They met on July 17, 2013, not quite sure what to expect. Six talented young women, all alumni of programs like North Cascades Institute’s Cascades Climate Challenge and North Cascades Wild, as well as the Student Conservation Association, met up with three North Cascades Institute instructors to embark on the Institute’s newest course: Leadership Corps. Leadership Corps is a 31-day course for 18-22 year old students who are interested in exploring careers in public lands and expanding their leadership, backcountry travel, and work skills. The Corpsmembers spent four weeks in the North Cascades National Park Complex completing trail maintenance and ecological restoration projects alongside Institute and National Park employees. This year, the crew happened to be all female, and as they explored the vast beauty of the National Park they also explored what it means to be a woman in a non-traditional career: a trail dog. This is the story of the Cedarosas….
The crew on their last day in the field in Stehekin, WA. From left to right: Sahara (Instructor), Sage, Annabelle, Mohawk, Monica, Yadira, Karina, Sabrina (Instructor), and Kevin (Instructor) underneath
Their journey began in the northern unit of the National Park on Ross Lake. After a trip on the Park’s faithful mint green boat, the Mule, the crew set out to their first destination. Straining and struggling with heavy packs most were unaccustomed to, the first leg of the journey was long, hot, and buggy.
What is backcountry trail maintenance? Imagine your favorite trail to hike or explore. How does the path underneath your feet look? Does it pool water or are there drainage systems put in place to carry away the rainwater? What about the vegetation on the sides of the trail? Does it brush up against your legs, soaking you with dew, or is there a defined corridor for you to travel comfortably? What about the grade of the trail—how steep is it? Can you easily navigate the terrain and travel over gentle sloping hills, or are you kicking in steps in the hillside as you struggle to gain or lose elevation?
All of these factors, and so many more, are taken into account when caring for and maintaining trail systems, campsites, picnic areas, and recreation areas in public lands. It can take a lifetime of performing trail work to understand the nuances of maintaining trail systems. Learning how to read the landscape, to predict where water might flow and pool, what kind of trail feature to install to ensure longevity of the trail—these are the crafts of a trail dog. Working alongside trail crew veterans, the Leadership Corpsmembers began to scratch the surface of this trade, and the earth itself.
Sahara and Yadira, working to carve a new trail down to a newly leveled and widened tent pad at Perry Creek Campground off the Little Beaver trail near Ross Lake
Sage and Annabelle creating a waterbar, a drainage feature to slough water off the trail, on the newly carved rerouted trail from Bridge Creek to McAlester Lake
Yadira and Student Conservation Association intern, Daniel, setting up cable rigging to wench a large boulder out of the middle of a newly carved section of trail
Crewmembers working to decommission an illegal campsite at the North Fork of Bridge Creek by strewing around rocks, debris, and wind-fallen branches
Leadership Corps wasn’t all work, however. The crew also found plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company and the beautiful landscape they were traveling in.
As the trip progressed, the group moved from the green, lush, cedar forests of Ross Lake down to the dry, crisp Ponderosa Pine forests of Lake Chelan and Stehekin. Along the way, the group explored concepts of wilderness, leadership, personal growth, professional opportunities, and the beauty surrounding them. The unofficial name of this year’s Leadership Corps, the Cedarosas, stands to bridge the gap between the two ecosystems explored throughout the trip.
Leadership, we learned, is a visceral skill. It is dynamic, evolving, and something to develop over a lifetime. It takes practice, refinement, and experience, and cannot be taught in the course of 31 days. But it is never too late to begin emulating the qualities of a good leader. Through collaboration, communication, and hard work, the Cedarosas not only explored leadership and gained workplace experience, they learned what it meant to have expeditionary behavior and to be a leader in all situations. Through challenges, both group and individual, each member of the Cedarosas grew and developed their own personal styles of leadership.
One of the instructors, prior to the trip, developed a mission statement for Leadership Corps:
“The mission of Leadership Corps is to provide college-age individuals a chance to meaningfully consider a career in public land and/or natural resource management, as well as to provide some of the basic skills to pursue such a career through valuable work experiences and training while working on a variety of trail and resource management projects, as well as through focused lessons and journaling prompts.”
At the end of the 31 days, the Leadership Corpsmembers had hiked over 70 miles, cleared vegetation on 5 miles of trails, built 400 feet of new trail, installed 4 water drainage features, installed 4 signs, created 5 new tent pads, removed 15 pounds of invasive rush skeleton weed from the Stehekin airstrip, and left a piece of themselves across both the northern and southern units of the North Cascades National Park Complex.
The final task for the Cedarosas was to tell their story in an interpretive ranger program at Colonial Creek campground on their last evening on course. After one day of preparation, they were ready. Amidst rain and nerves, the Cedarosas conquered this last challenge with style, grace, and one stellar presentation. As one of the instructors for Leadership Corps, hearing the corpsmembers share their experience in their own words was deeply powerful. As an audience member that night, I was impressed by the presence, tenacity, and sheer resilience of this group—their passion and strength was almost palpable in the misty amphitheater. This group of women disbanded on August 16, 2013, each taking with them a piece of this journey into their next chapters.
Watching this group develop and grow over the course of 31 days and then watching them leave the Environmental Learning Center on their last day makes me hopeful for our future. Tucked away in various pockets of the Pacific Northwest are the Cedarosas—six of the most incredible young women and two fantastic co-instructors I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with. Watch out world.
Sahara Suval is a graduate student in Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute’s M.Ed program. During the summer of her graduate residency she co-led the first North Cascades Youth Leadership Corps. Sahara grew up in Stanwood, WA and has been riding horses since age 5.