One veteran Scouter’s tips for getting Scouts hooked on nature

When Bill Breyfogle was 12, his mother told him he should join Boy Scouts. Seven decades later, he’s still an active Scouter. In fact, his only absence from the program occurred during and just after college — and that absence had a Scouting connection. A series of 1948 Boys’ Life stories convinced him to become a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, something he did for three summers in his 20s.

As a schoolteacher, Breyfogle had his summers free, so he started working at summer camp. Last summer marked his 52nd season. He has also served as Scoutmaster of three troops (one for 19 years), taught at National Camping School each year since 1986 and led Boy Scout roundtable for 15 years or so.

“I don’t keep much track of time,” he says. “If I’m doing something and enjoy it, and people are willing to let me stay on? Why, I stay on!”

How have you avoided getting burned out? I once asked our archery director the same question. He said, “The first two years I was on the archery range, I learned archery. Now I study kids.” All the boys are different. The Scouts are great kids, and the program is a great program, but it’s always different. And the camp changes from day to day and year to year.

What are ‘nature grabbers’? When I take a group of Scouts on a hike, there are certain things that grab their attention. For instance, jewelweed reflects light underwater, so it looks like silver. When I’m walking near a lake and there’s jewelweed, I always pick some and have Scouts put it under water. If an 11-year-old boy does that, it’s magic. If he smells sassafras root, which smells exactly like root beer, that’s neat. If you talk with boys about plants being male and female, that’s a new idea for them. The idea of a nature area is that you’re not teaching facts. Mostly you’re trying to teach attitudes and respect.

How did you learn about nature? When I started out, I didn’t know much. The first year, I didn’t know any wildflowers. I decided I could learn one wildflower a week, and I did. At the end of the summer, I knew eight. At the end of 10 years, I knew 80. But it was one at a time.

What advice would you give to Scouters who are nature newbies? You don’t have to know everything if you’re a Scoutmaster. You can actually get around part of that by saying, “This patrol is going to teach this, and here are some books for the boys to use.” Let the boys do that. They will make some mistakes, but every nature director makes mistakes all the time.

So knowledge is overrated? I had a good friend tell me one time, “You’re not as good as you used to be.” I kind of bristled and said, “What do you mean?” He said, “It used to be if a boy asked you a question you’d say, ‘I don’t know; let’s get the book.’ Now you give him an answer, and in 15 minutes he’s forgotten the answer, he doesn’t know what book to find it in and you didn’t spend any time with him. So forget what you know and go back to the books.” He was right.

What nature books do you recommend? I think every Scout camp and every Scout troop should have a decent library. There are some good series of books: Peterson First Guides is a good series; there’s also a Golden Guide series that’s been out for 50 years that’s good for Scouts to use.

You’re a stickler for Scouts completing merit badge requirements as written. Why? If they get a merit badge and they haven’t earned it, they’d know that, and we would have taught them that the requirements don’t mean anything. That’s a poor thing to teach a boy. My standard for the completion of a merit badge is: 1) the Scout must feel that he’s completed it, and 2) I have to feel that he’s done his best.

Explain the difference between talking and teaching. Counseling badges is more about asking questions and discussing the information given by the Scout. His answer gives you an idea of his understanding of the subject and is the place where learning begins.

You’re a Scouting lifer. Why? If someone were to say, “What do you want to do right now?” or “Where do you want to go?” my answer would be, “I want to be right here doing what I’m doing.”


Fact Sheet // Bill Breyfogle

Years as a Scout Volunteer: 60

Current City: Kalamazoo, Mich.

Current Positions: Nature director, Rota-Kiwan Scout Reservation; Boy Scout roundtable commissioner; ecology/conservation director

Day Job: Retired junior high school science teacher

Most Satisfying Moments in Scouting: Working with Scouts on merit badges

Favorite Camp: Rota-Kiwan Scout Reservation. “We have a wonderful lake, a marsh, a pond, some pine plantation, some hardwood forest and some old farmland that’s growing back.
It’s ecologically very, very diverse.”

5 Comments

  1. Bill was my instructor for the Nature Director segment of National Camping School and I know for a fact I will be passing down the great stuff that I have learned from him for the rest of my life! He is pretty neat!

  2. Bill is an amazing man. My daughter worked on camp staff with him and he’s so good with all the Scouts and so respected.

  3. Mr. Breyfogle was my Environmental Science Merit Badge Counselor at Camp Rota-Kiwan’s Summer Camp in 1982. I did not know it at the time, but I do appreciate now that he was one of those rare souls who embodied the spirit of Scouting. He challenged us, he motivated us, and most importantly he made us more than we were. I had the pleasure of serving with him on camp staff the next summer and the lessons did not end while being on the “other side of the fence”. He cares deeply for what we taught in our classes. He was the epitome of learning through experience. I can close my eyes and see him pick up a turtle he had not seen in one or two decades, but by the markings he had harmlessly and previously made on its shell he knew when it had last crossed his path. He had an investment in nature, and the boys, that is timeless. Fast forward almost 30 years and I have the good fortune to shake his hand at a Council Commissioner meeting. He still has that spark in his eye, the spark that Baden Powell held above all and any other – the spirit of a boy. We should all be so lucky to have that after the passing of so many decades. Thank you, Mr. Breyfogle.

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