First Trail

A well-planned weekend “mini-trek” introduces younger Scouts to backpacking and leaves them looking forward to high adventure programs reserved for older Scouts.


About two miles into the day’s six-mile hike, the first Scout voiced the inevitable question: “How much farther?”

Variants followed: “What’s for lunch?” “When can we rest?”

The hikers, mostly younger Scouts from Troop 212 of Moraga, Calif., were feeling their first trail sores on a three-day, two-night backpacking “mini-trek.”

For most of the 12- and 13-year-olds, this was their first try at organizing, packing, and carrying gear over wilderness trails to remote campsite locations. (Prior to this mini-trek, the farthest many of the young Scouts had ever carried a heavy backpack was from a parking lot to a campsite at a camporee or Scout camp.)

In Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the group would cover a total of 12 miles on one of California’s most beautiful trails. The route started in a sandy creek bottom chilled by morning fog, proceeded through stately groves of giant redwoods and adjacent to eye-popping waterfalls, and, on day three, concluded on a Pacific Ocean beach, where seals frolicked among crashing waves.

Troop 212 chose the trail for its grand scenery and easy hiking, an important mix for beginners. And though the route offered a taste of wilderness trekking, the hikers were never far from help in case of an emergency.

SORE LEGS AND FEET

Although not difficult, the trail had its challenges. The first leg, in particular, was the weekend’s longest hike and ended with an uphill climb before arriving at the first night’s campsite.

The easy pace of the first hour filled the trail with relaxed chatter as the boys adjusted to their loads and soaked in the scenery.

But they soon left the cool, sun-dappled shade of the creek for a climb into towering redwood groves. Their conversation trailed off into silence as sweat began to flow across young faces flushed red from exertion. It wasn’t long before the first boy peeled off, complaining of sore feet.

Life Scout Jordan Shively, 15, assigned to bring up the rear as a “sweeper,” alerted the trek leader, Eagle Scout Craig Hansen. The group halted until the footsore boy had changed his socks and was again ready to go.

Soon, another boy stopped with sore legs, apparently caused by his heavy load. An older Scout took up his pack, along with his own, and the hike continued.

On a mini-trek, such little setbacks are neither unusual nor unexpected.

EXPERIENCING THE FUTURE

Troop 212 launched the mini-trek program five years ago to give younger Scouts a brief but exciting sample of a high adventure activity usually reserved for more experienced Scouts 14 and older.

For the older Scouts in Troop 212, the annual highlight is a 50-mile High Sierra Trek, a week of backpacking in the rugged Sierra Nevada range. The enthusiasm of older boys for this high adventure experience led to requests from younger Scouts for some kind of backpacking opportunity of their own. In response, assistant Scoutmaster Nelson Wilkerson created the mini-trek.

After five years, the weekend expeditions are credited with helping many boys in the 13 to 15 age range (when dropouts are traditionally high) remain active in the troop.

“The object of this type of outing,” explained Wilkerson, “is to give the younger Scouts experience carrying a pack with equipment and food and to practice Leave No Trace camping. Another purpose is to give our older Scouts a chance to show younger Scouts how to do that.”

Older Scouts maintain trail order, assist with camp setup and meal preparation, and act as role models. Throughout the hike, as younger Scouts sometimes slowed the pace or struggled with gear, the older Scouts were patient and helpful.

“We’re trying to show the younger Scouts what they’re going to face on longer treks,” said Star Scout Nick Bang, 15. This includes both enjoying the thrill of wilderness backpacking and understanding the preparation and hard work required.

“Every kid is here because he wants to be,” Scoutmaster Tom (Mac) McIntosh pointed out. “For them, it’s a really big event, and they are not sure if they’ve really got what it takes. But we want them to succeed so we intentionally do not make it difficult.”

READY, SET, GO

In preparation, each Scout must have a medical exam and attend a training session one month prior to departure. They learn the Leave No Trace principles along with other backpacking basics, such as foot care, what to bring, and how to pack.

All this is reviewed at a “pack check” the night before the trip, where leaders inspect each boy’s gear and distribute food.

The menu includes freeze-dried backpack dinners, oatmeal and dried fruit for breakfast, and lunches of cheese, crackers, trail mix, and salami.

For the mini-treks, as with all of its high adventure trips, Troop 212 employs a special patrol structure to simplify load sharing and camp setup: The Scouts are divided into “cooking patrols”—groups of four who cook, eat, and camp together and share the work of toting food, gas stoves, tents, and other common gear. Each mini-patrol includes at least one adult or senior Scout as a leader.

In particular, the troop finds this structure simplifies planning, because most trail food packages are designed to feed a group of four.

Each patrol also carries a small first-aid kit, while senior Scouts or adults carry several larger kits. In five years, the mini-treks have been injury-free, a testament to both their low-impact nature and their planning and preparation.

Parental involvement is also important in a successful mini-trek, Scoutmaster McIntosh noted. Because the trip demanded only one day off from work, and the hiking wasn’t bruising, 12 dads joined the trek. Their presence boosted the morale of the novice hikers and allowed them to see firsthand what Scouting is about.

Much of the trip involves learning the basic lessons of the trail life, from the importance of a comfortable trail pace to discovering that the pleasures of a wilderness location almost always outweigh any hardships in getting there.

“It’s really cool,” Second Class Scout Harry Thomas, 12, said at the lunch break. “I thought it would be fun, because I like hiking and camping, and I like to be outdoors.”

Harry and the other younger Scouts crashed on their packs and fallen logs, wolfing down cheese chunks, salami, energy bars, fruit, and juice. It was a welcome rest, but they had come to the toughest part of the day’s hike: a steep and slippery climb along the side of a cascading waterfall.

Cables anchored along the trail helped, but a few younger Scouts were apprehensive about the climb.

Parent Russ Hansen, who had three sons on the trek, had hiked the trail before. “After the climb, it’s only a little ways to camp,” he said reassuringly as he helped a resting Scout to his feet. “Believe me, it’s not very far.”

“It’s always not very far,” echoed 12-year-old Second Class Scout Patrick Bang, who was not totally convinced.

‘I DID IT!’

But in minutes the climbing was over, and the Scouts, sweaty and smeared with trail dust, were relaxing in camp and relishing the day’s accomplishments.

“It’s more than I’ve ever hiked in a lifetime!” announced First Class Scout Kenny Kaprielian, 13.

“The backpacking is great, but this experience is really about gaining self-reliance,” observed Jim Nealon, who joined son Patrick, 12, a Second Class Scout, on his first mini-trek.

The troop used established but primitive park campsites that provided pit toilets and tent sites, but no fireplaces or running water. After pitching their two-man dome tents and setting up cooking areas, many of the boys returned to the waterfall to splash around and gather water. Others stayed in camp to enjoy some camaraderie and quiet.

Lights-out came early, and by morning it was clear this mini-trek, like its predecessors, had accomplished its goal. As the troop began its descent toward the second day’s campsite, Russ Hansen observed that his youngest son, Connor, 12, a Second Class Scout, was already looking ahead to next year’s adventure.

“Connor was really concerned about whether he’d be able to do this trek,” Hansen said. “But today he woke up and said, ‘Dad, I did it! And yesterday was the toughest day!’

“That, in fact, may be more important than all the skills they’ve learned.”

Freelance writer Matt Weiser lives in Yucca Valley, Calif.


LEADING A FLOCK OF EAGLES

There must be magic at work in Troop 212, whose chartered organization is the Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church. In its 41 years in Moraga (the troop was first chartered 52 years ago in San Leandro, Calif.), more than 600 boys have been members and 273 (45 percent) have become Eagle Scouts.

The magician, apparently, is Scoutmaster Tom (Mac) McIntosh. His hands-off approach allows boys to lead the troop in a way that inspires new recruits to pursue similar leadership opportunities.

“Mac stresses a boy-run troop,” said Mark Rudolph, adult organizer of the recent Big Basin Redwoods mini-trek. “You put Scouts in charge of something, and they do incredible things. A key is the older Scouts helping the younger kids.”

This was visible during the mini-trek. With no prodding from adults, older Scouts cautioned younger boys about safety as they played in a slippery waterfall. They were helpful and patient as new hikers struggled with loose gear and sore feet.

On the trail, Mac was like a football coach leading by example, not force. Talland gray-bearded, he hung back with the younger Scouts and let his youth leaders run the show. If he saw a boy needing help, he was the first to lend a hand or offer advice, but he rarely issued proclamations. Once camp was made, Mac stretched out for a nap while the boys enjoyed the afternoon.

Modestly, he said of his Scouts, “All I know how to do is organize them. They know how to get it done.”

Other activities nudge Scouts toward Eagle. Summer wilderness camp activities are built around certain merit badges, so attendance means advancement and a feeling of success. The troop’s high adventure program plays a role by inspiring kids to stay involved. The troop mixes in special trips, like bicycling across British Columbia, canoeing for a week, or backpacking in Alaska. Mac said he “boutiqued” the program to heighten interest.

“When we first got the high adventure program going, it was pretty much backpacking, and I was focused on that,” he said. “But then I saw kids not going. Not every kid likes to go out and pound gravel.”

At 73, Mac has been Scoutmaster 29 years and can’t seem to turn away.

“Baden-Powell had it,” Mac said. “You put those little goals out there and the Scout starts ticking those off. Before he knows it, he’s reached the top of the mountain and says, ‘I’ve made it.'”

—M.W


SOME TIPS FOR PLANNING A ‘MINI-TREK’

A “mini-trek” is a simple, low-stress way to acquaint younger Scouts with backpacking. Here are pointers from Troop 212 on organizing one:

Utilize trained adult leaders.
In order to qualify to organize and lead Troop 212’s trek, for example, adult trek leaders Mark Rudolph and Tom Gamsky were required to attend an intense five-day backpacking training course sponsored by the Mount Diablo-Silverado Council and to be participants in last year’s mini-trek.

Choose the right trail.
A relatively easy 12- to 15-mile trail that offers challenges along with spectacular sights is a good choice. Set a relaxed pace of five miles or less each day. Troop 212 has two venues, and it’s seeking a third; it abandoned one route that proved too tough.

Start planning six months ahead.
Collect a deposit from each participant for food, transportation, and miscellaneous items, like T-shirts and patches. To trim costs, the troop purchased generic “212 Mini-Trek” patches for all mini-treks.

The key to anything you want to do is a patch,” Scoutmaster Tom (Mac) McIntosh says. “If there’s a patch involved, a kid will show up.” Cost of the Big Basin mini-trek was $75 per person, including chartered bus transportation.

Appoint a co-leader.
Other members of the troop—Scouts and parents—may be better at food or transportation, so let them take charge. Don’t reinvent the wheel: Troop 212 re-uses menus that worked on other trips.

Teach backpacking basics.
One month before the hike, gather all participants to teach backpacking basics, from what to bring and how to pack it, to foot care and trail etiquette.

Hold a “pack check” meeting the night before the outing.
Food is distributed here, and each Scout’s gear is inspected. Troop 212 groups Scouts in four-man “cooking patrols,” rather than the usual patrol structure, to simplify load sharing.

On the trail, maintain an easy pace and tolerate complications.
Troop 212 plans rest stops every 15 minutes and a 30-minute lunch break. Scout hike leaders carry small two-way radios to keep the group together. One is a “sweeper” who waits with anyone who falls out of the column and can stop the whole group until the straggler is ready.

Keep camp time loosely structured.
The mini-trek should be fun for new backpackers, so allow time for exploring, games, and just hanging out.

—M.W

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