A Summer with the Maine Conservation Corps

By Garrick Hoffman 

MaineConservationCorp2Want to work outdoors for a season or two? How about packing on some serious muscles that would make the average Planet Fitness member wonder how you did it? Would you fancy exploring some of the Maine wilderness, meeting new people, and reaping the many enticing benefits that the Maine Conservation Corps has to offer?

I know, I sound like their spokesperson. But really I’m just an MCC alumni from just one season with them.

Last year, in the summer of 2013, I was recruited as a field team member for the Maine Conservation Corps. I spent the season working outdoors, rain or shine, and sleeping in my tent during the workweek. Hitches (the term used to describe the work week) range from five to nine days at a time. The nature of the work is primarily trail rehabilitation, from tackling some odds-and-ends like bridgework and “corridoring” (severing limbs of trees that protrude into the trails), to constructing monstrous stone staircases, to erecting beam and bog bridges. And, in rain or shine as I mentioned. You could find yourself soaked from sweat or rain, even despite your best preparation efforts.

We’d (my team and I) be submerged in clouds of mosquitoes sometimes, sometimes supremely fatigued, and always stinkier than a moldy basement teeming with hippies. But we’d also relish the scenery, relish the feeling at the tail end of our accomplishments – despite any adversity we faced – as well as relish that sense of camaraderie between my teammates and me. I also quite enjoyed that for once, I wasn’t working in retail or working in a kitchen. It felt like a very unconventional job to have, and one that I had been interested in for some time.

One of the reasons I joined was to explore the state I’ve resided in for my entire life, much of which I’ve never seen. (I’ve never even been to Acadia National Park. Somehow I made it to Haleakala National Park in Hawaii first. Bewildering, I know.)

I’m fortunate because I was one of three members that comprised the MCC’s lone “mini-team,” which was me and two other women. Every other team has about 5-7 members, one of the members being the designated crew leader (which also applied for my team). As the mini team, we were able to work in seven different locations in the state, whereas the other bigger teams were bound to just two or three locations. I guess fell into the right team. Thanks, MCC!

We began in Vaughan Woods State Park for a nine-day hitch, then to Mackworth Island in Falmouth for a five-day, followed by Ellsworth City Forest, Jewell Island, Swan’s Island, Vaughan Woods Homestead, and finally in Thurston Park. My favorite places to work in were Jewell Island and Swan’s Island – Jewell for the beautiful location (planted in the far end of Casco Bay), scenery and ideal weather conditions, and Swan’s for the location, provisions that the residents offered, and the work itself.

I learned a few things working for them:

One, manual labor is absolutely not for me. Not that I’m lazy, I assure you – I’m a very restless person who can’t be sedentary unless I’m working on something, and I regularly work out and exercise. I’m just bored by it; it does nothing to tickle my fancy. I already had the foundation of that idea and feeling prior to, and it was further confirmed following, in a different line of work I found myself in. It’s a certain breed of work that simply does not click in my head, and when attempting to execute things that require some mental calculation, my brain goes haywire and cannot comprehend, which makes me a very non-hands-on do-it-yourself guy (I hope my future wife forgives me). Also, failing at these attempts for me just about always results in chagrin and a sense of incompetence and inadequacy. I’ll pass. Art is far more up my alley. If only it paid better.

Two, I can actually step up and assume some kind of administrative, facilitating position. On Swan’s Island I had to coordinate volunteers that were helping us tackle an enormous project that required belaying monolithic stones several hundred yards through the thickness of the woods. These stones were going to be installed into a steep hill as a sizable staircase (the figure was around 17 steps, but I may be thinking of my Jewell Island project, which was certainly around that figure).

It was an undertaking that was insurmountable for a three-person mini-team, even for the nine-day hitch that it was. It would have required another five days or so. Anyway, I was responsible for giving commands to the volunteers and facilitating the stone delivery one-by-one, and I had a lot of fun using my big-boy voice to bellow such commands. The experience told me I could see myself in some species of an administrative position, and that I was able to tackle the responsibilities necessary of me that were typically outside of my comfort – or just ordinary – realm.

The educational experiences were aplenty, however. My brain vacuumed in loads and loads of information – and that was just one summer! Besides a new familiarity with tools, the history of each location, and much, much more, each hitch we were required to fulfill hours dedicated to education. We did a good job at using those hours when it rained, so we could eschew the nasty working conditions when possible, which wasn’t always the case.

We learned to tie fancy knots (if only I could retain that information…curse my brain), how to cook with rudimentary gear, and once we even got a tour of Fort McClary, a defensive fortification near Kittery Point that was established – but never really used – for war purposes, notably during the 1800s and World War II. As a history junkie, this experience was like apple pie to a sugar fiend in the fall. Another couple of education hours later on in the season, at Swan’s Island, included a lesson on the shore from two marine biologists from California. It was a beautiful day, and I was asking a lot of questions because it was all so fascinating to me.

All in all, despite my frequent frustrations and foul stink, despite the clouds of mosquitoes and cruel weather conditions, I reflect on my MCC experience very fondly. I met many new people, shared jokes and had fun with my teammates. It was also the first time I think I’ve discussed so openly the topic of bowel movements with two females I just met. That was neat. I packed on muscle that the governator would envy. I experienced the rigor and reward (and of course my own stress and humility) of manual labor. It all adds up to a worthy experience.

Furthermore, the perks of working for the Maine Conversation Corps are very, very enticing. They give you a weekly “stipend” (it’s considered a living allowance, and it’s indeed not that much, at about $260/week before taxes for a field crew member like myself), and they offer health insurance, food stamps if necessary, a free state park pass to camp in on your days off, and if you complete all the hours necessary, an education award. For me, the award stood at $1,478. For crew leaders it may have been more. It’s also more if you work more than one season. If you work both the summer and fall seasons, it sums up to slightly under $4,000. The staff at the MCC are also very affable, very organized people who have the utmost regard for their employees, so you feel like you’re always in good hands.

I’ll also add that while you’re on hitch, alcohol is not permitted even after you’re done the workday. So let me stress how rewarding, how well earned, how damn elating and delicious that beer at the end of the week is.

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