Scouts on Skis (and Boards)

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. 

Scouts trying to stand on skis

Scouts at Bear Valley

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.

Scout gets up after falling down

After a tough Black Diamond run.

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.

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/

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.

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