Power Down. Live it up. How a wild river taught Troop 223 the value of clearing its agenda for adventure.
By Bryan Wendell
ASSISTANT SCOUTMASTER MICHAEL BROWN was two steps away from freedom. Step one was easy. Kneeling on the banks of the Rogue River, Brown unhooked his Rolex Submariner, glanced at the dial one last time, and carefully tucked the watch deep inside his teal dry bag.
And step two? Well, many adults find it difficult parting with their iPhones for almost a week. But Brown would especially miss his. As the CEO of a California coffee company, his job requires him to monitor worldwide shipments and remain in almost constant communication with his customers and colleagues.
Which is why Brown spent a long moment staring at the screen when the time came to power down his mobile device and place it next to the watch in his bag. No more constantly checking the time. No more answering e-mails.
Just a single item would occupy the assistant Scoutmaster's normally jam-packed schedule for the next five days: a 40-mile rafting trip down the rugged Rogue River in southwest Oregon.
With 11 Scouts and Scouters from Los Angeles-based Troop 223, Brown was leaving behind a life that's measured in 30-minute blocks on a calendar for one measured only in miles and memories. Welcome to release from the ticking clock and the buzzing smartphone. Welcome to a world where the schedule ebbs and flows not around the next meeting but around the next bend.
"This trip just shows you how quickly you can get back to nature and how important it is to do this once or twice a year," Brown decided. "The other stuff isn't going to matter in the long run."
Welcome to River Time.
On that first morning, Troop 223's Scouts and Scouters made their way down a hill from the Galice Resort in Merlin, Ore., a charming, riverside retreat where they had bunked in rustic comfort the night before.
Each of them carried two dry bags stuffed with everything they'd need for the coming week—and a few things they wouldn't. Somewhere near the bottom of the bags were cell phones, MP3 players, and game systems—superfluous devices when you're living on River Time.
The group gathered at the put-in point, a slow-moving stretch of the Rogue, where the trip's hired guides had been preparing for at least an hour. The rafts—one 14-foot paddle raft and three 16-foot, oar-powered gear boats—were loaded with everything but the guys' personal gear.
Eli Helvey, their thirtysomething lead guide with full beard and a dark tan, met them on the bank displaying a large smile and an amiable attitude. Removing his hat, he approached the group and shouted, "Hey guys, good morning! Let's huddle up for a quick chat."
The Rogue glistened behind Helvey as he reminded everyone that they must wear helmets at all times. Another must? Personal flotation devices, or PFDs. "But it's not enough to just wear these," he emphasized as he checked 12-year-old Alex Brown's helmet. "You have to secure them tightly. A loose-fitting helmet or PFD is basically just a useless fashion accessory if it isn't properly worn."
Helvey advised that when Scouts needed a break from paddling, they should keep both hands on the paddle. Failure to do so, he explained, could result in someone going home with "Summer Teeth"—river slang for where a rafter's teeth might land after taking an errant paddle to the mouth.
"Summer in the raft; summer in your mouth."
Helvey's joke concealed an important safety lesson—a tactic that seasoned Scouters use all the time. The veteran guide next told the boys how to rescue someone who had taken an unintentional plunge into the water.
Helvey cautioned not to pull him up by anything that's part of the body: arms, legs, hair. Instead, they should lift him using his lifejacket. "If that rips, it's easy to sew back together. Sewing on an arm? That requires equipment you don't have," he said, drawing another laugh.
Next, Helvey promised that after their first day on the river, they'd have an opportunity to test their skills in the inflatable kayaks known as "Duckies," so named because their yellow color and rounded shape suggests rubber ducks that float in a bathtub.
Despite their innocent-sounding nickname, though, Duckies can be difficult to maneuver. "On other trips," Helvey said, "we tell people not to ride in them with their significant other. In fact, we call them 'divorce boats.'"
Before launch, Helvey and his team of three guides checked that everyone had securely fastened their PFDs and locked their helmets in position. Only then were the Scouts allowed to step into the paddle raft, each of them grabbing a red-and-yellow paddle and taking a seat along the edge of the craft.
The guides split the adults into three groups that boarded the larger boats, where they simply rode while the guides worked the oars. A daily rotation schedule ensured the opportunity to experience the paddle raft, where the Scouts—most making their first rafting trip—began a hands-on education in river physics.
First lesson: Three paddlers working together on each side of the raft works better than six individual, out-of-sync paddlers. After just over a mile, the guys got the hang of paddling and navigating, and by then the headman was ready to reward their efforts.
"Who's hungry?" Helvey asked. Several hands shot up, and he directed the rafts to beach at a shady spot below a large concrete bridge that marked the end of civilization and the beginning of the Rogue's Wild and Scenic section.
By congressional act passed in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation protects an 84-mile stretch of the 215-mile river from harmful changes and additions. As they approached shore, Brown expressed his appreciation for the surroundings. "It's nice that they have places like this in our country set aside for nature," he said. "Without the designation, this river would be lined with fancy homes and restaurants."
Lunch consisted of a savory pulled-pork sandwich on pita flatbread. Helvey told them that this was his favorite meal of the trip. But then, he used that description every time they ate.
Brown then staged a rock-skipping demonstration, using a wide, calm section of the river. The assistant Scoutmaster consistently skipped low, straight shots that seemed to float across the water and dip under the surface 10 or 15 times before reaching the bank on the far side.
"Whoa!" echoed the guys. Understandable, since most of their first attempts sunk like, well, rocks. They didn't give up, though, and soon settled into a groove.
Skipping rocks didn't result in skipping any valuable time, though—a telling illustration of the allure of River Time. They were in no hurry to get to the day's final destination because campsite options were plentiful. And the setting sun, not the senior patrol leader, signaled lights out each night. Mornings, the guides didn't rush to serve breakfast at "6 a.m. sharp." They served it whenever the coffee was ready.
Even Troop 223's pre-trip planning had been a breeze. Departing from their usual procedures, older Scouts, under the guidance of adult leaders, arranged the trip through OARS, a national river-rafting outfitter. OARS provides everything: the guides, the boats, the supplies, the food, and the activities. All the guys had to do was pay their share and show up.
Although the patrol leaders' council usually plans the details, the river guides organized everything for the entire five days. "From an assistant Scoutmaster's standpoint," said leader Rich McAndrews, "this is really nice to have the guides set up the kitchen, cook, and keep the boys occupied. It's a treat, especially since we don't do it every time."
Still, River Time meant only a refreshing escape from stress—not from camp chores. OARS provided the supplies and cooked the food, but the leaders expected the Scouts to paddle, unload rafts, and set up their sleeping area. Using an outfitter, they said, just let the young guys enjoy the experience of rafting the Rogue without piling too many tasks on them.
Scouts had time to bond with troopmates, invent new games, and check off requirements for the Whitewater merit badge. Matt Klein, 14, had that badge on his mind after dinner on the first night in camp. While the group toasted marshmallows for s'mores, Matt turned to Helvey and said, "There are a few vocab words I was hoping to go over with you. Like 'downstream V.'"
Helvey defined "downstream V" as the arrow shape that water makes when it flows between two objects, pointing to the fastest and safest route through a rapid. And he promised to point out other river features, like strainers and eddies, as they made their way farther down the Rogue the next day.
Back in the boats an hour after breakfast on Day Two, the group realized the river's channel had narrowed and its pace increased. At its most-difficult points, the Rogue ranks as a Class III on the six-level International Scale of River Difficulty. (Find out what the different classes mean at americanwhitewater.org.)
Class IIIs suited the Scouts just fine. They had built confidence in the rafts on their first day and were ready for a tougher test—a perfect challenge for a group with little rafting experience.
"O.K., this is it!" Helvey shouted as the first set of rapids approached. Paddles were held at the ready as the Scouts' backs straightened. Each wave brought a wall of water into the boat, and the biggest ones drew a "Yes!" from the guys. The chilled water soaking into clothes only seemed to inspire everyone to paddle harder.
After sloshing through three hours of tricky Class IIIs, the guys were ready to call it a day.
Running the rapids had put them in good spirits, initially, until they faced the task of unloading the rafts. They were more than willing to help move the dry bags from the boats to the campsite but disagreed about the most effective way to handle the chore.
Adult leaders and the river guides suggested they form a fire line: stand within arm's reach and pass the bags along from the boats to the camp area. No way, said 13-year-old Otis Jones. He argued that each individual find his personal bag and haul it to his own area. That way, each bag would be handled only once.
Assistant Scoutmaster Brown made a pitch for teamwork. "Everybody takes care of each other; that's the bottom line," he said. During the debate, Helvey also chimed in: "Even bears use fire lines. Just the other day I saw them fire-line a salmon to a baby bear"
"Oh yeah?" Otis responded. "And it took so long, the baby starved to death."
More laughter, but even Otis finally gave in. Everyone formed the fire line to unload the rafts, where assistant Scoutmaster McAndrews, who had been quietly observing the discussion, had time to discover a lesson lurking in the debate. "A lot of times, the kids don't realize the life skills they're learning in Scouting until they get to college or start a job," he said. "That fire line is a perfect example."
As flames blazed in the fire pit on the group's final night on the Rogue, the boys and adults engaged in the time-honored tradition of sharing their favorite memories of the trip.
Brown said that seeing his son, Alex, catch his first fish made the trip worthwhile. Matt said he enjoyed paddling a Ducky with best friend Thomas Yaegar, 14. Thomas said he enjoyed paddling a Ducky with Matt. So much for "divorce boats."
Matt's dad, Howard, said the outing gave him a warm reminder of a high-adventure trip he'd taken down the Bighorn River in Montana when he was a Boy Scout. "Getting to relive that kind of adventure with my son is something I'll never forget."
And how did Brown, coffee-company CEO, fare without his iPhone? "It's incredibly liberating to disconnect from the outside world for five days and be able to focus on Alex, the beautiful surroundings, and the rest of the Scouts, assistant Scoutmasters, and guides," he said. "I don't need to be on the cell phone. I don't need to be on the computer. This right here is what matters in life."
Eagle Scout Bryan Wendell is Scouting magazine's senior editor.