Thorns and Roses and a Bud
By Jess Bossung
No snowshoes? No problem. When snowdrifts blocked Troop 135's mountain climbing in Adirondack Park, it improvised — taking its high-adventure trek to the Catskills.
Boy Scout Troop 135 experienced slow going during the first two miles of its much-anticipated, five-day First Class mini-trek. Hiking the trail to Marcy Dam in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, the 16 Scouts and five adult leaders from Manchester, N.H., encountered a squishy, muddy mess because of the spring thaw.
The Scouts did their best to stay dry, but not everyone achieved success. Still, by late afternoon the troop had gathered at the rim of the concrete dam and stood gazing up expectantly at the target of their trip: Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in New York State.
In 2003 and 2005, committee member Val Touba had led similar hikes in Vermont and New York with boys from Troop 135. This year, though, the Scouts wanted more of a challenge. So they planned to hike at least 30 miles through the park’s High Peaks Region and climb the 5,344-foot-high Mount Marcy.
Little did they know that conditions on the trail would thwart their intentions. Well, one of their intentions.
At the dam, Troop 135 met Eagle Scout Joe LaPierre, a ranger at Adirondack Park. He warned that it would be basically impossible for them to go much farther up the trail without snowshoes, let alone reach the summit of Mount Marcy.
Instead, LaPierre suggested the troop split up, camp for the night near the dam, and get an early start the next morning to take the relatively short hike to Avalanche Lake. He also offered activities the Scouts could engage in to fill out the remainder of their weekend and proposed three alternative treks outside the park that didn’t require snowshoes or winter-camping gear.
After a brief discussion, Touba and the other adult leaders agreed. And dry socks, hot dinners, and warm sleeping bags that night helped remedy the boys’ disappointment at not getting a crack at Mount Marcy.
A change of plans
Touba and two older Scouts had spent several months organizing the trek. “We wanted it to come as close as possible to the Philmont experience,” Touba said. “We took a great deal of our Philmont training — Leave No Trace, bear-proofing, water purification — and taught it to the younger guys.”
The Scouts and adult leaders also consulted topographical maps to plot their route and day-to-day itinerary, advancing their secondary goal to test the boys’ outdoor skills and help them earn the Hiking merit badge.
With that in mind, following La-Pierre’s advice, the troop set off the next day on a hike up the maple- and birch-lined path to Avalanche Lake. They kept their eyes open for signs of bears, but the only indications were distinctive claw marks on a maple and an occasional “blur” in the woods that only the older Scouts seemed to see.
The trail represents the park’s most popular route for snowshoes and cross-country skis, coursing like a spine through the woods and rising above surrounding snowdrifts. At that time of year, it still had a layer of hard-packed snow. Though passable, it required the troop’s skill and concentration to navigate without snowshoes because straying or, in most cases, slipping off the path resulted in a “posthole” — a leg disappearing up to the knee in the surrounding softer snow.
After an hour and a half of negotiating the snowy path, though, the troop emerged from the woods and spied the wonders of Avalanche Lake’s frozen shore. “This is awesome,” said David Ricard, who was on his first backpacking trek with Troop 135. “I wish my mom could be here to see this. She’s the one who got me excited about hiking and joining the Boy Scouts.”
South to the Catskills
By lunchtime, the Scouts had arrived back at the Marcy Dam trailhead and began discussing their next move. Seeking some first-hand information, they drove to The Mountaineer, an outdoor outfitter in nearby Keene Valley that the day before had rented them bear canisters to protect their food.
The Mountaineer stocks an entire wall of trail maps and guides, and the outfitter’s staff also provided information about local wilderness areas and trails. Touba made a few phone calls to check on conditions in the Catskills, while the other adult leaders and senior Scouts considered the alternatives that LaPierre had suggested.
After weighing the alternatives, the group reached a consensus: Troop 135 would head south to the Catskill Forest Preserve. It was familiar territory; Touba and many of the older Scouts had hiked the area in 2005. More importantly, snow didn’t cover the trails there.
That evening, one mile from the Catskills’ Panther Mountain trailhead, the Scouts raced against the setting sun. They had a lot to do. A little way from the campsite, Keith and his tentmate, Matty Boire, worked at hanging a bear bag. Closer in, headlamps and cook fires illuminated the trunks of towering oaks.
“The boys are basically on their own out here,” Touba said as he unrolled his sleeping bag. “We’ve been working on basic camping skills for the past few months. For most of the Scouts, this is the first time they’ve made dinner, purified water, and set up camp. The whole point of this trip is to give them the opportunity to be self-sufficient and independent.”
The next day, the troop faced ample challenges to how well they had learned those basic skills. They logged 10 miles on the Catskills’ Fox Hollow Trail, where steep climbs, a cloudless sky, and a scarcity of water made for a rough day of hiking and conservation.
Star Scout Nathan McCormick and some of the older Scouts helped the younger boys by lightening their backpacks and running water bottles uphill to others who were experiencing some symptoms of dehydration.
After lunch, with the troop rehydrated and reassembled, Nathan suggested that the more experienced Scouts double up their loads so that the troop would make it to camp before nightfall. And a few minutes later, with the younger Scouts’ tents, sleeping bags, and food caches redistributed, Troop 135 headed off down the trail.
Flexibility and persistence
“Part of being a Boy Scout is adapting to the situation,” said Andrew Angione the next day while taking in the view from the summit of Mount Wittenberg. “We knew we weren’t going home when we realized we couldn’t climb Mount Marcy. But it all worked out. Look at this incredible view.”
The Catskill Forest Preserve stretched to the horizon. Acres of green forest rolled to the edge of the deep-blue Ashokan Reservoir, one of New York City’s largest sources of fresh water.
Around the campsite that night, the everyday world seemed far away: homework assignments, families, part-time jobs. And just as he had every other night of the trip, Andrew ate dinner with his father, Brett.
“It’s been a great trip,” Brett said. “In the woods there are no distractions. It’s the perfect place to spend time with my son and see him interact with his friends and take on the challenges of being a Scout.”
The next morning, after a short descent out of the woods, the Scouts were back at the Woodland Valley Campground. Following Troop 135 tradition, they ended their adventure with a “roses, thorns, and buds” reflection.
Standing in a circle, each member took turns sharing the highs and lows of the trip, as well as a new goal or insight they had gained.
Roses included spending time with a parent, conquering a peak, and successfully preparing “taco-ghetti,” a Troop 135 delicacy that consists of two parts spaghetti and one part taco. Most agreed that the thorn was not being able to climb Mount Marcy.
However, the overall experience provided a bud for many. The troop agreed that they would return to the Adirondacks and its highest peak — some day.
“I know that I’m coming back,” Brett Angione told everyone. “I just hope you’ll all come with me.”
Jess Bossung, a master's degree candidate in journalism at New York University, has extensive hiking experience in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States.