 48 for the program, but this year they recruited only from Angoon.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s Edie Leghorn, who coordinated the program with Hood and was an onsite crew leader for the youth, explained that the change was due to the program wanting to have youth living in the Tongass National Forest partake in being stewards of the land they lived on, and let the skills and conservation ethic they learned while part of the program filter to the rest of the community.
It took a lot of energy to teach the kids the basics skills they needed, said Leghorn, but worthwhile.
“These kids are able to turn around, and pay these dividends back to the Forest Service and the community,” she said.
One of their big projects was building a greenhouse right in Angoon and cultivating the garden space surrounding it.
“It was really like zero to hero,” said Leghorn. “We weeded the whole thing, we made the beds, we hauled the dirt. These kids did everything.”
Leghorn said the greenhouse itself only took up about one-tenth of the garden space. They raised roads and beds, and put in the foundation for a smoke house that will eventually become part of the area too. Jared Williams, the shop teacher at Angoon High School, assisted in educating the students on how to build the green house. Jamestown said the construction work was new to her as well as a lot of the wilderness skills, but she learned as she went along.
“It’s about the size of a normal room,” Jamestown said of the greenhouse. “We had to put in shelves to make more room. We had vegetables outside in beds and a wheelbarrow full of strawberries and a rock wall.”
George said she enjoyed watching her plants grow in the garden outside of the greenhouse, like lemons and peppers.
“At the beginning of the summer, you couldn’t even tell where we were was a garden, but by the end, it was this really, beautifully cultivated place. I think the kids took a lot of pride in showing that to their classmates,” Leghorn said, referring to the closing ceremony that took place Oct. 21. The community was invited to come, see photos of the summer and watch the youth receive certificates of achievement.
Much of their work took place far from home where few people might notice the conservation effort.
Accompanied by Leghorn and a wilderness ranger from the Forest Service, the four teens paddled over 30 miles from Angoon to Hood Bay on one of the two trips. There, they walked 10 miles and in the course, picked up two garbage bags full of trash. They went four miles inland to head to Whale Tail Lake, and for many of the youth, this was their first hike, and definitely their first bushwhack.
The eight-day trip at Young Lake, which the YCC travelled to by seaplane, offered a huge host of projects that needed completing: digging a new outhouse hole and moving the old one, extensive repairs on North Young Cabin and the surrounding facilities as well as routine maintenance work.
“I thought it was strange how we didn’t shower for a week,” George mused, and then commented that adjusting to the longer hours of work was difficult. “At the time I would complain, but looking back, I’m glad I did it.”
George said she probably won’t pursue a career in conservation but will probably apply for the YCC job next year.
“It’s like a summer activity for me,” she said. “If it’s wasn’t for this job, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out as much.”
The YCC program should run again next year, Leghorn said, though funding is always up in the air, particularly federal funding. This year, they received a significant amount of funding to pay for everything (sea plane use, kayaks, camping equipment, wage payment, etc.) from Hecla Charitable Foundation and a matching grant from the National Forest Foundation which combined, totalled $20,000. Both Hecla and NFF expressed in emails to the Capital City Weekly that they look forward to continuing their partnership with the program in the future.
“If we can keep increasing the capacity of these kids, maybe one day these kids will be able to operate their own crew out of (Admiralty),” Leghorn said, mentioning that after they came back from one of their trash cleanups in the wild, they discovered that Angoon was a mess after the Fourth of July celebrations. The youth wanted to go out and clean the place up and posted about it on Facebook, she said.
“Anytime you can get people who wouldn’t otherwise be out in a kayak or wouldn’t be out there hiking to experience it and become enamored with it that’s worthwhile,” said Leghron, “but then looking ahead, these kids are leaders in their community … when you look at it like that there’s no way to measure what you’re getting back.
Youth interested in applying to YCC in Angoon should contact Kevin Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org. Organizations interested in partnering for YCC should contac the National Forest Foundation at email@example.com.