MOSES LAKE - Most high school graduates look forward to summer break as a time to lounge around the house, but not Daniel Talbot.
The 2011 Moses Lake High School grad spent his June trailblazing through the backcountry of Alaska as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association (SCA).
Talbot, 19, is no stranger to the outdoors, a place he said he spent most of his childhood exploring.
"I wasn't yet part of the generation where kids were raised in front of a TV. I was always outside playing with bugs and getting dirty," he said.
In high school his fascination shifted toward hiking, camping and the adrenaline rush of cliff jumping and rock climbing.
"I don't have the money for harnesses or anything, so my friends and I go bouldering," he said, a term for clambering around on 20-foot tall rocks without a rope.
An appreciation for the natural world has become even more important to him since his return from the Alaska with SCA, he said.
"It was such a humbling experience being out there and experiencing nature," Talbot said. "There aren't busy streets or parking lots full of cars. Maybe twice a week you'd see an airplane or a helicopter go over."
For more than 50 years the SCA has provided similar experiences to students aged 15 and older, giving them a hands-on opportunity to protect and restore national parks, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces across the country.
About 4,000 interns and volunteers are introduced to dozens of fields every year, from science to landscaping, while providing more than 2 million hours of conservation service, according to the organization website.
"We're helping grow the next generation of conservationists as well as strong citizens," said Don Hunger, SCA's associate vice president for agency affairs. Hunger said the organization provides young people an opportunity to broaden the education they get in the classroom while gaining confidence and new skills that they can bring home to their own communities.
"Kids tell me, 'I worked on that park, I made a difference that I can go back and show my friends or my own kids someday.' They get connected to the place," Hunger said. "It's an internal thing - they feel good about what they've done - but it's also external, it's something they can show the community."
Talbot stumbled on the SCA last December while researching a senior project centered on the outdoors and conservation education for fourth-grade students. He was impressed with how the organization's ambitions matched his own and immediately dove into an extensive application process.
"I had no clue where I was going to be placed," Talbot said. "You select a region, or multiple regions. I chose anywhere from the Southwest to Northwest."
Four months later, while on spring break, Talbot learned he'd been accepted to help build the Savage Alpine Trail in Denali National Park. It's one of the country's most remote reserves, surrounded by virgin bands of forest about 100 miles north of Anchorage.
"Everything off of the road is considered wilderness in Denali," he said. "The main visitor center is mile one and we were out at mile 12."
Talbot was part of an eight-person crew - six high school students and two young adult leaders - who hailed from as far away as Texas, Georgia and New York. After working together and camping out for a month, living in tents and cooking on propane stoves, the group quickly formed a close bond, Talbot said.
Their commute to work was a short hike, highlighted by frequent sightings of moose, caribou, Dall sheep and even a lynx. Bears were also a fairly common sight and the group took precautions, with bear spray always at the ready, but Talbot said he never felt especially threatened, as the park does a good job of protecting both man and nature through eduction.
"Any time anyone gets in front of a ranger, the first thing a ranger talks about is how to react to the wildlife," he said. "I think that's because they approach people with the mentality of taking care of the wildlife, their wildlife is much safer than, say, Yellowstone, where bear attacks have been known to happen."
Talbot's crew used hand tools to carve a trail out of tundra - sheets of dirt, moss and other vegetation anywhere from a centimeter to a foot thick - before grading it with gravel from a dry stream-bed. They were originally tasked with finishing a 750 foot, 22-inch wide section of trail, but succeeded in carving out a 1,000 foot path 36 inches wide, despite being three crew members short for a couple of weeks due to injury.
Talbot said the experience changed him, and his return to Moses Lake was, in a way, a sad homecoming.
"I miss (Alaska) a lot but I'm proactive in getting out to camp or hike at least once a week," he said. "It's so easy to come back from something like that and get back into the routines of everyday life. All of that appreciation for people and for nature you got from this experience, it just kind of goes away. But staying proactive has definitely helped me maintain that connection."
Talbot plans on attending Big Bend Community College this fall to earn his associates degree before transferring to a university, possibly to study biology or environmental science. In the intervening summers he said he'd like to look into other opportunities with the SCA, including an internship next year that could allow him to help with field research.
He's not certain where his eventual career path will lead, but said it will very likely include the natural world.
"My heart just got set on the outdoors," he said. "I'm not sure really where it will take me career-wise but I'm not really concerned with that yet."
For more information on the Student Conservation Association contact www.thesca.org.