In mid-August, RMFI concluded the 16th annual Earth Corps field studies program. Ten college students from across the nation (and Canada) and a small team of RMFI staff spent a month living, working, and learning in the Colorado backcountry. Early mornings that started with a hike to 13,000 feet gave way to long days working in the alpine to establish a new sustainable summit trail to Challenger Point (14,081') and Kit Carson Peak (14,170'). The focus in the afternoon shifted to academics -- reading scholarly articles on Colorado water law or climate change, or hearing from a visiting expert in botany or public lands management, among many other topics. Evenings were spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Willow Lake Basin before re-fueling on dinners high in carbs, finally preparing to do it all again the next day.
The following is a summary of the experience as told by three students, written on the final morning of the program.
"If I had to sum up my Earth Corps experience in one word, I would have to choose the word growth. One month ago I never could have imagined the different ways that I've grown over these past 30 days up in the Willow Creek Basin. I've seen growth physically, growth mentally, and growth socially that can't be attained in my everyday life.
My physical growth became apparent about a week and a half into the program. On the first day when we hike 5 miles to base camp, I didn't think I was cut out for the program. I barely made it to the base camp and was exhausted once I made it. I stuck with it though and after a week working on the trail, I felt like a completely different person. I felt stronger, faster, and more energetic than I have in my whole life.
My mental growth became apparent almost immediately once I reached camp. I had no idea that I was strong enough to push myself to make it to camp. The alpine environment was the perfect place to distance myself from everyday stresses and focus. I learned more about the environment and conservation than I did in any other class. The isolation from society helped me to also focus on the things that truly make me happy."
"It is hard to find words to describe my time at Earth Corps. I feel as if nothing I say can fully do justice the experiences I had and relationships I made.
One thing I can say for sure is that I will never forget it. The trail work was tough, but rewarding, the academic side was interesting and memorable. The views were spectacular and the people unforgettable.
I'd like to thank everyone who contributed to possibly the coolest month of my life, students and staff alike."
"Beginning the ascent in to Willow Lake Basin, I had no idea what to expect. I heard the first mile or so was all switchbacks, and if you could get through that, you could make it through the rest. I was doing well through that and for another couple of miles until the talus field headwall. There, my pack seemed to weigh 200 pounds and my legs seemed to stop moving. I had so many thoughts running through my head; I literally considered unpacking my pack and carrying individual items up. Soon, however, I become more life-like and finished the hike feeling good. The arrival at camp was magnificent; I felt truly elated at both the site and at having completed such a hike. The Basin is surrounded by large talus fields from which I could see several Bighorn sheep travel to forage. I then walked up to the lake and saw the waterfall loud and cascading over the large rock formations into a serene and still pond of freezing water. From this moment, I knew this was going to be an experience like nothing I have ever done or even imagined before.
The trail construction was challenging, yet incredibly rewarding. For me, pushing myself to move large rocks and crush rocks 50 times for one single break was certainly going to make me stronger. Additionally, the idea of working, getting to know, and laughing with each of my fellow students is something that cannot be accurately described. We shared countless tough jobs, inside jokes, and unique ideas. At the site, the day seemed to fly by; soon it was about 2 PM and I could feel the storm clouds gathering. After we hiked down, the rest of the day brought either a fascinating and knowledgeable lecturer, a lively group discussion, an exploration up to a talus field, or a quick jump in the freezing lake, just to name a few. It was during this time that I spent some of my most memorable moments with others and engaged in profound thinking and self-reflection. After the free time in the afternoon, we all gathered for a delectable and quite creative dinner. This was always a great time to bond AND enjoy really, really good food that is typically not associated with backcountry living.
As I conclude my experience on Earth Corps, I mull over the many different skills I learned and think about how fortunate I am to have had this experience. This is a one-of-a-kind program that cannot be boiled down to a few words; it has to be experienced in its fullest."