By David Dowling
Illustrations by Joel Snyder
The October sky was quickly turning the color of charcoal, casting a nocturnal blanket over the woods that only moments ago were bright with color. As I hiked toward the bridge high above Shermans Creek, a strong wind hit me head-on. A storm was coming; as near as I could figure, about 10 minutes away. While crossing the bridge, I looked to my left and noticed what appeared to be recent beaver cuttings along the bank. I made a mental note to investigate later.
The road on the other side of the bridge climbed a slight grade. When I reached the top, a sign pointing to my right read "Great Stag." Straight ahead, a tall stone fireplace was all that remained of what was once a large structure.
A short distance away in a small clearing stood a tiny, worn-out building. A hand-carved sign nailed to the door told me it was at one time used as a trading post. I wiped the dirt from the glass pane and looked in. Except for a few cardboard boxes, it was empty.
Around back, I discovered a path leading through a stand of hemlocks. I walked on, the wind brushing the soft pine needles against my face. The trail ended at a swimming pool surrounded by a chain link fence. To my right was a camping area encircled by Adirondack style lean-to's.
The rain now began in earnest. Looking for a place to wait out the storm, I stepped up and into one of the lean-to's. It looked much smaller than I remembered.
My refuge from the rain was one of nine three-sided Adirondack style lean-to's located in the Kiwanis Camp area at Hidden Valley Scout Camp in Perry County, about 30 miles from Harrisburg, Pa. Jim Pannebaker, the recently elected president of the Keystone Area Council, had asked me to come.
I had contacted him when I heard that the camp was in danger of closing because of financial problems, asking if there was anything I could do to help. I thought I would volunteer to rebuild a tent platform, fix a roof, or perform some other manual labor.
Over breakfast one morning he said: "Well, that's not exactly what I had in mind. I would like you to serve as chairman of the Blue Mountain District, one of the five that make up the Keystone Area Council."
I told him that I didn't think I was the right person, and that I had been a Boy Scout for only a brief time. "Surely, you can find someone better," I urged.
"Don't give me your answer now," he said. "Go up to Hidden Valley. It's a big camp, over 850 acres. Take your time and look around. We're making a lot of improvements. Summer camp is over, but I'll tell the ranger you are coming. Think about it and get back to me."
The ranger greeted me at the gate. "What brings you to Hidden Valley?" he asked.
"Just going to look around," I responded.
"Anything in particular?"
"No, not really."
I walked to the rear of the three-sided shelter to escape the wind-driven rain and took off my wet jacket. I sat on the wood floor, leaned up against the back wall, and closed my eyes. My plans to see as much of the camp as possible would have to wait for another day. What mattered was where my mind went, not my body.
I first came to Camp Hidden Valley in the summer of 1963 as an 11-year-old Boy Scout and a member of Troop 21, chartered to a Presbyterian church in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. My Scout leader was Bruce Kreker.
Everything The Boy Scout Handbook said I would need for summer camp was packed inside a black footlocker my mother had bought at Sears. My father read the checklist as I packed: flashlight, sleeping bag, mess kit, compass, pocketknife, towel, backpack, soap, toothbrush, etc. I would be prepared.
When the trunk was full, my father and I loaded it into the back of our Ford station wagon, and we headed north into Perry County. After a one-hour drive and a few photographs, my parents pulled away, and I was on my own for the first time.
As near as I remember, about 20 boys from Troop 21 attended camp that summer, four of us to a lean-to. I took one of the top bunks. Below me was Howard Roath. We claimed the lean-to by carving our initials in one of the wood beams, an act that appeared to be something of a tradition.
While unrolling my sleeping bag, I found a small paper bag that I had not packed. Inside were chocolate chip cookies and a note from my mother.
Our days began with breakfast in the mess hall. (The one of my memory had long since been demolished and a new one built on the west side of camp.) For each meal of the week, a different troop was required to serve as waiters. As luck would have it, our troop had to serve scrambled eggs on the first morning of camp. Fortunately, we didn't have to cook them.
Throughout each day, we moved from station to station, learning different skills necessary to advance in rank. I first paddled a canoe and learned what a "J" stroke was while floating in Shermans Creek. A class in camp preparation taught us how to safely build a fire, as well as how to pitch a tent and dig a trench around it to divert rainwater. (This was in the days of canvas tents without floors.)
During a class in first aid, we learned how to splint a fracture, recognize when someone was in shock, and treat a snakebite. We also learned how to treat poison ivy. Later in the week, I remembered thinking a lesson in how to recognize it would have been more helpful.
We learned how to safely use a hand ax to cut firewood, how to use a compass, and the difference between a bowline, half hitch, and a square knot.
Each day we spent an hour at the swimming pool. I can't say I learned to swim at Hidden Valley, but I did learn a valuable lesson. We referred to it then, as we still do, as the buddy system.
"Keep an eye on your buddy; know where he is at all times," the lifeguard said. "He is your responsibility, and you are his."
My buddy was David Asbaugh. Every day in the pool, we kept a constant eye on each other. (I used a variation of this years later while teaching my son and daughter to swim.)
By Thursday, our troop was ready for an overnight backpacking trip. All of our gear had to be reorganized and repacked into our backpacks. Lightweight camping gear was still years away, and my pack probably weighed almost as much as I did.
We hiked out of the main camp and to the top of the nearest mountain, a distance which seemed like 10 miles, but was in reality probably two or three.
Our senior patrol leader selected a suitable campsite and cleared an area for a fire. That evening, we cooked hot dogs and baked beans and before dark, played a game of Capture the Flag. The next morning, I made my first pancakes over an open fire in my Scout mess kit. I can still taste them.
On the way back to camp, we stopped by a quiet stream to clean our cooking gear. While this trip lasted only one night, I came to understand later that the number of days spent would, like the number of miles covered, become irrelevant.
I didn't know it at the time, but the top of that mountain was the trailhead of 35 years of hiking throughout the United States, Europe, and South America.
That evening, we attended the campfire in a hollow along Shermans Creek. Awards were given out, and the older Scouts, dressed as Indians, danced around the fire.
I could no longer hear the sound of rain on my roof. I opened my eyes and gazed across the woods in the direction of the swimming pool. Wet red and orange leaves now covered the ground. I still wasn't sure if this was the lean-to I had lived in more than 35 summers ago. I took one last look around and stepped outside.
As I retraced my steps out of camp, a woodpecker plodded away, almost like a metronome.
I realized I still had questions, but no answers.
What was a district chairman, and why would I want to be one? Why had I kept the shirt from my Boy Scout uniform hanging in the back of my closet? Why was my Scout handbook still on my library shelf?
Crossing the bridge over Shermans Creek, I saw a beaver slide down the bank into the water and disappear.
As I was getting into my car, the ranger approached and asked if I had found what I was looking for.
I didn't answer at first. My mind was still tethered to the lean-to where I had spent the past hour. Finally I responded, "Yes, I think I did."
"Well, what was it?" he asked.
"Just some initials carved in the wall of an old lean-to, a long time ago."
David Dowling is chairman of the Blue Mountain District, Keystone Area Council, Mechanicsburg, Pa.
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