An 'XTREME' Case of Wow!
By Greg Tasker
The Greater Alabama Council retools a summer camp property into an action-packed center for high adventure.
With the weekend nearly over and one last adventure beckoning, a string of teenage boys and girls winds its way through the brush and down a hill to a gushing stream, kayaks in tow.
The members of Venturing Crew 96 (which is chartered to Epworth United Methodist Church, Huntsville, Ala.) are going to explore a river caveone of the "XTREME" activities at Camp Jackson, the Greater Alabama Council's new high adventure base for older Scouts and Venturers.
The Crew 96 Venturers slip into their kayaks, fasten personal flotation devices, snap on helmets equipped with headlamps, and sweep into the cave, which extends far into the earth.
By the time the group paddles a half mile into the dark interior, where the only signs of life are spiderlike cave crickets hanging from the damp ceiling, it's clear that this experience ranks near the top on the weekend's "wow" meter.
A model for others
Scout Executive Ronnie Holmes and other council officials hope the 550-plus-acre Camp Jackson, set in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Alabama, will become a model in how to build a local high adventure base with activities that grab a teenager's attention.
"This is an important component of our program for older Scouts and Venturers," said Charlie Thorpe, a former Scoutmaster who was hired two years ago as base director.
At the XTREME Adventure Base at Camp Jackson, young people can hike, backpack, cave, climb, mountain bike, rappel, and canoe. An outdoor service project is also required, and "everyone does three or four hours of volunteer service," Thorpe said. "Most of what we're doing now is trail work. Eventually we will build campsites."
The camp's conversion to a high adventure base came after the 1997 consolidation of three Alabama councils Tennessee Valley, Central Alabama, and Choccolocco. During the strategic planning process, the volunteers of the new Greater Alabama Council saw the need for a local high adventure program. They suggested that Camp Jackson, used as a summer camp since the 1960s, be put to better use.
"With the new Venturing program, [Camp Jackson] would provide an alternative to the national BSA high adventure base programs, which are so popular they fill up quickly," said J. T. Dabbs, the council's director of field service. "We wanted to offer experiences that would be just as meaningful and as fun for our members."
Last summer Camp Jackson began programs "to let units get a taste of several types of high adventure activities," Charlie Thorpe said. "We're not interested in being 'Six Flags Over Camp Jackson,' where people just want to come and have fun. Our goal is to have all this fun while training older teenagers and adults in how to conduct high adventure programs."
Programs at Camp Jackson "can teach you enough to get started in activities like caving and climbing," Thorpe added. "And the best time to decide if you want to include caving in a unit's high adventure planning is when you are able to go into a cave yourself. Otherwise, you can't appreciate what your unit will be getting into."
Although Camp Jackson had long been used as a summer camp, its steeply sloping terrain was not ideal for typical summer camp activities.
"But all the things that made it tough for a summer camp make it wonderful for a high adventure base," Thorpe said. "The hills are exactly what older teens want for mountain biking."
Indeed. The camp hugs a narrow stretch of Tennessee River backwaters, in the middle of several large properties managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Heavily wooded and sitting at the foot of Sand Mountain, Camp Jackson is secluded yet accessible. The site boasts three miles of cap rock cliff and two miles of shoreline.
Plans include construction of weather-protected facilities for training, gear storage, and taking care of other needs. Dormitories, built with trees logged from a nearby site, will be conveniently located. The bike camp dormitory, for example, will be in the woods amid the mountain biking trails. Bikers will have to carry only their gearno tents or padsto the site.
Of caves and kayaks
Venturing Crews 96 and 361 came to Camp Jackson one weekend last May to work on the mountain bike trails and sample some high adventure activities. Kayaking, hiking, rappelling, and caving were offered.
Mulling the camp's activities, 15-year-old Emily Banks said: "I want to do as much as I can, even if it's scary. I've been in caves, but I've never been caving; and I really enjoy canoes, but I've never been kayaking."
While Emily and members of Crew 96 paddled kayaks on the Tennessee River, those in Crew 361 hiked to the Pinnacle, a stony cliff high above the river, to rappel.
From the base of Camp Jackson, the Pinnacle is about a two-mile hike, with a 1,300-foot elevation. The summit affords panoramic views of the Tennessee River and surrounding ridges.
Wearing a red helmet and climbing gear, Daniel Wilcox, 18, paused during his descent of the 60-foot Pinnacle.
"Do you mind if I hang out for a second?" he asked jokingly to Gary Parr, who was overseeing the rappelling.
"Yeah, go ahead," Gary said.
Then Daniel began rappelling for a few feet. He stopped and rested his feet on a ledge. When he continued, Gary was high above, working the ropes, helping to control Daniel's downward trip.
"This is serious," Daniel said as he slipped like a spider toward the ground.
"This is high adventure!" responded David Hunt, a Crew 96 Advisor who watched from a nearby ledge.
Grace McMahan, Advisor of Crew 361 (chartered to Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Huntsville), coached another group of first-time rappellers.
"Going over the edge is the hardest part. You have to trust yourself," said McMahan. "When you're right at the edge, it's scary. There's no way to describe rappelling; you have to experience it for yourself."
One by one, the othersSamantha Atchley, Eva Tillmans, Tim Burns, and Andrew Keenmade repeated descents, until a thunderstorm threatened, and the crew returned to the base.
The right mix
Its inaugural summer of activities convinced council officials that Camp Jackson is offering the right mix of challenging outdoor activities for Venturers and older Boy Scouts.
"The response has been positive," J. T. Dabbs said. "We plan to do more marketing and let people know what Camp Jackson is all about."
"This camp means a lot to me," said Tim Burns of Crew 361. "I've been coming here since I was 11. In Boy Scouts, we were limited to hiking to the Pinnacle and looking over the cliff, but we couldn't go rappelling. I'm looking forward to all the new activities."
And that's exactly what the staff at Camp Jackson wants to hear.
Freelance writer Greg Tasker lives in Emmitsburg, Md. He wrote "Building Leaders on the Chesapeake" in the October 2000 issue of Scouting.
May-June 2001 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2001 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.