I spent my summer wearing wet socks and scrambling up steep rock faces. My days were a mixture of hiking and shoveling vast amounts of dirt, and my nights were spent drinking hot chocolate around a campfire. My summer was dirty, smelly, and full of hard work, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way- it was the best summer of my life.
Last summer, I volunteered with the Student Conservation Association, an organization that takes students from all over and places them in work crews in national parks across the country. I applied last year and anxiously awaited my next placement. Finally, it arrived, and I received my top choice- Alaska. Before I knew it, I was boarding the plane to Anchorage.
When I arrived in Alaska, I met the eight people with whom I would be spending the next month living, sleeping, and working. We drove along 200 miles of spectacular coastline and set up our camp at Kenai Fjords National Park. We bonded quickly, as the constant bombardment by mosquitoes made optimism a necessity. Throughout the month, we graded trail tread, pruned roots, and built multiple stone stairs and retaining structures. The stones that we used to build stairs and walls were anywhere from 40 to 400 pounds and had to be hauled up from steep blast zones, which is no small feat in the pouring rain. Even in difficult situations, we were able to work together efficiently and ended up accomplishing more than the park had expected us to.
We didn’t work all day. We took frequent breaks to drink water and eat our Good Old Raisins and Peanuts, and the hikes to and from our worksite were filled with fun games and songs. Every Sunday, we had a rest day. One day, we hiked all the way up the trail we were working on and found ourselves on top of a 50 by 70 mile ice field. The views were incredible. One of my crewmembers brought a guitar and another one had a ukulele, so nightly jam sessions by the fire were common.
My crew was fortunate to have some beautiful weather at the beginning and end of our trip, but there was a two-week period of rain in the middle. However, we had things to do, so we put on our rain gear and kept working. Towards the end of our crew, the rain became so severe that it began to wash out the road, so we had to be evacuated. The period of time that we spent in the basement of an old restaurant during our evacuation was an adventure in and of itself.
I learned an awful lot from my month in the wilderness. I learned that every once in a while, letter writing can be the best form of communication. I learned that there is a special bond shared between people who have scrambled up precarious rock slopes and faced bears together. And I learned that sometimes, it’s the simple things that mean the most. You can never truly appreciate the feeling of being clean until you haven’t had a shower for a month. You’ll never know the meaning of true friendship until you find someone who’s willing to share his GORP with you when you’re all out. I don’t think you’ll ever realize what’s most important to you until you’re standing face to face with a bear that looks like he might be pretty hungry. And I don’t think you’ll ever find the true meaning of life if you’ve never felt the cool breeze coming off of a glacier.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.