T2 R10, Maine — In this remote section of Piscataquis County, just a few miles south of Baxter State Park, nearly 20 miles from the nearest town, there are more moose than people, more insects than moose, and plenty of work to be done.
Daniel Jamison, a 17-year-old from New York City, is among those doing that work, maintaining trails during a four-week internship as part of The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program.
Before he was selected as a LEAF intern, Jamison had never been to Maine. Heck, he’d never been out of New York State. But he said he’s enjoyed most of his first exposure to the state’s woods and waters.
Most. But not all.
“The hardest part is probably not being used to all the bugs,” Jamison said with a grin, most of his skin covered to keep the pesky swarms at bay. “There’s bugs in New York, but it’s not like they’re flying around, in your face all the time. They’re hidden away.”
The Nature Conservancy began the LEAF program in 1995, and this year 69 student interns are working in 19 states. Jamison was on one of two three-person crews in Maine. The other Maine crew spent its four-week stint on the Saco River.
The LEAF internship program provides urban youths a chance to develop life and workplace skills through exposure to nature. The internships are paid positions, and each three-intern group is led by a LEAF mentor.
Vander Thompson, 26, the mentor leading Jamison’s group, said the three interns entered the Maine woods with the right attitude despite the fact that none had ever been to the state before.
“They were really open-minded about it. They were really excited about seeing things,” Thompson said. “Of course it’s a little different for them to adjust to the bugs and not seeing people, but I think that, in itself, is part of the adventure: Not being in your comfort zone and stepping out of that.”
Thompson, who lives in Linden, N.J., was also a first-time visitor to Maine. He said that the Maine outdoor experience was just as new to him as it was to the interns.
“[The Nature Conservancy] didn’t really choose outdoor people [as mentors]. They kind of chose people who were interested in exploring and learning about it,” Thompson said. “I think that makes the experience a lot better for the interns because I’m not a know-it-all. So when they ask me [a question], I say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’”
And that kind of response, Thompson said, empowers the interns to find answers as a group.
“It’s kind of a motivator and a self-starter for them to know that I don’t know and we’re learning something together,” Thompson said. “I think that’s a big part of [the program’s success].”
For the final week of their LEAF assignment, Thompson’s group worked on trails in The Nature Conservancy’s Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. They lived in a cabin without electricity, drove to a nearby campground for daily showers, and spent their days under the guidance of Dirk Dewley, The Nature Conservancy’s northern Maine land steward.
Alejandro Meran, a 16-year-old from New Haven, Conn., attends an environmental charter school and envisions a career in landscaping, computers, or a combination of the two. He said if he had spent the past month at home, he’d likely have been baby-sitting or watching movies.
In Maine, he was doing culvert surveys and working on trails. And watching … moose.
“We saw two moose yesterday,” Meran said. “I’ve never seen a moose. They’re so big. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Meran said he had friends participate in the LEAF program last year, and thought becoming an intern sounded like a good way to spend four weeks. On his last day of the program, he was glad he made the decision, and that The Nature Conservancy gave him the opportunity.
“I think it’s worth coming here. It’s way different than the city,” he said. “You get to do stuff that you’re never going to do in your life if you stay in the city.”
Dewley said the LEAF interns provide a vital service and gain a unique learning experience.
“They’re interested, maybe, in pursuing a conservation career and it gives them the opportunity to get out there and see the grassroots type work that needs to be done in the conservation field,” Dewley said.
At least one intern already knew a fair bit about grassroots work. And tree root work.
Rheji Freeman, a 17-year-old from New Haven, Conn., goes to the same school as Meran — Common Ground High School — which is environmentally based. For the last three years Freeman has had an internship planting trees around the city. He also does landscaping, masonry and construction for a group called Youth at Work.
“Everything was easy to me, basically,” Freeman said with a grin. “I’ve done all this stuff back at school.”
He did say, however, that getting used to the remote job site took awhile.
“[There’s] a lot of woods. I really don’t have woods around where I live. No electricity [here] or anything like that. I was [thinking], ‘Oh, no. I’m gonna live like this?’ But it all worked out in the end.”
For Jamison, who lives in Manhattan, getting out into the wilds of Maine was one of the reasons he applied for a LEAF slot.
“I wanted to get a greater appreciation of nature itself,” Jamison said. “Living in New York, we don’t get any kind of nature. We have one major park, Central Park, but that’s nothing like this wilderness.”
In the woods, Jamison quickly learned, even getting from place to place can be a challenge.
“The thing I’m not used to yet is just the traveling from area to area,” Jamison said. “You have to travel miles and miles to get to the [work sites], whereas I’m used to taking transportation like a bus or a train and I get there in like five minutes.”
Their mentor, Thompson, emerged from the LEAF experience with a new appreciation for nature, and for the program.
“I think it’s a necessary program for inner-city kids. I really do,” Thompson said. “Getting them to step outside their comfort zone and strengthen their bond with nature is really important. Being in a team like this … you learn some leadership skills and develop bonds as men and women in the program. And these are friendships that I think are going to remain for a long time.”
Thompson said he enjoyed his stay in Maine as much as the interns did. He saw some moose. He swatted some bugs. But there’s one thing he didn’t get to do, and it’s still … well … bugging him.
“I’d really love to climb that mountain,” he said, nodding in the direction of Maine’s tallest peak, Mount Katahdin. “I’ll be back. It’ll be a good goal.”