Conservation corps builds trails, camaraderie

Take six young women, all strangers. Have them spend the summer together, 24/7. Send them into mosquito- and chigger-filled woods to break rocks, chop wood and scrape dirt in the steamy, swampy, sweaty Southern summer. Pay them a pittance and give each $5.10 a day for food, no matter how hearty the appetite induced by hard labor.

How does it go?

Amazing. Eye-opening. Fulfilling.

That’s the verdict from the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps crew that just finished fixing and building trails along Jordan Lake.

“It connects you to the beginning,” said Kyleene Rooks, a biology major at North Carolina A&T University. Back home, Rooks said she found herself inside too much, spending too much time online and getting bored.

“If I even think I’m bored here, I look up at the sky and the trees and remember how amazing it is that I am here on this planet, living life,” she said. “I want to share this with my little brother and sister.”

Now in its fourth year, the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps puts its crews to work improving protected natural areas, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

On Saturday, before moving on to start a new project in the Charlotte area, crew members gave a tour of the trail work they’d done over the past two weeks near the Jordan Lake Dam.

The first stop Saturday was a trail to an old farm pond reborn as a “herp habitat,” herpeton being the ancient Greek word for crawling animals such as turtles, frogs, toads and snakes.

Randa Boykin described how the crew closed off an eroded section of path and built a new one through a pine stand whose blackened trunks were evidence of a controlled burn, designed to promote the growth of longleaf pines.

“It was nice to hear the bullfrogs as we work,” said Boykin, an engineering student at N.C. State.

The crew slept at a nearby campground. They woke each day at five, made breakfast and planned the day’s work.

In the woods they wielded implements such as the cutter mattock, pick mattock, hazel hoe and pulaski, a trail tool with an ax and adze. Their Friday nights featured time cleaning, sharpening and oiling their tools.

There were physical challenges, like unearthing 200- or 300-pound rocks and rolling them into place, a job requiring two or three women. Once in place, the crew would chisel the stone flat to serve as a step, and fill in the hole. Like an iceberg, only a small part of the stone is visible to the eye.

Sarai Lizama, a chemistry major from UNC Charlotte, said the hauling and chiseling could be frustrating in the July heat, but completion had a payoff.

“The feeling after you finish, it’s ecstatic,” she said. “It’s amazing to feel the joy.”

Perhaps the most stressful job was food organizer, which fell first to Mara Chamlee, a biology major at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. That entailed three meals and snacks for $5.10 a day per person. The twice-weekly shopping trips have somehow all come in under budget, sometimes by as little as 10 cents.

The key is going (mostly) vegetarian, she said. Friday night’s meal was vegetarian Greek gyros, with grilled eggplant, chickpeas and yogurt.

“We have eaten so much, and so well,” she said.

The payoffs go far beyond the minimum wage directly deposited in their accounts back home. Chamlee said she plans to include outdoor field research into her career.

Rooks said she plans to embed the outdoors into her life.

“As you grow, you can see the same thing but it means different things,” she said. “Like reading a book, its meaning changes over time.”

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff