By Brian Bullock, Santa Maria Times
Summer break for many teenagers means a part-time job, trips to the beach, family vacations or sometimes all of the above.
Griffin Hall, a senior at Santa Maria High School, can tell his friends he spent the summer blazing trails.
Hall, 17, spent 28 days in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area building a hiking and biking trail he hopes will last at least as long as his memories of the experience.
He did the project as part of Student Conservation Association, a 53-year-old organization that places students ages 15 to 21 in conservation programs and projects all over the country.
Griffin was part of a 10-person National Conservation Crew, a group of students 15 to 19, who work in national parks, forests or recreation areas. Griffin's crew constructed a hiking and off-road biking trail approximately 6 feet wide and nearly 2 miles long in the Sawtooth Mountains.
For Griffin, the experience started about as smoothly as the distinctive ridge of the Sawtooth Mountains in the Idaho Rocky Mountains. After his mother Linda discovered the program, Griffin's application was turned down. But he got a second chance when another student was forced to drop out.
Things didn't get much better when Griffin found out where he would be going. An avid hiker, he was hoping for a more glamorous location such as Alaska's Denali National Park or Yosemite.
"When I heard about where I was going, I was like ‘Awe, what's there to do in Idaho?'" he said. "But it was beautiful. To be able to camp and be outside in a place like that was amazing."
While the location was spectacular, the schedule and camping conditions weren't. Griffin said the group woke at 6 a.m. daily and worked eight-hour days, sometimes up to eight days in a row.
"I love to sleep in, but getting up at 6, it worked because it got us done earlier in the day," before it got too hot, Griffin said.
The experience gave him a new appreciation for the old comforts of home, such as beds and running water. Therm-a-Rest inflatable camp mats aren't very comfortable beyond a couple of nights, and the crew relied on a well, hand pumps and a creek for its water.
"It was really nice to have that creek nearby because if we didn't we'd be all smelly with each other," he said. "When I got back, being able to walk into the kitchen and get a glass of water was nice."
Despite the lack of amenities, Griffin said, his experience with the Student Conservation Association was unforgettable.
After-work hikes near the Finger of Fate - a distinctive rock formation - spectacular afternoon thunderstorms, snowball fights in August and washing off a day's dirty work in a creek are just a few of the experiences Griffin will always remember.
"It was definitely one of the best summer's I've had," he said. "A lot of my friends don't go out and travel, so I feel really lucky I got to do Student Conservation Association."
SCA was founded in 1957 by Elizabeth (Cushman) Putnam, who came up with the idea modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps work project of the 1930s and '40s.
Roosevelt used the program to put unemployed men 18 to 24 back to work in conservation and development projects during The Great Depression. Putnam developed her idea for a thesis during her senior year at Vassar College in 1955 to assist the National Park system.
Now, approximately 4,000 interns and volunteers provide more than 2 million hours of work on conservation projects each year. The program is tuition-free - there is a $25 fee to join SCA. Students must provide their own transportation and have their own gear.
The experience also was enlightening for Griffin's dad Roger, a history professor at Hancock College.
"The whole idea of being up there in the mountains and building a trail was that it would be a good prelude for college," Roger said. "I think it was good for him. He gained confidence. He feels more sure of himself. That is the difference. He's matured."
Griffin agrees with his dad. He'd like to attend UC Davis or UCLA and then consider his options. One is continuing with the association each summer to eventually become a group leader.
"I would consider something to do with the park service after something like this," Griffin said.