St. John the Divine
By Scott Daniels
New Jersey Scouts fly to a Caribbean paradise to camp, hike, and snorkel near the most beautiful beaches this side of heaven.
Caneel Bay, the exclusive, upscale resort on the north shore of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, caters to a genteel clientele. But anyone can book one of the eco tours that leave from the property. So when the Boy Scouts and leaders of Maplewood, N.J., Troop 5 entered the resort’s gated enclave after a 15-minute ride from their tent-site campground, they got a vivid glimpse of how the other half lives.
“When I found out that our tour departed from here,” said Mary Chris Brauchli, a Troop 5 committee member and wife of the unit’s Scoutmaster, “I was so excited, because I knew it was probably the only way I was ever going to see the inside of Caneel Bay.”
What the Scouts probably didn’t know, but the adults sure did, was that some of the resort’s guests pay nightly rates that equal a Scout’s expenses for an entire week on the island. Eager to begin their ecological adventure of sea kayaking, hiking, and snorkeling, the boys paid little attention to the posh surroundings.
Led by a pair of college-age guides, troop members paddled their tandem kayaks around a point and landed on Scott Beach. Then, during a 45-minute hike, the guides pointed out native plants and holes in the ground where tarantulas burrowed. They also spoke about the island’s Danish heritage and the huge sugar cane plantations once tended to by African slaves.
But the boys experienced the highlight of the eco tour later. At the beach, they fitted themselves with snorkels and masks, entered the clear, turquoise waters, and gazed down at the wonders of Caribbean coral reefs, tropical fish, and giant sea turtles.
Now that was their idea of “posh surroundings.”
TROOP 5 LANDED in St. Thomas following a four-hour flight from New York’s LaGuardia the day before Easter. Twenty boys and 10 adults collected their luggage and 17 boxes of provisions brought from New Jersey. This was the troop’s sixth spring-break trip to the Caribbean, one that occurs about every four years.
Hamilton Eugene, a local entrepreneur and transportation specialist, greeted the group with drivers and four taxis, also known as jitney buses. These pickup trucks, modified with canopies and bench seats in the bed, shuttled the group and its gear to Red Hook on the other side of the island.
“Transportation for a group this size from Point A to B to C is always a challenge,” Scoutmaster Roger Brauchli said, “but I’ve worked with Hamilton ever since our first trip. He’s always made it pretty painless, both on St. Thomas and St. John.”
With synchronized precision, a truck from the island’s warehouse grocery arrived at the Red Hook ferry terminal about the same time as the troop. The Scouts unloaded boxes of prepurchased foodstuffs and marked them for transit to St. John. A 20-minute ferry ride delivered the troop at Cruz Bay, St. John’s commercial hub, and another fleet of jitneys hauled the troop on the last leg of a long day of travel—to their campground at Cinnamon Bay.
Among the world’s greatest campsite locations, Cinnamon Bay must rank in the Top 10. Operating as a concession within St. John’s national park, the campground features two group sites with canvas wall tents. Measuring 10 by 14 feet, the tents sit on wooden platforms and contain four metal bunks with mattresses, bed linens, and pillows. Nearby, two bathhouses offer flush toilets and showers. The site’s finest amenity, though, is its proximity to the beach and the Caribbean’s soothing surf, a mere 100 footsteps away.
On Easter Sunday, many Scouts and leaders attended mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Mission. The parish deacon enlisted Life Scout Daniel Brauchli as an altar boy, and several other Scouts volunteered to distribute service leaflets and collect offerings. The islanders’ style of worship—hand clapping, gospel singing, and tambourine shaking—helped make the Easter service unlike any that many of the Scouts had experienced. As did their presence at the church.
Conspicuous in their field uniforms, the Scouts attracted quite a following as both locals and tourists asked about their plans for the week. That evening, the boys discovered plastic Easter eggs filled with candy placed on their bunks. Somehow, the Easter Bunny had found his way to the Cinnamon Bay Campground.
MAPLEWOOD'S TROOP 5 turns 90 in 2010, the same year the BSA celebrates its centennial. Roger Brauchli grew up in the troop as a youth, earned his Eagle Scout rank, and served as a junior leader before becoming the unit’s Scoutmaster. It’s a position he has held for the past 40 years. The troop’s foundation is based on tradition and character-building values. One example: the St. John trip.
Plans were announced in September 2007. “We wanted to give everyone a heads up and explain the basic requirements,” Brauchli said. These were:
“This year’s trip cost $1,400 per person,” Brauchli said. “That’s more expensive than it’s ever been, mainly because of an increase in airline fares.” Even so, two boys earned their entire trip fee through money-earning projects.
“Over the years, I’ve found that when the boys have a financial stake in the trip, as well as a participation goal, it truly becomes their trip. I believe they enjoy it and get more out of it as a result.”
Buying food and shipping it to St. John were two of the trip’s greatest logistic challenges, said Pete Lenz, a troop committee member, who teamed up with Mary Chris to break down the week’s menu into individual items.
“First, we priced everything at a local warehouse club in New Jersey,” Lenz said. “Then I sent the same spreadsheet of items to a warehouse grocery on St. Thomas. A number of items were significantly more expensive there, but a lot of stuff was within pennies: cereal, paper goods, pancake mix. It didn’t make any sense to buy those things here and pay for shipping. Buying it in St. Thomas was a no-brainer.”
The troop eventually bought 70 percent of its provisions from the St. Thomas store, the first year that the entire week’s worth of food wasn’t shipped from New Jersey. “The advantages were that we didn’t have to shop for it, store it, and box it all up,” said Lenz. “The St. Thomas people did all that for us, and it was ready for us to load onto the ferry when we arrived.”
With 10 adults making the trip, they settled on an easy division of labor. Some had specific roles; others pitched in where they were needed. Sue Ryan Goodman, an EMT, served as chief medical officer for the group. “Our main concerns prior to the trip were sun exposure and dehydration,” she said. “So in addition to distributing prescription medicines to Scouts, I constantly reminded the boys to apply sunscreen and drink plenty of water.”
Goodman also planned an optional event for the trip. Because she, husband Mark, and son Michael are all certified scuba divers, she asked if anyone was interested in a “discover scuba” activity. A couple of other adults were also certified divers, and several of the older boys wanted to try it out.
One afternoon a group of 10 headed out aboard a dive boat. Topside, the divers watched an instructional video and received training from the PADI-certified dive master. Then it was out into the underwater world. Later, Goodman read some notes from her diving logbook.
“Our first dive lasted 34 minutes, and I went down to 43 feet. The second dive was longer, 42 minutes, and my maximum depth was 62 feet. We saw lots of blue tang. That’s like the fish named Dory in Finding Nemo.”
Two of the Scouts enjoyed the dives so much they plan to get certified.
ON PREVIOUS TRIPS to the island, Troop 5 performed some sort of service project of their own making. This year, though, the group contacted Jeff Chabot, volunteer coordinator for the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, and asked if he had any ideas. Chabot, an Eagle Scout, was thrilled with the request and knew exactly how the group could improve the island’s environment.
Dense and prickly shrubs grow within the mangroves along the island’s shore. The mangroves filter sediment for streams and provide habitats for cuckoos and pelicans. Unfortunately, they also become a net for loads of floating debris.
Chabot said that section of coastline was directly downwind of the British Virgin Islands—Tortola, Norman, and Peter—and anything that gets lost or tossed overboard usually winds up on St. John’s windward northeast shores. The troop’s mission: clear the trapped trash from an area near Mary Creek.
Wearing work gloves and toting plastic bags, the troop toiled for nearly three hours picking up trash low on the ground and caught high in the shrubs’ thorny branches. The most interesting find of the day was a young woman’s U.S. passport and wallet for travel visas. The enclosed student ID was dated 1998. Who was this person and how did these documents wind up in a mangrove after floating in the ocean? The discovery had all the plot elements of a thrilling novel.
Mysteries aside, the troop’s clean-up efforts were much appreciated. “They collected 30, 40-gallon contractor bags full of debris weighing about 50 pounds apiece,” Chabot said. “In addition, they filled the back of a pickup with other trash.”
The final estimate of garbage cleared from the shoreline reached nearly a ton.
ROGER BRAUCHLI WEARS the Scoutmaster’s patch on his uniform sleeve, but he’s quick to credit others for the success of Troop 5’s programs, especially the St. John trips. “I am blessed with the adult leaders I have in Troop 5. They are all willing to pitch in, all willing to make a huge commitment to ensure our boys have the best possible experience in Scouting.”
Asked if he ever has difficulty recruiting additional leaders, he said, “A great, well-rounded program for the Scouts is key. Once parents recognize the value Scouting can offer their sons, trust me, it’s not hard to get them involved in some manner, shape, or form.”
Troop 5’s traditions, including the St. John trips, are well known back home. This fall, an 11-year-old boy who joins the troop can take part in the 2013 trip. And it’s a sure bet some of 2009’s younger Scouts already have set their sights on a return visit.
Scott Daniels is Scouting magazine's managing editor.