Forests, Leaders, No Bears: Oh My!
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SLY PARK, CA — From May 20-23, 2016, I spent my time immersing myself in the Eldorado National Forest at Sly Park in northern California. I was lucky enough to be sponsored by the local American Legion Post, Post 508, to attend the American Legion Youth Environmental Conference 2016. Fabiola Lopez, fellow BPHS junior, also attended this conference with me. We were both informed by our counselor, Mr. Van der Linden, about this sponsored opportunity.
My adventure started at 4 AM on Friday, May 20. I was required to report to the American Legion Post in Monterey Park by 5 AM to sign in and prepare for the bus pick-up. There were approximately twenty other yawning teenagers waiting for the bus when the bus arrived. All students climbed on board and the bus took off at 5:30 AM.
The drive lasted nine to ten hours from Monterey Park to Rio Linda. We made stops at Fresno and Modesto to pick up more students and have lunch. At around 1 PM, we arrived at our final Legion post in Rio Linda. There, we met our counselors and Forest Service teachers and participated in group introductions. We were also given our informational binders, water bottles, and hats. Afterwards, we finally left the post at 2 PM and arrived at Sly Park an hour and a half later.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the air. At a very high elevation, the air was thinner but very crisp. I found it entirely refreshing. Of course, the second thing I noticed was the amount of trees that densely surrounded the Sly Park Education Center. As a born-and-raised city girl, I found myself overwhelmed.
Over the next two days, I found myself doing activities I never thought I would have the chance to do. To give one example (and to not spoil too much for anyone who wants to attend in the future), my favorite experience was identifying and flagging trees that posed high risk fire hazards in the face of a forest fire for the Forest Service to cut down. I entered the park clueless about the various types of trees that inhabited the forest and ended the activity knowing exactly the requirements of forest thinning and how to identify the different trees that existed in the Eldorado Forest.
Although environmental sustainability and forest conservation were the main themes of the conference, we had the chance to build leadership skills and understanding through group projects, presentations, and lectures. We also had the chance to play ping pong, basketball, and double-dutch at the gym. Hikes were also a major part of the conference.
On Sunday evening, a talent show was held and a total of twelve acts thoroughly entertained the counselors and students. Acts ranged from performing skits, to imitating accents, to solving Rubik’s cubes. Most students agreed that the talent show was the highlight of the conference. After the show, the counselors started a campfire and we enjoyed s’mores while dancing to 2008 Disney jams.
Sunday was the final day of the conference and the day of the final exam for us students. We had to create a community project that we could bring back to our own communities to implement. Every group had great creative ideas and all students got great ideas to bring back home. Finally, certificates of completion were passed out and pictures were taken. At 11:30 AM, the bus arrived and picked all of us up. Once again, stops were made and tears fell as we said goodbyes to some of our friends. The bus returned to the first stop of Monterey Park at 9:30 PM.
Overall, my experience at Eldorado National Forest is not one that I will ever forget. Even more than what I learned about environmentalism in the forest habitat, I learned about myself. I grew as a student and leader. After the experience, I reevaluated my goals and the experience definitely influenced (and continues to influence) my decision of my future. I made incredible, outgoing, and passionate friends whom I won’t forget anytime soon. I highly encourage those who are interested to look into the program and attend. I’m glad to have been able to go on this trip and am grateful for the opportunity.