A Different Kind of Summer Job: Youth Conservation Corps on the Hiawatha

Hiawatha YCCHiawatha YCC 2


Author: Mary Biggs, U.S. Forest Service

Arriving at Clear Lake Education Center is like entering another world. Deep in the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest, Clear Lake is surrounded by white birch trees and red pine, black-eyed Susan and milkweed growing in patches of sun, and the remarkably clear lake for which the center is named.

The brown buildings clustered around a makeshift basketball court were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. It’s very fitting that these CCC buildings housed another group of young people working on our public lands this summer: the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). This particular YCC crew came from all over the U.S. They spent four weeks on the Hiawatha, re-routing over a mile of trail and performing invasive plant removal and timber work with Forest Service employees. Evening education sessions included archery, Forest Service careers, and how to light a match with a hatchet. Every day enrollees engaged in the challenging, vital work of living and working together in a community, far from cell phone service and Wi-Fi.

They were mentored by a group of adults who, like the teenagers, had come from many different parts of the country. The camp manager, Cameron, was a disabled veteran whose volunteer application arrived in the mail the very day Forest Service staff realized they needed an extra supervisor on site. Dubious at first about working with high schoolers, Cameron smiled on the last day when asked if he would consider doing this again. “Absolutely. This place,” he nodded to Clear Lake, to the forest around us, to the teenagers preparing for their last day of trail work, “This place is magic.”

Later, several youth were asked what they were most proud of from the experience. “I’m proud of coming all the way out here,” a girl named Nyjah said, and others agreed that traveling so far from home had been transformative. “I realized I had to start doing stuff like this, stuff that was outside of my comfort zone,” a boy named Dominic added, “because if you can do this, you can do…,” “Anything,” Nyjah finished for him. “Yeah,” Dominic responded, grinning, and the pride in their eyes was unmistakable, “You can do anything.”