By Tom Dwyer
As the sun slices through the morning's thick November clouds, Life Scout Steve Martin hangs halfway up a wall of gray limestone, towering above the Canadian countryside. He catches his breath and plots his next move.
Six years ago, when Steve joined Troop 180 (chartered to Congregation Shaarey Zedek of East Lansing, Mich.), he was fresh from earning his Arrow of Light Award as a Webelos Scout. He could not have dreamed that a few years later his homestretch climb to Eagle Scout would include stretching for a handhold on a rugged cliff in southern Ontario.
Pressing against the cold stone, Steve clinches his right hand into a tight fist, warming his wind-chilled fingertips. His hand and arm inch upward, exploring the limestone for even the slightest dimple. Failing to "see" things just right could mean a fall - although a belayer 70 feet below, a series of anchor protection, and a safety line would save him from tumbling toward the rocks at the base of Kelso cliffs.
Moments earlier Steve and four fellow Scouts in Troop 180's Venture patrol had listened intently as Mark Kelland detailed the differences between technical climbing and scrambling.
"A fall when you're scrambling might hurt. But, when you're working a technical climb, and you're up 12 feet or higher, a mistake...well." The former Marine didn't need to drive his point home. Everyone understood.
This was the Venture patrol's first climb of the day, and all eyes traced Steve's every move. Encouraging shouts echoed off the Niagara Escarpment.
"I didn't hear anyone," Steve recalled afterward, as he sipped hot instant cider to ward off the chill. "Right from the beginning of the climb, all my attention, every thought, every muscle was focused on reaching the next handhold," he said.
From the perspective of Venture patrol leader Kevin Glandon, a 16-year-old Eagle Scout candidate himself, Steve's climb actually began months earlier when Kevin had tossed out the idea of "climbing" at a patrol planning session.
To Scoutmaster Bruce McCrea, the activity's origin went back much further and was part of the continuing evolution of BSA programs for older Scouts.
Since Scouting's earliest days, leaders have been challenged to hold the older, more experienced boy's interest while at the same time providing a program that's fun, yet not too difficult, for the younger boys. This becomes harder as older Scouts are distracted by myriad opportunities in their teen years.
One answer is a troop's Venture patrol.
"Our Venture patrol was a natural extension of the program for older Scouts that the BSA had called the Leadership Corps," Bruce McCrea said. "We adopted the Venture patrol program for our older boys almost before the ink was dry on the new literature, because we recognized that it targeted our specific challenges."
This international trek into southern Canada involved the entire Troop 180 family: the Venture patrol, other patrols of younger Scouts, and plenty of Scout dad volunteers.
The younger Scouts and several dads remained back at Camp Manitou, a Canadian Boy Scout camp where the troop had slept overnight. The early-morning climb was an exclusive adventure for the older boys.
As Kevin and fellow Life Scouts James Voges and Alan Talhelm got ready for their turns on the rock, assistant Scoutmaster Skip Van Bloem kept an eye on the trail approaching the climbing site.
The "younger kids" would be showing up to watch, he said. Then he noted one of the extra benefits of having a Venture patrol in the troop. "When they arrive, they'll be 'looking up' to the older Scouts in more ways than one."
Van Bloem added that the Venture patrol members serve as instructors and really set the example. "They attend meetings in uniform. And the fact that most Scouts in the Venture patrol achieve Eagle Scout establishes some early, high expectations among the younger boys."
While climbing is the big event of the day for the Venture patrol, Van Bloem said it's also a high point for the rest of the troop. "Their visit to the cliffs will include a short hike and a little exploring of the Canadian countryside before they head back to camp for an afternoon trek."
As if on cue, Bruce McCrea arrived with the younger Scouts and several dads. The Scouts craned their necks to watch the climbers, while the dads scrambled over the rocks to capture both on film.
McCrea stood back, savoring the moment. As he watched the younger Scouts and their dads, he knew many of them were getting hooked. Later, he and other adult leaders in the troop will set that hook and recruit the dads.
The Venture patrol is already reeling in the Scouts. The appetites of younger boys are being whetted by the enthusiasm of the older Scouts. This enhances the likelihood they will stay involved in Troop 180 for a chance (sometime in the future) at their "Cliffs at Kelso."
Meanwhile, the Venture patrol Scouts are building camaraderie, self-confidence, and excitement. Kevin, Steve, Alan, Matt, and James are only five of the dozen high-school-age Scouts active in Troop 180. They're committed to the troop, said McCrea, because the Venture patrol program has helped build the confidence they need to tie together exciting patrol adventures.
McCrea then described yet another benefit of a Venture patrol program in the troop. High adventure-style activities for older boys "help recruit adult leaders," he said. "You have to keep your eyes open - look to former Scouts, especially Eagle Scouts. College students are often a good source of leaders, too, especially graduate students. Be ready when a likely candidate presents himself."
McCrea was ready when Skip Van Bloem, an Eagle Scout working on a Ph.D. in botany at Michigan State, volunteered for the "show staff" at the Michigan International Camporee (an event featured in the May-June 1998 Scouting magazine). Because of this chance meeting, Scouts in the Venture patrol are quick to say that "Skip is the main reason we have a Venture patrol."
When Kevin Glandon suggested "climbing," as a Venture patrol activity, one of the first challenges was identifying and recruiting an adult climbing expert.
"Some people view adult recruiting as the hurdle most likely to scuttle a Venture patrol program," said McCrea. "But, it's really not that difficult."
As it turned out, Scoutmaster McCrea, an economics professor at Lansing Community College, had overheard a fellow professor (of psychology) speaking about his own climbing expeditions. It only took a moment for Mark Kelland to "volunteer" for the job.
"I had done all the 'backpacking' I could handle in the Marine Corps," Kelland admitted, "and I was looking for something else to do outdoors. Then a friend introduced me to the sport of climbing."
Similar patterns in locating knowledgeable leaders had held true with earlier Venture patrol adventures. These included backpacking, a canoe trip to O'Brien's Island on Michigan Center Lake, a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, two shots at "realistic first aid," and snow-camping.
Preparation for many of these adventures takes place at regular weekly troop meetings. However, getting ready for the "big event" involves activities that many would consider events themselves. Preparing for the Kelso cliffs climb included trips to Inside Moves, a climbing gym in Grand Rapids, and some easier climbs at the nearby ledges at Grand Ledge on Michigan's Grand River.
There's one more challenge a Venture patrol can expect - juggling schedules among the group's members. It seems Venture patrol-age young men have seriously jammed calendars that planning must accommodate.
"Actually, it's one of the things about the Venture patrol that keeps many of us involved," says Alan. "We know we have responsibilities, but we're not locked into a weekly schedule when other things in our lives demand our time."
A quick look at the activities of just a few members of this patrol helps illustrate what he means.
James's wrestling, Alan's cross-country, Matt's marching band, and Steve's golf are only some of the other activities that join with family obligations demanding their time. Indeed, the Kelso trip was scheduled to end early enough on Sunday for Kevin to get back to East Lansing for his high school play rehearsal Sunday afternoon.
Kevin Glandon speaks for his patrol: "That's one of the things we like most about the Venture patrol. It's our program. We make it happen. It gives us the opportunity to not only prove our capabilities to other people, like Mr. McCrea, but to ourselves as well. It's a great feeling." S
Freelance writer and veteran Scouter Tom Dwyer lives in Syracuse, N.Y.
Climb On Safely - The BSA's Guide to Climbing and Rappelling
Troop 180's Venture patrol obviously isn't the first group of Scouts to enjoy climbing and rappelling. Indeed, since publication of the Climbing merit badge pamphlet in 1997, climbing is more popular than ever.
A relatively new brochure, titled Climb On Safely (BSA Supply No. 3206), provides the recommended procedure for managing climbing/rappelling activities and helps unit leaders assure safe, yet exciting, climbing/rappelling adventures.
As the brochure says, "Young people today seek greater challenges, and climbing and rappelling offer a worthy challenge." Three colorful pages detail suggestions on where to find qualified "expert" guides, the guide's responsibilities, as well as physical fitness, discipline, planning, equipment, and more.
Since climbing, rappelling, belaying, and bouldering are considered suitable for all ages in Scouting, the Climb On Safely Training Outline (BSA Bin No. 20-101) provides the equivalent to the Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat programs. It is designed to help leaders plan and manage climbing/rappelling activities. Leaders who complete the 40-minute safety session are eligible to wear the Climb On Safely patch on their uniform pocket in the temporary patch position.
Your local Scout council service center has all current literature and will be adding new information as it becomes available.
Venture Patrols Are About Adventure
So what's in a name? When it comes to Venture patrols, it's easy to see where they get their name.
Whether the focus is a 50-mile backpacking trip or some serious rock-climbing, a la Troop 180, the common thread is always high adventure, especially for older Scouts. Older boys represent a major resource to Scouting and individual troops. Their knowledge, experience, and maturity as leaders help them serve as role models. Troop activities are energized. And, the older boys provide a depth and quality that adds vibrancy to troop programs.
While Venture patrols select and plan their own adventures, BSA literature supports program features including backpacking, canoe-camping, caving, cycling, discovering adventure, fishing, freestyle biking, frontiersman, mechanics, orienteering, rock-climbing and rappelling, snow-camping, survival, and whitewater canoeing.
But the sky's the limit and, as witnessed in Troop 180's climbing adventure, the patrol may also call on outside experts to guide them.
In any event, the journeys are designed to culminate in ultimate adventures. And, when the adventure is complete, activity pins acknowledge the Scouts' achievements.
Venture patrols don't have to be very large; as few as three Scouts between the ages of 13 and 18 register as troop members. Then they elect the Venture patrol leader, who works with the other Scouts and an assistant Scoutmaster to plan the patrol's activities.
While the adventures progress, patrol members assume leadership roles in the troop, participate in regular troop activities, and advance through the ranks. They wear special Venture identification strips above their Boy Scout uniform's right pocket.
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