Long miles, unrelenting rain, and sore ankles—but no whining. Troop 88’s attitude at the Mount Rushmore Pilgrimage was sheer optimism.
Steady rain created a rarely seen look for Mount Rushmore: the image of “tears” streaming down all four presidents’ granite faces.
The sun went down, and the rain picked up. It was Friday night, so Troop 88 had little choice but to set up camp in the damp darkness—work that ranks low on the list of preferred activities for the typical boy. Turns out, the Scouts of this troop aren’t typical boys.
This is a whine-free troop, built in part by the optimism of the adult volunteer leaders. And if you think this kind of unit deserves some type of award, you’re right. Which is why Troop 88 was in the running for the Golden Boot, given each September to the Black Hills Area Council’s best unit at the Mount Rushmore Pilgrimage in South Dakota.
There was no crying about the weather from 11-year-old Curt MaHaffy (front) or the rest of Troop 88 as they began their hike.
These Scouts and Scouters had no time to daydream about a trophy, though. They had a camp to create, and they waited for guidance about where to start. Both the senior patrol leader and his assistant had other weekend commitments, so the acting SPL duties fell to the troop’s librarian, Chris Morgan, whose new role demanded a sudden shift in attitude. The 15-year-old Scout, who admitted that he’s normally rowdy, said later that telling the troop to settle down and get to work “had a certain irony to it.”
“Pull this over here,” Chris told the guys. “Bring that over there.” He called the plays, and the team executed them well. But don’t picture a coach pacing the sideline with a clipboard. Chris chipped in, too. When Scouts struggled to erect the dining fly, he held a corner. When they set up tents, he saved his own for last. And when he saw that fellow Scout Tyler Kuhn wasn’t wearing a jacket, he offered his own.
Chris used servant leadership straight out of an advanced youth-leadership course—one he hadn’t even taken yet. But don’t think that Chris grew into a leader overnight; it happened much quicker than that.
Scoutmaster Pete Jerzak watched it all. And though he spent most of his time observing Chris and the other youth leaders, he also offered some motivational advice—as needed.
“Hands out of pockets, guys,” Jerzak said. “It’s a guaranteed fact that you’ll work faster that way.”
Still, Jerzak mostly stayed hands-off. A distant voice shouted, “Pete, what do you want me to do with this?” A different voice a few seconds later: “Pete, where does this go?” Both queries got the same response. “Don’t ask me. Ask your senior patrol leader.” When Jerzak noticed something missing from the kitchen, he took Chris aside for a chat.
Dining flies kept Troop 88’s members dry during persistent rain.
“O.K., what else do we need?” Chris asked. “We’ve got the propane, water, first-aid kit. What else?”
“One more thing. Very important,” Jerzak said, seizing a teachable moment.
“I don’t know,” Chris said calmly.
“Chsssshhhhhhhh,” Jerzak said, waving an invisible prop in front of him.
“Oh,” said Chris, heading toward the trailer to grab the missing item. “Well, that was a bad fire-extinguisher sound.”
Jerzak’s sound effects might not have seemed Oscar-worthy, but they demonstrated that he understood the concept of a boy-led troop. He patiently observed the troop leaders and stepped in only after noticing a potential safety concern. And in spite of the missing fire extinguisher, Jerzak said he was pleased with what he saw. “I was glad they worked well together from the moment we opened the troop trailer. It’s always good to see that they were paying attention when the older Scouts were instructing them on camp setup tasks.”
Bedtime arrived about a half-hour after the camp setup was complete. And thanks to a night of hard work and the rhythmic pulse of raindrops, sleep was hard to resist.
At dawn, several tents showed the effects of the night’s unrelenting rain. Lines that had been guitar-string tight on Friday night sagged on Saturday morning. A few boys discovered small puddles inside their tents, but no one grumbled.
Everyone crowded the space under the two dining flies to stay dry during breakfast. Patrol boxes and stoves formed the perimeter of one dining area, while the other was crowded with camp chairs. The adults found time to toast English muffins with cheese and what had been mislabeled as sausage patties. They were actually the hamburger patties for that night’s dinner. Oh, well.
The older guys filled up on oatmeal, while the younger ones went with some “don’t tell Mom” fare: chocolate Pop-Tarts and sour-cream-and-onion potato chips. Yum.
The 71st edition of the pilgrimage began early Saturday morning, and Troop 88 arrived at the Mount Rushmore National Monument on time at 8 a.m. There they joined other troops in what became a colorful sea of rain gear. Heads poked out of oversize garbage bags, translucent ponchos billowed in the breeze, and water beaded off of an orange-and-black nylon Harley-Davidson motorcycle suit (the famous Sturgis Harley rally takes place about an hour from where they were standing).
Troops rode in a shuttle to the monument site for the awards ceremony before hiking one of four routes back to their campsites. Each route is named for one of the presidents whose images have been preserved in granite: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Troop 88’s assigned route: Theodore Roosevelt. The longest path is 15 miles; the shortest seven. Troops rotate so that after four years of making the trip, boys will have hiked every trail and received all four segments of the pilgrimage patch to prove it.
When the event began in 1938, workers were still carving Teddy Roosevelt. And just like seven decades of young men before them, 450 Scouts from four states gathered to celebrate Scouting in their area.
Acting senior patrol leader Chris Morgan, left, listened as Scoutmaster Jerzak gave a few tips on how to set up a dining fly in the dark. For the most part, though, Jerzak was a silent observer, letting the boys solve minor problems on their own.
By kick-off time for the awards ceremony, the rain and fog had dissipated enough so that the leaders and Scouts could get a clearer view of the presidential faces. When officials announced the Golden Boot finalists, four troops, including Troop 88, cheered as they received Golden Staves signifying that they were still in the running for the top prize. But the loudest cheers took place moments later when Troop 88 was named the big winner. Boys and adults beamed as they passed around the award: a leather hiking boot spray-painted gold and mounted on a metal base.
The award meant that a Black Hills Area Council committee had examined Troop 88’s efforts in program, advancement, and training and determined that it had the best yearlong program for Scouts. Twelve months of planning by the youth leaders paid off.
On the hike back to camp along the eight-mile Roosevelt trail, a winding, undulating path through thick ponderosa pines, the rain continued pelting the Scouts and leaders. And if, after a few miles of hiking, anyone in this whine-free troop had good reason to whine it was Curt MaHaffy.
The 11-year-old’s overstuffed backpack would have looked appropriate for a multiday hike. But the adult-size blue pack hanging from his shoulders seemed starkly out of place on this day hike. That Curt was the smallest and youngest boy in Troop 88 only accentuated the disparity between his gear and what the other boys carried. Curt didn’t seem to mind, though. As he finished the fourth mile, his ankles were sore, but his feet kept pace like a metronome.
Still, he was the last boy to join his troop at the halfway point. When his backpack slid off his shoulders and hit the wet grass with a thud, the noise caught the attention of assistant Scoutmaster Cathy Hanson, who had been walking behind Curt the whole way.
At long last, the sun arrived to put everyone in an even better mood, especially assistant Scoutmaster Cathy Hanson (seated left), who laughed with the troop during a quick water break.
Hanson picked up the backpack and said, “Wow! This is heavy. What have you got in here?”
“Let’s see,” the boy said. Inside, it was as if Curt had raided a convenience store. There were enough snacks and beef jerky to feed the entire troop, three full bottles of water (he had finished a fourth), and four D-cell batteries for a flashlight he’d left back in his tent. Yet despite having to lug this unnecessary weight, the boy hadn’t complained once.
Hanson helped Curt pile his excess gear into a 15-passenger van that would give some hikers a smooth, dry ride back to camp, letting them skip out on the remaining four miles of the hike. There were several takers from other troops, but not one was from Troop 88. If Curt was charged up enough to take on the second half of the hike, why shouldn’t they join him?
As if wanting to reward the guys’ determination, the sun made its first appearance of the weekend. Jerzak was the first to shed his rain gear and stuff it into his backpack. Within seconds, bare shins and forearms appeared throughout the troop.
“Honestly, with as much weather as we’ve received, I would expect the boys to be a little less motivated,” Jerzak admitted. “But the trail is just the right difficulty, considering their experience, and the sun is out at the right time.”
When the hike resumed, Curt took up a place in front and bounced along almost weightlessly.
A few weeks after returning from the Mount Rushmore Pilgrimage, Jerzak already had begun thinking about next year’s event. The Golden Boot winner plans the route for the following year’s hike and then leads other troops down the trail. Jerzak noted his guys were pumped about their role as leaders for the 72nd staging of the event. “The older boys received the maps and are in the process of choosing the best route,” he said. “It’s a joy to see them ask the younger boys for input instead of asking the adults. I can’t wait to see their presentation plan in the coming months.”
Rest assured that even if they encounter bumps along the way, Troop 88’s optimism won’t waver.
Bryan Wendell is Scouting magazine’s associate editor.
Most boys in Troop 88 live less than an hour from Mount Rushmore, so the annual trip doesn’t cost much ($10 per participant, plus food purchased as a patrol). But costs add up quickly for trips farther from home.
How it works. From Cub Scouts on, each boy contributes to his Scout account through sales of popcorn, candy, wreaths, meat, etc. They use money from these sales to pay for weekend trips, summer camp, uniforms, insignia, or even camping gear—as long as the purchases are Scout-related. This lets a boy budget his money and work toward a goal. He’s accountable for his own money-earning performance.
Ryan Wright, for example, wants a new backpack for troop trips and, some day, a Philmont trek. Once he finds a pack he likes, he simply asks the troop treasurer for the money from his Scout account, and the backpack is his.
What’s the benefit? No one boy can carry the troop. Each Scout is motivated to do his best during money-earning projects. Everybody wins.