As the four Student Conservation Association workers sat around a campfire on a St. Regis Pond island, storm clouds moved across the sky. An occasional lightning bolt lit up the water and thunderclaps drowned out the crackling of the small fire.
The four SCA workers - Sailee Clemens, Austin Deyo, Meredith Feinberg and Tim Cassese - were relaxing in the dim, flickering light after a long day spent working in the woods.
For 20 weeks this summer and fall, SCA workers will be in the St. Regis Canoe Area improving campsites, trails and doing whatever maintenance work the state Department of Environmental Conservation throws their way.
Student Conservation Association workers Austin Deyo, left, and Tim Cassese relocate a pit privy in the St. Regis Canoe Area.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The SCA is a program modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps. The idea for the program came in 1955 when Vassar College student Elizabeth Cushman proposed it in her senior thesis. Two years later, after being encouraged by many people in the conservation field, she helped get the program off the ground with her colleague Martha Hayne. That summer the Student Conservation Program (as it was then called) placed 53 summer volunteers in Grand Teton and Olympic national parks.
Today, the program has grown into a nationwide one that sends "volunteers" to both rural and urban areas to work on conservation projects, such as the one this summer in the St. Regis Canoe Area. Volunteers receive a $75 weekly stipend from the SCA. After their stints, they receive a $2,300 scholarship from AmeriCorps that can be put toward further schooling or existing college loans.
In the Adirondacks, the SCA uses the Whitney Headquarters on Little Tupper Lake as its headquarters and a place for its workers to stay on their days off.
From Whitney, SCA sends out four crews of either four or five people to various work projects throughout the Park. That's double what the Adirondacks normally receives. Crews stay in the field for assignments of either five or 10 days.
Project sites have included Mitchell Pond in the Moose River Plains, the Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb and other locations in the Park that DEC determines need improving.
This summer, the SCA, at the DEC's request, has dedicated one crew a week in the St. Regis Canoe Area from June to October. The plan is for them to implement improvements that are outlined in the St. Regis Canoe Area unit management plan that was adopted in 2006.
Those tasks include closing and opening campsites, improving canoe carry trails between ponds and other laborious tasks such as cleaning up old garbage dumps. The crews play a major role in performing field work that the DEC doesn't have the staff to do.
"We wouldn't be able to get it done without them," said DEC Forester Steve Guglielmi. "Using DEC operations crews, this would take several years, many years."
Guglielmi said this is the most work done in the canoe area since several decades ago when tent platforms were taken out from many campsites.
Many of the tasks that the SCA crews take on require them to live in the backcountry while they are completing their assignments. Places such the island on St. Regis Pond can take several hours to reach because of their remote locations, especially when the crews have to bring in tools.
SCA work crews here consist mainly of recent college graduates looking for seasonal employment that will provide them with a unique outdoors experience while allowing them to give back.
"I just graduated college so I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do as a career and thought that this would be a good idea to reflect on what I learned in college," said Feinberg, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Feinberg was SCA crew leader on the St. Regis Pond island project. For each assignment, crews have a new supervisor. She was in charge of making sure that her workers completed tasks such as closing down existing campsites by placing brush on them and transplanting some small plants or trees in them. There were also numerous trails that were closed, a fire pit to get rid of and a pit privy that needed to be moved. They "broke up" the compact soil at the old campsite and on the trails to make the location more desirable for plants.
The campsites are being moved mainly for environmental reasons, according to the DEC. Those located right on the water are being moved back. That lessens the impact on the ponds and puts the tents out of sight from paddlers using the area. Not having the tents visible is supposed to give the area a more remote feel.
While the work is relatively simple, the totality of the experience is valuable for many of the SCA workers. It teaches them to be self-reliant in a setting that can be beautiful one moment and difficult to cope with the next because of things such as weather, wildlife and even people.
There are no warm beds to return to at night, no showers, no toilets, no running water and no stoves. They must take precautions against losing their food to bears and squirrels and prepare evening meals on a portable camp stove. But it's an experience that offers the workers a new perspective on life.
They appreciate little things such as hot meals, hot drinks and other luxuries of modern life. But they also realize those luxuries can be detrimental.
"Stepping away from the computer and the cell phone and that type of thing just really made me realize, you can get so much accomplished in a day if you're not on the computer all the time or you're not on the phone," said Feinberg, who is from the Boston area. "At the end of the day, and looking at what you did, has really changed my perspective."
The assignments can also be a lesson in local culture or history. Cassese said that during his last stint at St. Regis Pond, his crew camped with a man who had been coming to the area for decades. The man, who was originally from Malone but had since moved to the Midwest, was a bit dismayed at the work being done by Cassese and his crew. He had used a certain campsite for decades and had an emotional tie to it. He didn't want to see it moved.
"He was definitely respectful of the work we were doing. He was just letting us know that it was going to be a tough battle with people wanting to move the brush away," said Cassese, who also said the man provided hamburgers and hot dogs for a barbecue the crew's last night of work.
Cassese and other crew members said most people thanked the young crews for their work and appreciated the labor they put into the projects. In general, despite some of the hardships of living in the woods, the four said the experience was a positive one that made them bond.
"What has struck me is how well we all get along," said Deyo, who is from Syracuse. "I was nervous about that at the start."
A big part of that is that those who signed up for SCA did it because they had an interest in the outdoors and improving the environment. Clemens, who is from Coos Bay, Ore., said she wanted to join the Peace Corps but the more than two-year commitment was more than she wanted. Instead she signed up for the five-month stint in the Adirondacks.
"I just wanted to do something to give back," Clemens said.
Contact Mike Lynch at email@example.com or 891-2600 ext. 28.