COONEY STATE PARK — Slapping Uno cards down on a shaded picnic table at Cooney State Park, south of Billings, the five teens around the table acted like old friends.
But their friendship was only as old as the green T-shirts the work crew had worn for the last 12 straight days.
“Everyone’s shirt smells horrible,” said Lucy Goff, a wispy 15-year-old whose long blonde hair was braided down her back. Goff grew up camping with her family, but doing trail work in July’s heat and going nearly two weeks without a shower were new to her.
For a month this summer, the Bozeman teen volunteered to join a Montana Conservation Corps youth crew. The crew spent a week in mid-July painting picnic tables and stringing barbed wire fencing at Chief Plenty Coups State Park, then moved last week to Cooney State Park for trail maintenance chores at the reservoir.
While their campground offered no daily access to showers, they did get lessons on backcountry hygiene and other outdoor skills.
Each summer, MCC offers two monthlong sessions for youth crews of 15-to-17-year-olds. Each session, 12 youth crews work around the state, two of them in the Billings region. Two leaders, who are usually in their mid-20s, run each youth crew.
The teens work without pay and receive a $200 stipend at the end of the session.
Jordan Ophus, a 17-year-old from Havre, is used to hard physical labor and likes to camp, fish and hike. He joined as a way to get fit and help the environment. He has already gotten a few lessons on park management.
“Usually, when you walk on a park trail, you don’t really think about how that trail was made,” he said.
He enjoys the camaraderie except, perhaps, in the morning.
“I’m a pretty hard sleeper,” he said. “Usually at 6:30 a.m. they have to shake the tent to get me out.”
Kaycee Arrowood, from Billings, had been nervous about spending a month camping out with strangers.
“We all get along really well together,” she said. They’ve gotten to know each other well enough to tease and pull pranks on each other.
Before joining the crew, Arrowood, a slender 16-year-old, had never seen some of the tools used for trail maintenance.
Within a few days at Cooney State Park, she became well-versed in the use of the McLeod, a heavy hoe-like blade for clearing brush.
“The Pulaski, I hate those. It’s a lot heavier than a pick,” said Arrowood, whose shoulders were sore from the labor. A Pulaski, a firefighting tool, combines an ax bit with a grub hoe. It’s useful for loosening dirt, cutting through roots and grubbing brush.
Overseeing the teens is “mentally exhausting,” said Justin Heinze, a New Jersey native. He and his co-leader, Rachel Ryan, from Ohio, had both worked on adult crews in the past. Heinze, who is 24, has noticed that today’s teens are even more “wired in” to technology than his peers.
Youth-crew members cannot bring computers, cell phones or other electronic devices with them during their monthlong stint.
“It’s just so they can disconnect from their everyday life,” said Jennifer Rusnak, outreach coordinator for the MCC program, which is headquartered in Bozeman.
“It allows them to get immersed in the day-to-day action, to be more present and aware of what’s around them.”
In addition to the summer youth crews, the MCC runs 30 adult crews in the state plus two crews made up exclusively of military veterans with a third crew forming in August. While the adult crews attract men and women from across the nation, teen crews are limited to Montana youths.
“What we hope that they learn is that they’re stronger than they originally perceived themselves to be, that they can work with a wide range of people, that they learn about Montana geography and public lands,” Rusnak said. “And we want them to come away with a deeper love and respect than they already have for the public land areas that they call part of their home.”