Wineka column: Crew No. 13 of Youth Conservation Corps builds trails, character in Spencer Woods

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 26, 2014

SPENCER — Imagine for the next seven weeks you are thrown together with nine other people from various parts of the country.
You eat every meal together, sleep in the same rudimentary accommodations and have little contact with the outside world. Your isolated workdays are eight hours of hard labor, wearing helmets and wielding tools such as picks, shovels, axes and mattocks.
The pay is minimum wage. The sweat is free.
This might sound like an Army boot camp, but it’s really the life of a 10-person crew from the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps. Four of those crews have spread across North Carolina this summer, including one here for two weeks building trails, rerouting others, benching some areas, erecting a bridge and installing culverts.
The work in Spencer Woods, a 42-acre urban forest owned by the town of Spencer and conserved by the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, is Crew No. 13’s tuneup for a bigger five-week project near Asheville.
(Spencer Woods lies at the edge of Spencer, with Rowan Avenue cutting through it. You also can reach the area by following North Jackson Street out of Salisbury.)
At the end of next week, Crew No. 13 will leave for Hickory Nut Gorge to etch out a three-mile section of a 14-mile loop trail for the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.
What’s the payback for these young adults?
Amanda Hixon of St. Petersburg, Fla., says it’s a nice first step for her into the field of conservation.
Eamon Brennan, a crew leader along with Shannon Pauli, says the seven weeks build character.
While the work is brutally monotonous, grueling and muscle-testing, it’s rewarding, too, says Noah Decker of Hillsborough, who is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Crew 13 gathered for the first time last Saturday in Raleigh, as the N.C. Youth Conservation Corps launched its second summer of conservation service work.
The NCYCC represents a partnership between the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, where these types of crews — built on the legacy of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps — are much more established.
If you want a technical definition of the Youth Conservation Corps’ work, it’s “a comprehensive youth development program that uses the natural world as a platform for teaching job and leadership skills, community service, environmental stewardship and personal responsibility.”
Brennan and Pauli wear the blue helmets of crew leaders because they are older and more experienced. The other crew members wear green helmets.
Owing to their lucky No. 13, the crew experienced a flat tire on its trailer only a few miles from the Interstate 85 exit for Salisbury this past weekend.
Brennan says it was more of an explosion than a flat. Standing along the interstate turned out to be good bonding time for the crew.
The crew members spend their evenings at the Dan Nicholas Park campground, where, appropriately, a black cat has adopted the crew. But they also have had some good luck.
Jason Walser, executive director of the LandTrust for North Carolina, has surprised them with delicacies such as a watermelon, egg-and-cheese biscuits and Popsicles. Otherwise, the crew works off a budget of $5.10 a person per day, so they make their dollars stretch by eating a lot of camping and trail food.
Brennan and Pauli have instituted a blackout rule during the work week — no electronic devices such as cellphones, tablets or iPods.
So at night back at Dan Nicholas Park, there’s a lot of reading, writing and discussion. At lunch, deep in the woods, Brennan or Pauli also lead programs focused on conservation and social topics.
The crew arrives at Spencer Woods about 7:30 a.m., and the men and women hike into the location where they’ll be working and do some stretching to prepare themselves for the labor ahead.
They count their tools, pack up and walk out of the woods about 4:30 each afternoon.
The crew members find it interesting how isolated they are in their forest environment, yet they routinely hear the city sounds of freight trains and sirens.
Some relaxation comes for the crew on weekends. They plan on taking a trip into Salisbury or Spencer to do their laundry — each crew members receives, for example, only two uniform shirts, so those are in definite need of a wash by week’s end.
They also plan a field trip this weekend to the N.C. Transportation Museum. Last Sunday, they were able to watch the U.S. team’s World Cup soccer match at Go Burrito in Salisbury.
The N.C. Youth Conservation Corps is designed for young adults from 16 to 24. Crew No. 13 has five men and five women who range in age from 19 to 23.
The crew members include Brennan, Pauli, Hixon, Decker, William Shay of Sanford, Courtney Poole of Laurinburg, Shakita Holloway of Burlington, Shaw Stanford of Beaver Dam, Va., Patrick Carlin of Wilson and Blair Thompson, who attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Shay, Stanford and Carlin all attend N.C. State.
Early this week, the crew has been building wider trails from what pretty much has been footpaths through the woods.
“Trying to make it user friendly,” Thompson says.
Roots and other tripping hazards are being eliminated, while the trail itself is angled properly to allow for water runoff.
“The goal is to keep water off the trail and people on the trail,” Decker says.
At times, whole tree trunks too heavy to move have to be split where they lay on the trail. Swinging a long-handled ax, Hixon, Pauli and Decker took their turns on a stubborn trunk Wednesday afternoon before breaking through on two ends.
“Got it,” Decker announced to Pauli.
“Nice,” she said.
The only time the crew will use power tools is when it builds a bridge later on.
Pauli says Crew 13 is a good one, even respectful.
“Will called me ‘Ma’am’ on the phone,” she says, recalling a conversation prior to their meeting for the first time.
When you work this close for much of a summer, strong friendships often form. You also have some pretty good trail-builders by the end.
“Day by day, we’re getting better,” Hixon says. “We’ve got it down now.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or