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How Conservation Work Changed My Life


Conservation Trip

How Conservation Work Changed My Life

By Autumn Litten, Age 17

As soon as I moved within five feet of my dad, he let out a noise somewhere between a yelp and a gasp and told me that I smelled like a stray dog and was in desperate need of a shower. “45 minutes MINIMUM,” he ordered. I simply smiled a knowing smile and obliged. Being under warm running water had never felt so close to paradise before in my entire 16 years of existence - but that night it was a sweet, sweet, hour of pure bliss. 

Now, this wasn’t the greeting I had exactly expected from my dad after not seeing him for 5 weeks, but it was a reasonable one as he was right - I had showered for a total of 10 minutes, broken up between 3 separate occasions, during those 35 days. 

Once in the shower, the water that ran down my body and to the shower’s drain was brown. Dark brown. I was washing off just over a month’s worth of sweat, dirt, and who knows what else. The time leading up until this moment had been the hardest five weeks I had experienced in my life, but I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I had spent the past five weeks in the woods of Idaho working for the Idaho Conservation Corps (ICC). We were doing conservation work - trail maintenance, building fences, and removing invasive species. We’d sometimes work ten-hour days and it was as hot as 114 degrees Fahrenheit. Our base camps didn’t have access to technology, running water, communication with the outside world, and this was the longest I’d been away from my family and friends.

For 34 out of the 35 nights, I slept outside, on the ground. Just me and the most incredible stars I’ve ever seen. I slept outside during the rain. I slept outside during a lightning storm. I slept outside during intense cold and heatwaves. I slept outside with mice scurrying into the hood of my sleeping bag. I slept outside with just me and my dingy 1-inch-thick Thermarest egg crate sleeping pad. We took turns preparing backpacking food for all three meals which there never seemed to be quite enough of, despite the obscenely large portions we’d all ravenously scarf down each day. And we treated our creek, river, or lake drinking water with a few drops of bleach. 

Five weeks. 

35 days. 

50,400 minutes.

It felt like an eternity when we backpacked 10 miles of shadeless trail into the backcountry drenched in sweat, carrying trail work tools, and ten days worth of gear and food in 114-degree weather. And when we spent a mind-numbing 37 ½ hours pulling weeds on a riverbank. And when we drove together for 11 hours straight in a van to the Canadian border after just meeting for the first time (the van’s top speed was 55 mph - ICC rules). And when we ate peanut butter and jelly in tortillas for lunch. Every. Single. Day. And when we were in the backcountry for ten days. And when we laid out 2 miles of fence parts before we could start to build. And every other time things got difficult and we couldn’t just call it quits. 

And then it was gone in the blink of an eye when we were driving back to where our parents would pick us up. 

I was in a group with 8 other 16 and 17-year olds, all from different places and backgrounds, and in charge of us were two adults in their early twenties. For most of the five weeks, I saw no one outside of those ten other people and prior to the session, none of us had met. All of these reasons and more are why I learned so much about myself, others, and the world as a whole in those 35 days. I grew as a person, peer, and citizen of the world as I completed work for the National Park and Forest Services. 

During this entire experience, and for the weeks afterward, while describing it to others, one word was repeated over and over. Grit. Grit. Grit. “You teenagers are really learning what grit means,” or “Wow, you have so much grit!,” or “I can’t imagine the grit that must’ve taken,” or “Holy cow - you’re one gritty young woman!,” to name a few. 

Every day of work was not only a physical challenge but also a mental and emotional one. I learned that I can do hard things. I learned it’s simply all a mental game - whether on a hard hike or doing physically difficult labor, you take it one step at a time and don’t give up. Perseverance is not a state that you reach but rather enter.  

I’m not exaggerating when I say this work changed my life. I gained an entirely new perspective on what my limits are - and for the most part, I learned there are none. I exceeded what I thought my physical limits were. I learned to be a leader but also a follower. I worked with a group of high schoolers my age to accomplish amazing things that we felt good about. We built two miles of fence. We did trail maintenance on 6 miles of trail in 8 days. We helped stop the spread of harmful invasive species. And most importantly, we became a closely-knit group that knew how to work together to achieve a common goal. We worked as a team out of necessity and depended on each other to do our camp chores, look out for each other, and be both leaders and followers - otherwise there would have been no water to drink, food to eat, or gear to share. 

I also learned that we have to treat this planet with the utmost care. It took back-breaking hours of physical labor to maintain just one short hiking trail. Having the experience of maintaining one backcountry trail made me realize how much respect I should have for nature and those who dedicate their lives to preserving it. It also inspired me to want to work harder to preserve the earth as well as spread awareness about how important protecting our home planet is. I realized that the beautiful views are hours upon hours of work from people dedicated to outdoor spaces.  That was a powerful understanding.

My life was changed by doing conservation work. It showed me where I want my future to go, (into working to protect the environment), as well as gave me a deeper appreciation for my outdoor experiences. I also came closer to grasping what it really means to have grit and perseverance from the grueling circumstances in which I had no choice but to keep going. Despite all of the hardship, I recently signed a contract to work with another conservation corps this coming summer. I look forward to pushing myself further, learning more conservation skills, and if I come home having only showered for ten minutes over the course of 35 days, I’ll know I would have done my job right.

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