11:05 am: After a brief but intense climb, Price brings the caravan to a rest stop as he points out Angel Island in the Bay, and Mount Tamalpais looming before them. Along the way to the restoration site, a hillside overlooking Oakwood Valley, the Park Stewardship naturalists point out the coyote mint, the lupine, the turkey vultures.
“They’re actually really cool,” Megan insists, answering a few skeptical looks. “They’re one of the birds that can smell!”
This kind of close encounter with the natural world is what inspired Taylor—a recent graduate of Lowell High School—to join RYC for his last summer before heading to Northeastern University. “It’s fun being outdoors, being away from the city and experiencing nature without distractions,” he says.
Megan is explaining that everyone should step carefully around the white flags that mark lupine plants—hosts for the endangered mission blue butterfly. Far from signs of surrender, the flags are emblems of defiance against the invading French broom.
“Imagine you’re creating a wall of defense,” Price says, rallying the troops. “The French broom are invading this grassland, and it’s our job to push them back. You’re land managers now.”
After reiterating the differences between the native coyote bush and the invasive French broom, Megan deftly clamps her weed wrench on one of the latter, and with a quick pull and tug, yanks the offender from the soil—roots and all. “You’ll hear a satisfying ‘pop’ when the root comes up,” she beams.
11:28 am: The Tyvek suits are going on. The crew members who are more sensitive to—or more leery of—poison oak wriggle into the papery jumpsuits. One student says to another: “We really do look like astronauts!” A sudden gust slightly inflates the suit on one student—and for a moment he looks less like Neil Armstrong and more like the Marshmallow Man.
The RYC participants fan out across the hillside. After warming up on some smaller French broom, Hovhanes and Zach discuss the plan of attack for a particularly monstrous specimen. Hovhanes, in particular, is relishing the physicality of the task at hand. A regular surfer at Ocean Beach, Hovhanes says RYC was the perfect combination of his academic interest in environmental science and his preferred type of work. “I like working with my hands more than anything else,” he says.
And while collecting seeds for the nursery and playing team-building games and going camping were all fun experiences, Hovhanes says he had been looking forward to this day when he could get his hands dirty.
“I was real excited about this one,” he says with a grin.
While Hovhanes is in his element, Jasmine—by her own admittance—is not. A self-described “girly-girl,” Jasmine says she puts herself in unfamiliar situations by design. Although she spent time in the parks as a participant in I-YEL (Inspiring Young Emerging Leaders, a youth leadership program of the Crissy Field Center), she sees RYC as an even more demanding challenge—an opportunity “to be more open and more hearty and less squeamish.”
The three-day, two-night adventure in Big Basin was her first backpacking trip. And although she was initially worried about her ability to physically hold up, Jasmine says she surprised herself—a powerful but not uncommon experience in RYC.
“In order to grow, I need to be exposed to new people and new experiences,” she says, invoking the philosophy that’s sure to serve her well as she starts this fall at UC-Berkeley.
12:35 pm: It’s lunch time. Given the sloping contours of the land and the prevalence of the flagged but fragile lupine, the crew members are forced to bunch themselves in a couple rows on a relatively flat part of the hill. As the others finish their sandwiches, salads, and chips, one student lies on his back and looks at the sky.
Kevin, recently of Galileo but now in a City College diploma/A.A. program, looks perfectly at ease stretched out on the hillside. “The Universe is one with nature, so to be out in nature, I’m one with the Universe,” he explains, matter-of-factly.
His AP Environmental Studies class—and his involvement with invertebrate research in Lobos Creek through Project WISE (a Crissy Field Center program in partnership with Urban Watershed Project and Galileo)—opened his eyes to the challenges facing natural ecosystems.
Kevin says he plans a career in environmental work, and so employment with RYC is—as he puts it—“10 times better than any job I can think of.”
“There are so many jobs where you’re not outdoors, you’re not in nature, and you’re not restoring anything,” Kevin reflects. “This is the best job ever.”
Abby also has her eye on a career in conservation. With two summers of experience as a C.I.T. (Counselor In Training) at Crissy Field Center Summer Camp, she was ready for a step up. She recalls: “When [the staff] said RYC and LINC were stepping stones to working more with the Parks Conservancy, I was like: ‘Yes!’”
1:03 pm: Lunchtime is over. Price leads the way and asks the team to follow in single-file fashion, to minimize potential trampling of the sensitive habitat. With the sun at its zenith, the challenge of the landscape grows as well. The crew’s work site for the afternoon is even steeper and laced with even more poison oak. Almost all the team members are covered in Tyvek suits—and a rapidly accumulating layer of sweat.
Andre, a senior at Lowell High School, positions himself on a slippery slope to work on a tough specimen of French broom. “I didn’t think this would get this adventurous, but I welcome it,” he says. “It’s like ‘Crocodile Hunter’—without the crocodiles.”
With that, the French broom snaps and Andre tumbles backward and slides a couple feet down the slope. He’s okay—and is more upset about failing to make a clean extraction of the invasive plant.
Nearby, James—a sophomore at Balboa and another one of the younger crew members—is showing the scars of the battle with the broom. His blond hair is matted and damp, his Tyvek suit ripped in a couple places. “James looks like he’s been attacked by a dog,” someone snickers.
“I expected to get dirty, but this is actually physically challenging,” James says. “I’d never had to do the hard work—and this is definitely hard.”
Nearby, bespectacled, diminutive Edie—a junior at Lowell—is attacking the weeds with a point to prove. Although she’s been volunteering at Lands End for the past eight months, she says she was in an “enormous amount of pain” after her first Saturday of weeding. “But I didn’t want people to think I was a wimp, so I went the next six weeks in a row,” she confides.
“Now I love weeding,” Edie says. “Part of the reason is because when you go to school and get stressed out, you have to take it out on something.”