Fixing Trails, Building Courage

Three Weeks at Cape Cod National Seashore


I couldn’t have imagined a year ago that the summer after senior year, I’d be wearing a hard hat and a neon construction vest, hacking roots with a pulaski.

In second semester, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do this summer. I knew I’d be going to China for the first time (my greatest bucket list item for as long as I can remember). But I also brainstormed topics that I’d wanted to explore more in high school but never got to, and conservation came to mind. I had a great time volunteering with the East Bay Regional Park District last year, but it wasn’t conservation-based work, and I wanted to be more adventurous. I started researching and found the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit group that places teenagers in crews across the country to do trail work for the National Park Service. Even though I had hardly any outdoors experience, I indicated on my SCA application that I wouldn’t mind being placed anywhere in the US. My parents thought I was being pretty reckless (which I was), but I really, really wanted this.

The old Coast Guard Station, dubbed “the Hilton” by our crew leaders. This picture can’t capture the smell of the ocean, which words can’t really capture, either. :”)

Months later, I got my assignment: July 13 to August 2, at Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. It turned out to be the luckiest location in the world, no exaggeration. I lived with two crew leaders and seven crew members on Coast Guard Beach in the tiny town of Eastham, in a historic building that served as a Coast Guard Station until 1958. In almost every room, we could hear waves crashing against the shore, and even the bathroom window’s view was breathtaking: salt marshes on the right, the ocean to the left, and sand bars loaded with seals at low tide.

Even though we were living for free at one of the best beaches in America, the 8-hour workdays were exhausting. We woke up at 6:30 am every morning and drove half an hour to our work site, the Pamet Area Trails in North Truro. It’s an inviting trail and popular with the public because of multiple overlooks towards the ocean, endless bushes of wild blueberries (stuffed my face with these during breaks), and a historic cranberry bog house at the end of the trail (commercial cranberry harvesting began here on Cape Cod!).

Hiking to the ocean and admiring our finished trails.

One of our tasks was brushing the trail and clearing a corridor through the vegetation. This is called the “corridor of sacrifice,” since it’s inevitable that a certain amount of wild area has to be cleared to enable safe public access. In addition, the drainage on these trails hadn’t been attended to for about twenty years, so our other objective was to improve erosion control and replace the old wooden steps (also loosely called water bars, since they prevent runoff from washing away the trail). This involved prying out the old wood with a rock bar and pulling out the old rebars that secured the wood in the trail, and then installing new water bars and rebars. It wasn’t difficult to get used to the process, but each water bar was different because of the changing slope and width of the trail, so some were much harder to take out or install than others. The most taxing part of the work was carrying timber and pushing gravel-filled wheelbarrows up to the places where we needed it, which were often far from the main piles. At the beginning of the program, I couldn’t lift one of the timber four-footers on my own, even though everyone else could. And neither could I push the wheelbarrow up the hill without taking multiple breaks, but I learned quickly that I have to work at my own pace to avoid injury, even if it means being slower than others.

I always came home from work days feeling completely spent, despite going through four times as much water as I normally drink in a day. The Monday of our second week, we worked for a few hours in 95 degree weather, at 80% humidity. After we came home, it was always an immense relief to run straight into the chilly ocean.

Go Orleans Firebirds!
Coast Guard life-saving demonstration at Race Point.

Besides working on the trail, we went on a lot of other excursions. We watched the sunrise and stargazed at Marconi Station, where the first transatlantic wireless station was established. We ate dinner in the bustling and rainbow-flag-covered Provincetown, watched a historic reenactment of early Coast Guard rescue procedures, and climbed a lighthouse. Our crew leaders also snuck in two surprise events: watching a game of small-town baseball and throwing a 40th birthday party for Jaws. Funnily enough, that was filmed just south of Cape Cod, and a few days after we watched it, a great white was spotted catching a seal on our beach.

Highland Lighthouse

I entered this experience with a long list of fears: riding a plane alone for the first time, living with nine strangers, being unable to keep up with much more athletic crew mates, facing ticks/mosquitoes/biting flies/poison ivy, and more.

Those fears all came true at some point, and none of them were as terrifying as I thought. Other things happened, too, like losing my glasses to a giant wave and getting chased by angry wasps because I lopped off a branch over their nest. These, again, were hardly catastrophes. My greatest worry, though, was wondering whether I made the right choice to throw the real world aside and perform heavily physical labor five days a week for three weeks, when I could be investing my time in something more “practical” or academic, like I’ve always done every summer. It also weighed on me throughout my trip that when I returned, there would be less than two weeks before college move-in. I felt nowhere near prepared.

Gradually, though, as I got to know my crew and physically challenged myself, I realized that my decision to do this was not just right, but invaluable, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or ever will. During my trip, I held and petted a peregrine falcon, canoed through an estuary, hiked through a swamp, watched whales as we ate lunch, and saw the International Space Station inch across the stars. I met nine very different people from all over, who turned out to be not as different from me as I thought. Most importantly, I gained the confidence to live in the moment. It’s hard to trust that I make choices which are right for me, but I think I’m getting there.

Sunset at Marconi Station. We asked each other at every meal what we’re grateful for, and I’m grateful for the above.
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