Kayaking in the Elkhorn Slough

“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.

Kayaking in Monterrey

Getting ready for the kayak

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.

Getting together on the water

Troop formation on the water

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.

Scouts on Kayaks

Scouts kayaking in the rain

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.

Cub Scouts in Meridian Are Hecka Active

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.

Cub Camping is a popular activity

Cub Camping is popular in the Meridian District

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.

On Belay, Belay On, Climbing, Climb On

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.   

Climbing outing at Touchstone in Oakland

Scouts Climbing the Wall

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/

Moaning Cavern – Scouts on Ropes

Many Scouts believe that Moaning Cavern is the best, most exciting outing of their entire Scouting career. It combines underground rappelling, deep-cave spelunking, physical endurance, and old-fashioned brute strength into an epic test of a boy’s inner spirit. After finishing, Scouts can stand a little taller, walk with a little more swagger, and speak with more confidence. (Adults, on the other hand, just need a few days to recover!)

No one is fully prepared for the adrenaline rush you get when dropping into a huge cavern on a small rope. Starting on a wooden platform above the cavern, guides fit everyone with a safety harness and j-rack, then cover the ten safety rules. (Coveralls are provided to protect against the mud in the cave, but they are optional.) One at a time, the boys lean back over the edge, let go of the wooden handrail, and rappel their way slowly to a rocky area 30 feet below. Here they take a deep breath, turn around and inch backwards into the larger, open part of the cavern.

The next seconds are breath-taking and scary as Scouts drop over the edge and hang suspended on their rope Continue reading

Fastest Go Karts for Scouts

Indoor kart racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the country.  Maybe it’s the speed, or maybe it’s because you are so close to the ground, but nothing beats the thrill of driving a go kart through a series of hairpin turns at more than 30 miles per hour.  You get the noise, smell of gasoline, and adrenalin of Formula One racing, but without the expensive pit crews and fiery crashes. 

There are lots of kart race tracks in Northern California.  Some of them are pretty lame!  Our Scouts selected Umigo in Livermore for a Saturday morning trip because they had heard Umigo provides all the excitement they wanted – and all the instruction they needed.  Continue reading

Indoor Sky Diving for Scouts

Real Sky Diving is not allowed in Scouting.  And probably that’s a good thing.  There is something unScoutly about pushing a hysterical boy out of an airplane at 10,000 feet.  (No matter how fun it is for the adults to watch.)   Probably couldn’t get the parent’s permission anyway.  No matter.

The next best thing is IFLY in Union City.  This indoor wind tunnel cost more than $8 million to build according to their web site and it’s so authentic that professional sky divers go there to practice their moves.  IFLY provides all the excitement, adrenaline, and adventure of the real thing, without the screaming Scouts.  Our Troop decided to give it a try. Continue reading