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It’s a little after 11:00 in the morning. The snow has stopped falling, but the sky still overcast and the temperature is hovering above 30 degrees. We look around and evaluate our position. More than four feet of new snow has fallen in the past few days and there are lots of promising drifts that might yield a comfortable snow cave. Trees protect us from the worst of the wind, and we have hiked far enough from the road that it’s unlikely that we would suffer an invasion by a stray snow mobile. This is as good a place as any. It’s time to get to work on our snow camp.
A huge blue tarp is pulled from an overstuffed backpack and spread out on the white snow between the trees. The boys start a pack line on the tarp, removing the Troop gear and food that they have been carrying. That will be placed onto a green tarp which has miraculously appeared a few feet away. The goal is to keep everything as dry as possible for as long as possible. Snow shoes are unclipped and pushed down into the snow, making sure that they are sticking up so as not to be buried by snow flurries during the afternoon.
The Scout in charge walks around the perimeter of the site to survey the terrain. Promising spots for caves are selected, an outline of the kitchen is sketched in the snow, and a couple of the boys move off a few hundred feet to mark a latrine. Scouts locate their snow shovels, pull on rubber gloves, adjust their waterproof outer layers, and march off to claim cave sites. Avalanche probes will be used to judge the depth of the snow and (hopefully) locate any hidden obstacles, like big rocks or fallen trees, that can complicate the excavation and sometimes even force campers to start all over again somewhere else. I stay behind to fire up the stoves and start melting snow for drinking water. It takes a long time for water to boil at this altitude and the pots have to be constantly refilled with clean snow. My job is digging out the kitchen so the group can eat dinner together. Lunch will be eaten on the fly.
Its quiet in the mountains during the winter. The only sounds in the camp are the wind and the camp stoves, which are barely audible through the woolen hats we have pulled down over our ears so they don’t become frost-bitten. After two hours of steady digging, I take a break and walk around to see how everyone is doing.
It’s much more difficult to move without snow shoes to distribute my body weight. Each step means that a foot can break through the thin layer of ice on top of the deep snow. The weight of your body then drives your entire leg hip-deep into the soft powder. Trying to pull your leg up can shift your body weight and cause the same thing on the other side, leaving you crotch deep and immobile. Sometimes the only escape is lying down and rolling away. Its aggravation, pain, frustration, and physical exertion all rolled into one frosty little experience.
My “buddy” seems well on his way to digging out an excellent cave for us to share. He has already created an entrance and disappeared under the snow to enlarge our sleeping chamber. I note happily that most of the hard work will be done before I finish the kitchen and join him. Experience helps a lot, and he has been snow camping for years.
The first Scout cave is barely OK. They have created a good sized entrance and made a start on the interior. But the boys are sitting in the snow taking a rest. I admonish them to keep working steadily if they want to be comfortable during the night. If Scouts sit in the snow too long, they will suffer conduction heat loss which can quickly turn into hypothermia. Constant movement is required to keep boys warm on a cold day like today.
Close to the next cave, I notice a red drops in the snow. Like a CSI agent, I follow the drops to the next cave. The snow in front is covered in blood. There is a Scout sitting next to the cave entrance, holding a bloody sock against his face. Upon closer inspection, I discover he is dealing with a bloody nose, probably brought on by altitude and exertion. I help him up and we walk toward the kitchen area where we can get some gauze from the First Aid kit. Bloody noses are common occurrences with some Scouts, so there is no panic. It will probably stop in a few minutes.
As we are walking past the area where my “buddy” is working on our cave, a soft whoosh explodes from the site. We look over and see that the cave has collapsed and he is completely buried in the snow. For a panicky second it seems that we are going to have to dig him out and I leap towards my shovel, but he is up almost immediately, kicking violently at the big blocks of snow that used to be the roof of the cave. He looks at me and shrugs. I sigh and we start walking again as if nothing happened.
The bloody Scout gets to the blue tarp and sits down. The bleeding has almost stopped and he just needs to rest, but not too long. Everyone needs to working if they want to dig caves big enough to sleep inside. It’s almost 3:00 pm and there are only about three hours of daylight to finish the kitchen, help dig a new cave, and make sure all the Scout caves are ready for temporary inhabitation. The water on the stoves is just starting to boil. The temperature has dropped below 30 degrees.
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Our group assembles in a dark parking lot at 5:00 am. Everyone is sleepy, but the excitement is palpable. For most of the Scouts, this will be their first snow camping trip. They have been hearing about winter camping for years, and now it is their turn to participate. It will be difficult, but they hope it will also be fun.
Scouts shift backpacks, snowshoes, food, and emergency clothing from vehicle to vehicle. It takes a lot of gear to go snow camping and the cars are very crowded. Every available space, including the tops of the SUVs, are covered with equipment. Eventually, the boys climb inside, nestle themselves comfortably among the packs and sleeping bags, and promptly fall asleep. The drive to Bear Valley takes about three hours and there is no talking along the way, only the voices from an early morning talk show on the radio. The sky lightens as wipers move back and forth to clear rain and eventually snow from the windshield. The weather is not good.
The SnoPark area is empty when we arrive, so the vehicles can be unloaded right next to the trailhead. Scouts pull on their extra layers of clothing and start a pack line in the snow. We dig in our packs for gloves and hats. Candy bars are distributed to increase our energy level. Boys struggle with their snowshoes because attaching the straps is difficult and requires strength. It takes about an hour to get everything organized.
“How far are we going to hike?” the youngest Scout asks nervously. He knows that hiking on snowshoes with a heavy pack is not going to be easy. “We hike until the weakest man drops and then we start building our snow caves,” is my answer. He looks at me warily, but does not respond. Everyone considers the implications and wonders if they might be the weakest man in the line. The sky is now grey and snow is falling steadily. Temperature is in the low 30’s.
Everyone is cold because we have stripped off our warmth layer before hoisting our backpacks into place. The mood is serious and determined. Snowshoes are strapped tight to our feet. The leader gives the signal to start moving. We set off through the snow.
The oldest and strongest Scout is in front, breaking his way through the knee-high white powder. Six Scouts and four adults fall into line behind him, taking care to place their snowshoes into the path that is being created in front of them. The last man is called the sweep. He has the easiest time of it because the snow is packed down by the men in front. However, the sweep has to bend over and retrieve things that have fallen into the snow. Most often it is a sandwich or bag of cookies that have dropped from a ripped lunch bag that was stuffed under a strap on the outside of a backpack by shivering fingers.
Our leader stops every 50 yards to rest and look for the trail. There are blue diamonds on some of the trees to mark our way, but it’s easy to miss them because the branches are covered in snow. Mostly the Scouts follow the path of least resistance, which means that we are not making good time. Our trail snakes and weaves around the trees and rocks. A Scout accidently places one snowshoe on top of the other and topples sideways into the deep snow. The heavy pack and awkward balance makes it difficult for the fallen adventurer to get back onto his feet without help. Eventually he makes it back into an upright position. Everyone is getting tired.
After about a mile, the group stops moving. An argument has broken out. “Are we going in the right direction?” a Scout demands to know. The leaders try to reassure him, but exhaustion has taken its toll on their spirit. A few are starting to shiver. Slowly, everyone realizes that standing in the snow to debate our next step is a waste of time and energy. No one is happy, but everyone begins moving again. We are getting close.
From the back, we watch an adult leader pitch forward into the snow, the weight of his pack pinning him down. His muffled cursing is barely audible above the wind. The man rolls over and we see from the look on his face and the snow in his hair that he won’t be going any further. The weakest man has dropped. We have arrived at our campsite.
“Are we going to kayak in the rain?” The question is asked again and again by nervous Scouts whose concept of a fun outing does not include being outside when the weather turns bad. “Can we just go home? Can I stay in the car? Can I call my mother and ask her to pick me up?” Their anxiety is building as we break camp in a downpour. Challenged, the Senior Patrol Leader spreads the word, “Yes we are kayaking. Yes you have to man up and deal with the weather. No you can’t weasel out. It won’t be so bad. Just do it.” The Troop finishes loading equipment into our vehicles for our short drive from Sunset Beach to Moss Landing. Too late to turn back now.
We pull into the large parking lot and the boys emerge from the cars. Scouts make their way over to the equipment shed and get fitted for wet suits and PFDs. The rain is finally slacking off. Spirits are starting to lift. The boys start joking with each other about how good they look in wetsuits and their plans for somehow knocking Matt into the water. Time to get started.
We get our long paddles (hold them vertical so you don’t smack someone in the head) and march down to the water’s edge. A short talk about the rules of wildlife engagement, “Stay 50 feet from ocean mammals, especially sea otters.” Buddies select their kayaks and drag them down to the water. (Two boys per kayak, biggest in the back.) Everyone pushes into the ocean and the adventure begins. The rain is hardly an issue anymore.
The Troop forms a colorful armada of 18 yellow kayaks powered by Scouts in blue /black wetsuits wielding 36 red paddles that are moving constantly. We paddle cautiously through the shallow water, training ourselves how to paddle as a team. (The Scout in front sets the pace.) Scouts are serious and engaged in the task at hand. No one wants to accidently flip over and fall into the ocean.
Within a few minutes we experience our first crisis. A sea otter with a large clam balanced on its stomach suddenly appears right in the middle of our group. The guides start yelling for everyone to back off at least 50 feet. Unfortunately, one of the adults left his glasses in the equipment room and he can’t see that his kayak and the sea otter are on a collision course. Just when everyone thinks the otter is doomed, it disappears under the water and reappears a few yards away, still working on the clam. Disaster averted. We successfully avoid the other two dozen otters that have maneuvered into position to watch the excitement and propel ourselves into deeper water.
The more confident Scouts paddle their kayaks towards the docks to get a closer look at the sea lions lounging on the pier. They soon discover that there are also dozens of sea lions swimming around their kayaks. All around the little yellow boats, sea lion heads are popping out of the water, sometimes just a few feet from a Scout. The sea lions seem curious. They circle our kayaks, checking everyone out. The boys are curious also, but also wary of the big mammals. Sea lions are huge (male sea lions can grow to more than 600 pounds) but not usually aggressive. We paddle away and the sea lions do not follow.
The guides begin waving their arms and the Scouts paddle in the direction they are pointing. We pass under a bridge and hear the traffic on Hwy 1 above us. Our voices echo as we ooh and ahh at the urchins and barnacles plastered all over the dark and slimy bridge supports. There are bird nests above us in the trestles. Sea gulls are everywhere looking for food. Scouts are entering a different world as they glide with the tide into the Elkhorn Slough.
After a while, the group paddles into an area inhabited by harbor seals. They are on the shore and in the water on both sides of the kayaks. Seals are not as large as the sea lions but they are just as curious. Seal heads are visible everywhere (we notice that they have no ears) and they constantly appear between the kayaks, sometimes as close as five feet from a paddler. We try to keep our distance but it’s impossible. There are just too many to avoid. For a brief time, Scouts and seals peacefully co-exist as the Troop journeys through their saltwater habitat. By now, the rain, while still falling steadily, is totally forgotten.
After an hour, the guides give the signal to turn around and head back. It’s more difficult paddling against the tide and our progress is slower. On the return, one of the younger Scouts becomes excited because he thinks there is a dog swimming with the seals. Pressed for proof by the older boys, he says it looked like a beagle diving in the water. After a brief debate, they decide that a beagle’s big ears and general body shape would make it unsuitable for joining a harem of seals. Plus a beagle doesn’t have the right kind of feet for diving. The young Scout probably saw a deformed harbor seal instead.
Eventually we pass under the bridge again and work our way through the sea lions, past the sea otters, and back to our starting point. The kayaks are beached and then carried up to the landing. Everyone is soaking wet; part rain, part splash from the paddles, and part wading into the water with the kayaks. Scouts hurry back to the equipment room and change out of wetsuits and into whatever dry clothes they can find. (It was warmer in the wetsuits.) At the pizza parlor on the way home, Scouts reach a consensus that kayaking in the rain is cold but it also fun. Maybe next year the weather will be better.
Monterrey Bay Kayaks is a familiar place for Scouts. For the past 25 years, they have entertained and educated boys from all over Northern California. They have several trips. Two of the most popular with Scouts are Elkhorn Slough (which is interesting and relatively easy) and Monterrey Bay which is harder and will appeal to older boys who have already been to the Slough. Bring an extra pair of shoes and socks, especially when it is raining or cold. There is a Scout discount if you ask for it. Budget in the $50 range per Scout plus gratuity for the guides.
We arrive in Arnold just before midnight after a slow trip through a sputtering snowstorm on a windy mountain road. The boys explode into the mountain cabin like hornets, full of energy after the long ride. They rush up and down the stairs, looking through the rooms and scoping out the accommodations. Most are anxious to claim a sleeping space because beds are in short supply and there will be competition to sleep in them. Some younger boys just dash for the bathrooms. The adults are outside unloading the vehicles in the snow.
The cabin is large and comfortable. The Troop fills it completely. Scouts are on the top two floors. Adults claim the bottom floor. The leaders say a prayer that the Scouts don’t knock a hole in the wall or set anything on fire. (There was a hefty security deposit.) Boys are gathered in the television room upstairs, watching a movie on the VCR. Adults are trying to sleep. Eventually everyone settles in for the night.
According to the schedule, we should be up at 7:00 am so we can get to the lifts early. Cooks start laying out cereal, fruit, muffins, and milk in the kitchen. Everyone else is racing around trying to find their clothes. Loud shouts fill the cabin. “Who took my gloves ?” “Anyone seen my long underwear?” “How much is lunch going to cost?” Youth leaders try to establish some sort of order but chaos and energy overwhelms hierarchy every time. It’s like herding cats, but eventually everyone gets into a vehicle and we are on our way. The weather is cold but at least it’s not snowing anymore.
At Bear Valley, our SUVs are guided into parking spaces facing newly plowed piles of snow. We struggle into our ski clothes and pull out our equipment. It takes a while to hobble awkwardly across the parking lot in our ski boots, fill out the forms, buy lift tickets, pick up maps, set some ground rules (meet no later than 4:00 pm), and make sure the snowboarders actually put on their wrist protectors. A few lucky adults move quickly to the chair lifts with boys who have their own equipment and are ready to go. They are promptly whisked away to begin their first runs of the day.
Everyone else gets in line to rent their skis or snow boards. Most also want to get signed up for lessons because it is their first time. An hour later, we are all finally on the snow and ready for a little fun. The boys taking lessons walk off to find their instructors. The rest head for the nearest slopes.
Our little group had lessons last year, so we leave the lodge and head toward the beginner’s lift a hundred yards away. Progress is slow. There are four Scouts, but only three are actually upright and moving forward at any given time. One after the other, boys lunge forward and then collapse into the soft snow. And just when one works his way back to his feet, another falls sideways. Again and again and again. By the time we cover the short distance and make it into the short lift line, all the Scouts are covered in white snowflakes from head to toe.
The line moves forward and two boarders in front get whisked away by the chair lift. A couple of Scouts scramble to take their places in front of the moving chair. The chair lift swings around and comes up behind them just as the Scout on the left drops his pole. He bends over and reaches for the pole, but gets hit in the butt by the chair lift. He falls sideways, and collides with his buddy. With arms waving, they both fall down, but one immediately leaps back up to see what happened. The aluminum chair scrapes the knit hat off his head and continues up the mountain.
The attendant jumps to turn off the lift and pull the two Scouts out of harm’s way. After a little cajoling, everyone is back in line with their poles and hats. We all make it onto the lift this time without major mishap and ride to the top of the greenest slope in Bear Valley. (Ski slopes are color-coded as to difficulty. Green is the easiest.) All four Scouts tumble out of lift chair at the top, fall to their knees, and crawl away so they don’t get run over by the people in the next chair.
Eventually, all four are standing unsteadily at the top of the Ego Alley run, adjusting their goggles and hats, taking deep breaths, and moving their feet tentatively. Eventually, they bend their knees and start moving slowly but surely down the hill. It’s not pretty to watch, but three of the Scouts make it all the way to the bottom without falling. (The fourth boy has an equipment problem. After his binding is fixed, he takes off in pursuit of his friends.) With their confidence more or less restored, there is no problem with the chair lift next time and they ski happily for the rest of the day.
A command post has been created in the dining area, a kind of ground zero for tired and wet Scouts. By the middle of the afternoon, most of the Troop is crammed around a couple of tables drinking hot chocolate and peeling off wet clothes. As they come in from their last run, each Scout steps around a pile of jackets decorated by colorful gloves, scarves, and hats. When everyone is accounted for, we collect our things and head for the cars. Dinner has to be cooked and cabin clean-up duties must be assigned. Then a short night’s sleep (interrupted by loud talking, laughter, and the occasional banging of something thrown across the room). In the morning we will get up and do it all again.
Bear Valley is a popular ski/board destination for Northern California Troops. From the East Bay, the drive time is only about three hours and there is seldom the traffic jams you see in Tahoe. They have a good merit badge program and discounts for Scouts who rent equipment. (Both must be arranged ahead of time. ) The ski area is a little on the small side, but the variety of the runs will satisfy all but the Black Diamond skiers in your group.
Thanks to the many Cub leaders who responded to the follow up camping survey. The goal was to share information about Cub Scout activities and provide information to new Cub Scout leaders. Meridian Packs are extremely active and always looking for new ideas.
Meridian Cub Packs average almost seven day trips every year to a broad variety of destinations. Regional Parks are very popular, with Packs visiting Tilden Park, Mt. Diablo, Black Diamond Mines, Las Trampas, Chabot, and Sunol for hiking and picnics. Regional Parks are close by and offer a great outdoor experience with minimal planning issues (all Regional Parks have websites with detailed information). Trail Trekker hikes are known to many units with the Rodeo Lagoon hike a common favorite. Also mentioned for day trips were: Scout Days at sporting venues (Oakland Athletics, Golden State Warriors, Berkeley), Nike Missiles/Marin Headlands, Pumpkin Patch/Western Railway Museum in Fairfield, and Bowling night.
Most Cub Packs camped three or four times in 2009 (average = 3.2 nights). The most common location for regular outdoor camping is Mt. Diablo, followed by Lake Chabot and Lake Del Valle. All have group campsites large enough to accommodate the 40-80 campers on a typical Cub overnight in the Meridian District. Packs also camped at Gilroy Gardens, Borges Ranch, Gillespie Youth Camp at Tilden Park, Sugar Loaf in Walnut Creek, Sam Taylor State Park, New Brighton Beach, Big Basin, and the Oakland Zoo. Pre-packaged Scout camping overnights on the USS Pompanito, USS Hornet, and Chabot Space Center are popular, partly because they do not require a lot of camping equipment. Also extremely popular are Day Camp, Webelos at Camporee, and Resident Camp at Wolfeboro. (Every one of these was specifically called out as exceptional by more than one Pack). Family Camp, on the other hand was typically described as very good but too expensive for most families.
With one exception, Meridian Cub Packs do not own or maintain any camping equipment. Some rent griddles and stoves from places like Gagnon’s Party Supplies, but most scramble to assemble the tents, lanterns, stoves, pop-ups, sleeping bags, and everything every time they camp. The biggest impediment to Pack ownership of equipment is that no one wants to store it or take responsibility between outings. All Cub Packs report that scheduling outings is difficult because families are so busy.
It is extremely difficult for Cub families to find enough time to do things, like camping, that require a lot of preparation. On the other hand, camping is by far the most popular activity for the boys so Packs conduct as many overnights as possible despite the problems. Packs indicated that they do not need or want Meridian District assistance with their outings, but central storage of equipment, information about what camping equipment families should purchase for eventual use in Boy Scouts, and publicizing places to go (like Camp Herms) would be useful.
When it comes to online activities, Meridian Cub Packs are all over the place. Almost all units have web sites, but they are described as “out of date” or “not useful” by a lot of respondents – unless the Pack is lucky enough to have a talented webmaster. Scouttrack is the most popular program to manage advancement and contact information. Cub Units are also using Google Groups, myscouting.org, Fotki (photo file sharing), and even .trax files for communications or record-keeping. Most Packs use Evite (or Eventbrite) for activity registration.
Taken together, Meridian Packs conduct less than one outing per month, either a day trip or an overnight. This compares to 2.6 outings per month (day trips, camping, cycling, and backpacking) conducted by Boy Scouts Troops in the District. Therefore, when the Cubs bridge, they have many more opportunities for outdoor experiences.
There are 25 Cub Scout Packs in the Meridian District with 1,500 boys, including LDS units. Nine units contributed to this report.
If you put a boy in front of a big rock he will try to climb up the side. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the Rock City near Mt. Diablo, Balconies in Pinnacles, Half Dome in Yosemite, or even a boulder next to the parking lot. Boys like to climb. Scouting understands this impulse and offers the Climbing merit badge to put some structure around this natural activity.
There are lots of places where Northern California Scouts can learn to climb safely. One of the most interesting indoor locations is in the old Great Western Power Company building in Oakland. The climbing walls are built around a 150 foot tall smokestack and the walls are as high and interesting as the adrenaline rush they inspire. The Troop voted to make this our outing destination.
We walk into the gym at around 8:00 pm. The cavernous space is cold and dark. A faint smell of mold and perspiration rises from the thick mats that cover most of the floor. The facility is split into two climbing areas. The area closest to the entrance is for beginners and is filled with short walls, easy routes, and extra pads. A free climb overhang is off to the side. The other room is for more advanced climbers. It contains the smokestack, which divides the much higher walls into two smaller sections, and a dozen walls that are sometimes angled to make the routes more challenging.
Some boys brought sleeping bags, which are thrown into a dark space under the industrial stairs. We put on sweatshirts and look for our gloves. Most of the boys stare nervously at the climbing walls and wonder if they are strong enough (and brave enough) to get to the ceiling. When everyone is safely inside, the doors are locked and bolted. No one is leaving until 6:00 am, when our drivers are scheduled to return.
The Troop splits into two groups. First year Scouts are working on the merit badge, so they are herded into the beginner’s room with the counselors. We don’t see them for a few hours as they learn the basics and test each other on rappelling and tying figure eight knots (count six pairs, plus a fisherman knot at the end). From time to time a shout followed by a loud thud tells us that everything is proceeding normally in the merit badge session.
The rest of the Scouts have already earned the merit badge. They follow two experienced climbers (staff) to the smokestack and sit at the bottom of the 150 foot wall. Everyone has to review the components of a safe climb: harness, clips, ropes, knots, belay commands, and inspections. The staff is tough and some boys have to be tested again and again.
Finally everyone is ready. Half of the advanced group moves to the wall, with the other half deployed to belay the safety ropes in case their climbing partner should slip and fall. For the next several hours, Scouts pick a route, tie into the harness, and climb until they hit a section that is too difficult. Directions and shouts of encouragement echo in the chamber. “You can do it.” “Don’t stop now.” “Move your left foot up a little and put your weight on the blue rock.” “You are almost to the top.” Over and over again, until everyone’s arms are exhausted and fingers don’t work anymore. Time for a rest.
By 3:00 am, some younger Scouts are starting to get sleepy. They look for a quiet place to roll out their sleeping bags. They are soon to learn a harsh lesson: it’s difficult to sleep on mats in an open room where Scouts are playing football or when people are tripping over you to get to the pizza and hot chocolate. Miraculously, one narcoleptic boy sleeps through all the commotion.
For the final two hours, we crank up the music and try to get all the boys onto the walls again. Some get their second wind and begin climbing steadily and seriously. Belayers move to the heavy beat of the music in order to stay awake and keep themselves warm. Younger Scouts wander across the mats, not comprehending how their minds can be mostly asleep while their bodies are still moving. Adult Leaders keep looking at their watches as the minutes creep slowly by.
Finally it’s six o’clock. Scouts slowly push sleeping bags into stuff sacks. Trash is picked up and equipment is put away. The bill is paid (including a nice tip for the staff who also stayed up all night) and the cars are loaded with Scouts, who immediately fall asleep. The long night ends with a flurry of early morning telephone calls by adult leaders to get parents to collect their Scouts. Then, finally, it’s time to go home.
The Great Western Power Company gym is owned by Touchstone Climbing and Fitness, which has multiple facilities around the Bay Area and lots of climbing options for youth groups; including easy walls for a Tenderfoot Patrol or Webelo Den and more difficult walls for Venture Crews. http://www.touchstoneclimbing.com/