Fall Backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness

The coastline between Carmel and Big Sur is among the most beautiful places in the entire world.  The ocean views are staggering and the road is an engineering marvel.  Most incredible, the incessant ocean swells continually slam into the partially submerged rocks and send enormous plumes of water heavenward, creating a constantly changing but breathtakingly beautiful, natural fountain.  From the pink glow in the darkening sky, we already know it’s going to be a good weekend for backpacking.

In Northern California, there are only a few good places for backpacking in the Fall (unless you like snow) and the Monterrey area is one of the best.  The area provides hundreds of trails (many overgrown and unmaintained) and lots of scenic views and interesting history.  A huge fire ripped through the Ventana Wilderness area a couple of years back, but the rangers have just reopened the trails to backpackers.  Our group, consisting of four well-traveled Scout Leaders,  is anxious to see the destruction – and especially the rebirth – of the forest.

We arrive at an almost empty Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park after dark and get our pick of first-rate campsites.  The Pine Ridge Trail, which connects with the famous Sykes hot springs, runs a few hundred yards from where we sleep and there is a plan to be on this trail at first light.  (All we have to do is get up before dawn.)  The diligent Park Hosts drop by before breakfast to make sure the $35 camping fee is paid and tell us that Condor sightings are increasingly common along the coast. 

We load Beardsley (the name of our trustworthy Toyota Sequoia) and drive down to Big Sur Station, about a mile south on Highway 1.  Our leader secures a stove permit and confirms the overnight parking rules ($4 per vehicle per night at the trailhead).  Walking away, the Ranger points out three dark images circling high in the sky.  California Condors.  A good omen.

The trail to Sykes is difficult, especially for beginners.  There are very few flat stretches and almost every step is either going up or down a steep hill.  (About 5,000 feet elevation gain and loss over the 23 mile round trip.)  There are few places to pump water.   For much of the way, steep drop-offs (in some places actual cliffs) border the path and because of the fire, much of the trail is damaged or obstructed by fallen trees, especially over the last three miles.  As an added bonus, hikers must cross the Big Sur River right at the end, within site of the small and crowded camping area.  (Bring your water shoes.)  However, the hot springs and party atmosphere are big attractions, so despite the difficulties,  Sykes is always full of young hikers looking for a fun break from their college studies.  (Many bring alcohol to enhance their enjoyment.)

The best place to spend the night is Barlow Flat (8 miles) with a day hike to Sykes (about 3.5 miles each way).  Barlow Flat is nicer than Sykes, quieter, and possessed of more level,  open space for pitching tents.  There is a also great swimming area where the Big Sur River deepens along a sandy turn.  (Big groups can cross the river to find a private meadow that will hold an entire Venture Crew.)  There are even wilderness toilets nearby.

Since it is late in the year, darkness comes early to Barlow Flat.  Our tents are under a grove of tall redwood trees, which block out the moon and most of the stars.  Fires are prohibited.  So we sit in the deepening shadows, increasingly shrouded by the same primordial darkness that you experience in deep caves like Moaning Cavern.  It’s pitch black.  Someone turns on a flashlight to check the time.  Almost 7:30 pm.  The camp stove is soon lit and noisy blue flames provide a small fragment of artificial daylight until the fuel runs out a short time later.  It’s getting cold.  Time to crawl into our sleeping bags until morning.

The hike back to Big Sur Station is spectacular!  Traveling west, we are facing the ocean and see it often, framed against the rugged, green hillsides.  The river roars far below us, and it appears regularly as we move up, down and around on the steep trails.  Even now, in early November, the sun shines brightly and the temperature stays in the mid 60s.  The effects of the fire are noticeable, and in some cases remarkable, but they do not diminish our enjoyment of the experience.  There are few better places for late-season backpacking than Ventana Wilderness.

Many first-time visitors to Sykes cannot find the hot springs because they are so far away from the camping area.  To get to the hot springs, cross the river and turn left.  Go a few hundred yards and then cross back over the river and turn right.  Make your way along the river for about a quarter of a mile.  Sometimes the going is difficult and you will be walking through poison oak.  Just when you think you might have missed them, the smell of sulfur  is noticeable.  Keep going for another fifty yards and you will find three hot springs.  The largest will hold four adults comfortably, but sometimes more people have to be accommodated.  The water is usually a tepid 100 degrees.  Nudity in and around the warm water is common. Don’t forget your towel and boots because it’s a long walk back.

Wilderness Survival

Puma Point seemed like the perfect spot for our Wilderness Survival campout. It’s in a beautiful area – near Lake Chabot – with lots of trees and vegetation. BBQs and stone pits are on hand for fire building. Hardly any other campers are close enough for us to disturb with our cheers, singing and late night activities. Most important, there is lots of space for Scouts to spread out and build shelters using the downed branches, leaves, brush, poles, and logs piled nearby. (To earn the merit badge, boys have to, among other things, build a shelter and spend the night in it without a sleeping bag.)

We arrive in the afternoon and everyone gets to work. More than 30 boys are running around, lashing poles together to construct frames, grabbing branches from the pile, spreading leaves on the ground for insulation. There is tons of creativity as teams discuss the tradeoffs between tarps and leafy branches for roofs, the ideal location for doors, dealing with bugs and spiders, and the best ways to seal their structures for maximum warmth. Everyone is energized as they fall into “man vs. wild” mode and labor to construct the perfect temporary habitat.  

Building Shelters at Puma Point

Wilderness Survival - Building Shelters

After a few hours of hard work the shelters are finished. The entire Troop walks around to inspect every one and point out strengths and weaknesses. Youth Leaders score them: 1 = really lame, 10 = can withstand attack by bears. All teams score a 5 (survivable) or higher. Time to move onto fire building. No matches are allowed.

There are many ways to build fires without matches, none of them easy. We set up stations with batteries and steel wool, bows and string, flint and steel, and magnifying glasses (which turns out to be especially difficult in the deepening twilight). Scouts try to get a fire going and, if successful, move on to the next station. To meet the requirement, they must light three fires without matches. It takes a while, but eventually everyone is successful. Good job. 

Scouts build fires without matches at Lake Chabot

Scouts build fires without matches at Puma Point.

Dinner comes and goes (One Patrol plans chili and corn bread but forgets to add the canned chili to the Dutch oven. Corn bread was good though.) We are just starting the cleanup when a Park Ranger rides up on an ATV and starts waving frantically. He has discovered our shelters tucked between trees and hidden behind mounds of dirt. The Ranger is totally freaking out!! We have apparently broken some major Park Ranger rule by invading an “undesignated area” just beyond the unmarked “border” of the campsite. The discussion soon turns into an argument and then a lecture. The Ranger starts shaking his finger at the Scoutmaster (always a bad turn of events) and declares, “ All the shelters are “off limits!”

Now what? It’s already dark. Some of the Scouts do not have a sleeping bag or sleeping pad. Fog is coming in with the wind. Rain is threatening and sleeping outside “under the stars” is not an option. Leadership decides. We have to move all the shelters – and move them quickly. Scouts dismantle their beautiful structures, trying not to think about how much effort was put into building them. We carry poles, branches, ropes, and tarps to a “designated” spot one hundred yards away. Reconstructing everything in the dark is not easy, but the group puts in a valiant effort.

After an hour, the shelters are more or less reconstructed. Dejectedly, we return to the dinner clean-up, start the campfire, break a lantern, tell jokes and stories (two Scouts win prizes in the Wilderness Survival story telling contest), sing Scout Vespers, and eventually crawl into the rebuilt shelters with our silver space blankets. Good night.

Just before 3:00 am, the Scoutmaster hears voices, looks out, and sees the unmistakable flicker of matches near the picnic tables. The entire New Scout Patrol is trying to light a stove to make hot chocolate. (Good teamwork!) Their shelters (all three of them) have mysteriously collapsed and their Patrol Leader doesn’t want to try and sleep anymore. He wants to wait for sunrise. (Bad plan.) Thirty minutes later, the shelters are up again and the boys have been forced back inside them. It takes about two minutes for everyone to fall asleep. Good night again!

First Year Scout in a shelter just before it collapses.

Tenderfoot Scout in a shelter just before it collapses.

As usual, the youngest Scouts are up with the sun (and the fog). They are chattering excitedly because they have, despite all expectations, survived the night without sleeping bags. The boys go off to tell the older Scouts about their experience and get them up for breakfast. The older Scouts are not pleased at all.

By 9:30 am breakfast and clean-up are finished. Scout’s Own is conducted on a nearby hill in a pocket of sunshine. Then we create learning stations for wilderness first aid, emergency signaling, worst case scenario discussions, water purification, and testing on the seven priorities for backcountry survival. The fog and light drizzle is annoying. Suddenly, the wind catches 30 silver space blankets that have been left on the ground and lifts them all into the air.

Scouts move quickly to catch the floating blankets before they blow into the trees. Almost immediately they are twirling in circles, jumping around, and performing bird-like dance moves with their arms raised high and silver capes floating behind them. (It’s like watching a weird production of the Ice Capades that has been choreographed by Bart Simpson.) The show ends abruptly when someone trips and falls face-first into the mud. Two other boys quickly follow suite. The space blankets (what’s left of them) are stuffed into trash cans and the Troop gets back to business.

Before long, its lunchtime. Camp clean-up begins immediately afterwards. The Troop moves slowly now, perhaps not wanting the outing to end – or maybe everyone is tired. Park Rangers drop by (four times) to see exactly what we are doing and provide encouragement. Time to go home and get some sleep.

To earn the Wilderness Survival merit badge, a Scout has to build a shelter and spend the night in it. They can wear as many clothes as they like. And bring a space blanket. But they cannot have a sleeping bag or sleep on an air mattress. Scouts construct shelters following Leave No Trace Principles: no damage to trees, plants, or ground cover. The exercise is to Scouts how to survive in the wilderness if they become separated from their backpacks and equipment – and to give them confidence that they can do it and survive. It is a rite of passage on the trail to serious backpacking.

Meridian – Alpha District for Camping

A few weeks ago we sent a questionnaire to Scout Troops in the Meridian District to find out more about their camping programs. Specifically we were trying to understand their level of activity, whether there any issues, and to identify the most popular places for day trips and overnight camping. Added to the “official Meridian District Camping Report,” the information provides a unique and detailed profile of one of the most active Scout Districts in the entire country.

The “average” Meridian District Boy Scout Troop that responded* goes on 2.6 outings per month. This includes overnight camping (usually one a month), cycling, backpacking, and day trips. Three Troops reported that they typically conduct four or more outings per month. In addition to long-term backpacking trips, four (4) Troops attended two summer camps in 2009 and seven (7) plan on attending two summer camps next year. Continue reading

Pt. Reyes National Seashore

One of the best places to hike in Northern California is Pt. Reyes National Seashore, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.  It offers a unique combination of ocean views, wooded trails (Mt. Wittenberg), beaches, and marine wildlife, not to mention more than 150 miles of great backpacking trails. And it is one of the best places in Northern California for an overnight Scouting adventure. 

We collect our permits at the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center and drive south on Hwy 1 to Mesa Road (through Bolinas) and then park at the Palomarin Trailhead.  Scouts grab their share of the food, argue over who has to carry the tents, and then its “Packs On” and off we go.  Our destination is Wildcat Camp, about five miles away.  Continue reading

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