A week of service and fun on the Chesapeake Bay sounds great, but the trip’s just one of more than 50 outings Troop 99 takes each year.
THE QUESTIONS ARE tentative, genuine. What do you know about the peacocks on the island? How do you keep the biting flies away? And, finally, where does food come from?
Scouts Tony Ciro, Erik Shirk and Andrew Dropik are on an afternoon mission knocking on doors to learn more about what it’s like to live in Tylerton on Smith Island, a town in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that’s home to about 50 people.
They’re here with Lancaster, Pa., Troop 99, as guests of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, learning about the continent’s largest estuary and the people and the creatures that call it home, as well as doing some community service projects. This afternoon’s assignment is to learn about living on an island.
The three are talking with Lindsey Bradshaw, 51, who has lived on the island his entire life. “We go to the mainland once or twice a month and do bulk shopping,” he explains, adding that he keeps a vehicle there. “It’s hard living here. You have to do a lot of planning. But I would not trade it.”
The boys move on to other homes and more interviews and then join the other nine Scouts back in the meeting room to discuss their findings. This is a midday respite, sandwiched between a trip to a nearby uninhabited island, home to a rookery for brown pelicans, and work rebuilding a dock ramp and picnic tables. They’re spending a week on two tiny islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, learning about the fragile, endangered ecosystem; performing service projects like rebuilding a dock ramp; and, of course, adding a few more adventures to a long list of trips far and wide. Some of the Scouts on this expedition figure they’ve been on more than 100 Troop 99 outings.
They’ve taken the troop’s bus to Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. They’ve driven the long road to Montana and Glacier National Park. They’ve backpacked in Maine, mastered whitewater in West Virginia and hiked the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.
Sitting at a table later during dinner made by the Scouts, Scoutmaster Dave Shirk figures Troop 99 has offered 63 trips in the past year, some long, like this one, some day trips. “If somebody comes to us with an idea, we try to figure out how to do it,” he says.
Troop 99 could just as easily be named Troop Adventure. It’s always on the go. A typical summer month might include a canoe trip, a camping trip to Maine and a visit to the BSA’s Florida Sea Base. “There are so many activities,” says Doug Welch, who has been an assistant Scoutmaster for the past couple of years. “If you miss what’s going on in October, you can go in November.”
That many activities can take place because the troop has a wealth of adult volunteers who bring a diversity of skills, including master craftsmen who can build anything, whitewater experts and more. Many of them have grown children who are no longer Scouts, including three of the six adults on this trip.
Though his Eagle Scout son is 30, Ron Henry still goes on summer high-adventure trips, winter camping in the Adirondacks and backpacking in the spring and fall, taking time off from work. “It’s fun,” he says. “I get to do this cool trip. I love the camaraderie, the adult friends I have in this troop, and I get to give something back. But, I get as much as I give. I go to really cool places and have fun.”
“FUN” IS A WORD YOU HEAR a lot when you hang with Troop 99, from the Scouts as well as the parents. The key, Shirk says, is mixing work and play. “If we’re going to try to do something service-oriented, we’re going to do something fun as well,” he says. “It’s got to be fun for everybody. It has to be fun for the adults as well, or the adults don’t come back.”
The service project on this first portion of the weeklong trip is rebuilding a dock ramp and building some picnic tables. As Welch supervises Scouts inside preparing beef tacos and salad, Dropik, Ciro, Erik Shirk and Isaac Novak are working on the picnic tables with Michael Novak, a longtime assistant Scoutmaster. Dave Shirk and Stu VanOrmer, both Scouters, wade in thigh-deep water, working on the dock, cutting away rotted wood with some help from Scouts. The dock work will take every minute they have over the next two days. The project is finished after 9 p.m. on the second day, the sun slowly dying.
For the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, their initiative is unique. “I’ve never had anyone come out here and do service work,” says Megan Fink, who has been working as an educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation since 2010.
“This is a big project, something we would do in the winter with staff volunteers,” adds Paige Sanford, who’s also a CBF educator.
Fun comes later that night thanks to Rich Szarko, a longtime volunteer who spearheaded making the connections for this trip and others, including the one to Glacier National Park. During an after-dinner, after-work gathering in the meeting room, he tells the Scouts he hopes these outings will refresh their souls and help them appreciate nature in all its magnificence.
“Nature,” he says, “renews the soul. Nature makes us more human, more loving, more concerned about your neighbor.”
Szarko arranged for a performance by Geoff Kaufman, a folk singer with a repertoire of traditional sea songs as well as folk standards like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s the end of a typical day on this trip: plenty of service work, some exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and the environmental issues facing it, and a dash of local culture.
THE NEXT DAY’S HIGHLIGHT is a local tradition called proggin’. The Scouts and adults board the foundation’s boat, the Walter Ridder, and navigate to an uninhabited island, Fog’s Point, where they comb the shores and shallows for treasures — bottles, driftwood, arrowheads and other washed-up prizes — some that date back to the Algonquin Indians and colonists four centuries ago.
Arrowheads, Fink tells the boys, are an elusive prize; she’s never found one. Poking in the mud a few minutes later, that changes. Fink finds a large arrowhead. Then Erik Shirk, who has been trying unsuccessfully to make them back home, finds a small, beautifully detailed one. For him, it’s the highlight of the trip. Szarko is the next to get lucky. He finds one, then another, and eventually four in all.
They join the others, who have collected various bottles, shells and pieces of wood, back on the boat and head into the bay to pull up the crab pots set the day before. It’s an iconic Chesapeake Bay activity and, before they see what the pots yield, Sanford and Fink talk about the ups and downs of the crab population.
Capt. Wes Bradshaw, a longtime waterman raised on Smith Island, shows them how to pull and empty the pots. They also learn from Sanford how to hold the crabs from behind to avoid the painful pinch. Some grasp the technique and others merely get grasped.
Smith Island, though, is just their first destination on this bay adventure. The next morning they boat to Port Isobel, a small island next to Tangier Island, and enjoy brunch on the way, eating the crabs they caught, cooked by Capt. Wes in a pot on the dock.
At Port Isobel, the Scouts sit out a storm, some using the opportunity to work on the Weather merit badge. Their service project consists of replacing the rotted planks of a walkway and nailing down the loose boards of a dock while VanOrmer builds a 16-foot bench to replace one swept from the dock in a hurricane.
They go out with Capt. Charles F. Parks to dredge for oysters and drag the sea-grass beds for soft-shell crabs and other critters such as shrimp, puffer fish, sea horses, small eels and flounder. “These grasses are very important,” Parks says, explaining that they have dwindled from about 350,000 acres in the bay in John Smith’s time to about 65,000 acres now.
BACK AT THE EDUCATION CENTER, they identify the critters and count them. Then it’s time for what the Bay Foundation educators like to call “MTV: Marine TV. ” “Watch what happens when things get real,” says Thomas Komir, one of the Chesapeake Bay educators at the center. Immediately, the puffer fish in a tank, predators, gobble up some of the small fry for dinner.
One of the reasons Troop 99 can offer so many activities is its bus, which can transport up to 38 people. The troop first purchased a bus in 1980. The most recent, a “step up” from its predecessors in quality, Dave Shirk says, cost $15,000. Several of the troop’s adult volunteers have their commercial driver’s license, so the troop always has bus drivers. While it might not be feasible to take 30 Scouts on a trip with three adults in three cars, it’s easy with the bus, he explains.
Troop 99 has a lot of adults who are good at a lot of things, whether building structures, whitewater rafting, biking, backpacking or leading wilderness adventures. “That’s how we get a lot of our energy,” Dave Shirk says. “The adults come in, and they’re passionate about a certain item and they sit around and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go here?’ They get the kids thinking about how it would be cool, and soon the kids say, ‘Let’s go here.’ It’s a very dynamic process.”
His time with the troop goes back 34 years. He was less active for a few years when he was in college, but otherwise, Troop 99 has been a part of the daily fabric of his life. He’s just one of many who have been with the troop for years and years. Henry, Szarko, and VanOrmer volunteered when their sons joined the troop but stayed on to go on trips like this.
VanOrmer — called Uncle Stu because he is the uncle of boys who have been in the troop and because he’s that kind of funny, philosophical and quirky character — says that means the veteran adult leaders mentor not only Scouts, but also other adult leaders.
“That’s been the heart of the success of this troop — the overlapping careers — and there have been a lot of them,” VanOrmer says. “It’s created a transcendent book of experience that has overlapped generations of the troop.”
A LOW, LOW PRICE
Shirk says the week on the Chesapeake Bay cost each Scout $200. Backpacking in Maine for 10 days during the summer was $225 per boy. A two-week trip to Glacier National Park for 32 Scouts was $200 each. The number of Scouts on a trip ranges from four for a recent beginners canoe trip to the 36 who went to Sea Base last summer. That trip ran Scouts $1,100, most of it going to cover the $750 Sea Base fee.
HEROES OF TROOP 99
Subs. They’re the economic engine that carries Troop 99 across the country on great adventures. Scoutmaster Dave Shirk estimates that the troop has sold hundreds of thousands of submarine sandwiches during the years. The Scouts sell three kinds of homemade subs — Italian, roast beef and turkey — for $4 on the first Saturday of the month, taking off June and July.
Scouts meet at the troop’s church at 7 a.m. and are usually done making the subs by 9 a.m. The boys then work with leaders and parents to deliver the pre-ordered sandwiches to members of the community and some sell door-to-door. The troop sells between 500 and 800 subs a month, although Shirk says they have sold as many as 5,000 in a single sale. Each Scout keeps $2 from every sandwich he sells, and 25 cents from every sale goes to the troop.
While the troop usually does another, single-event fundraiser (spaghetti dinner, wreath sale, etc.), the sub sales fund trips. Many Scouts pay nothing out of pocket, using money they earn from the sales. Owning a bus also keeps costs down.
Is your troop a “Super Troop”? Share your troop’s adventures – blending service and fun – in the comments, below.