How the Teaching EDGE adds depth to a Yellowstone paddling trip

For Matt Nichols, the choice is like Yellowstone’s lakes and rivers: ridiculously clear.

He could teach paddling strokes on dry land. Picture Scouts hunched in a canoe on the floor of Flagstaff Federated Community Church, stifling yawns while pretending to do the J-stroke.

Or he could teach canoeing at Yellowstone National Park. Picture crystalline lakes offering views of trout 15 feet below. Picture lodgepole pines that reach toward the sky.

Where you teach a lesson matters. It’s why Nichols and Troop 7031 of Flagstaff, Ariz., have traveled 800 miles north to the Teton High Adventure Base in Jackson, Wyo., for a four-day paddling expedition in Yellowstone. The highlight of the 30-mile trek will be a hike through a geyser basin unreachable by car.

How you teach a lesson matters, too. It’s why Nichols and fellow leader Jeff Wheless will use the Teaching EDGE method on this trip: Explain, Demonstrate, Guide and Enable.

If they do it right, the Scouts will learn without even knowing it.

‘Be sure to communicate’

Nichols can turn anything into a teachable moment — even something simple like unloading canoes from a trailer.

Before placing a finger on the canoe’s scuffed aluminum sides, he tells the Scouts how he’ll lift, flip and carry the 70-pound boat to the water. Then he and Wheless take opposite sides and demonstrate.

With his boat in the water, Nichols doesn’t touch another canoe. His role has shifted to coach as he watches Scouts Michael Cully, 14; Jack Nichols, 13; and Ryan Wheless, 12, give it a try.

“Be sure to communicate,” Matt tells the guys.

Jack, the youth leader on this trip, takes over, and the Scouts move the three remaining canoes. Nichols returns to packing his dry bag. His work here is done — for now.

Then they’re off. The Lewis Lake launch ramp gets smaller with each paddle stroke as the Scouts leave civilization in their wake.

Yellowstone is one of the most-visited national parks, but here’s the secret: Travel just a mile from the scenic overlooks and parking lots, and you pretty much have the place to yourself. From now until the Scouts get picked up in four days, they will see only a dozen other humans.

‘Character building’

Having crossed Lewis Lake, the group arrives at the mouth of the Lewis River. They paddle, against the current, until the water is too shallow. Then they walk.

“Character building is what this is,” Nichols says.

He’s now in the shin-deep 50-degree water of the Lewis River, which winds its way for a mile to their final destination: Shoshone Lake. Wheless drags his loaded canoe by a yellow rope called a painter.

The wading is the hardest part, but it’s the price you pay for seclusion. Few tourists venture this deep into Yellowstone.

“That was fun,” Ryan says. “Tiring, but fun.”

When it’s deep enough to return to the boats, Dallin Spackman, the guide from Teton High Adventure Base, gives the group a cheer.

“You guys rocked it,” he says. “I didn’t hear a single complaint.”

‘Ask your crew leader’

The Scouts decide when to get up. They decide the day’s schedule. They decide when to leave.

The adults? They decide how much hot water to add to their packets of instant coffee.

Whenever a Scout — even his own son — has a question, Wheless gives the same response.

“Ask your crew leader,” he says, motioning his mug toward Jack. “We’re just here for safety. This isn’t Cub Scouts, guys.”

Jack, between bites of oatmeal straight from the bag, gives the day’s instructions.

“We’re going to geyser basin,” he says. “Wear sunscreen, and bring your bug spray if you don’t want to get eaten alive.”

“Will it rain?” Nichols asks.

“Oh, yeah, and bring your rain jackets,” Jack says.

‘Our own private geyser’

At the geyser basin landing point, Dallin warns the Scouts not to go near the thermal features: At up to 400 degrees, they can dissolve pretty much anything.

On the short hike to the thermal basin, you hear and smell the geothermal pools and geysers before you see them.

“Listen to it,” Nichols says, “and look at the steam coming off the sides here. This is cool.”

The main attraction is called Minute Man Geyser, which blasts water 20 feet into the air every three or four minutes. It’s not quite as spectacular as the Old Faithful geyser to the north, but it has something Old Faithful doesn’t: solitude.

“It’s like our own private geyser,” Wheless says. “You almost expect a dinosaur to walk up.”

‘You got this!’

The idea behind the Canoeing merit badge is not to make Scouts into Olympic-level paddlers. It’s to instill in them the confidence that they can make a canoe do anything they want on the water.

Right now, Jack is in need of a little confidence boost. The wind is picking up, and he’s in the middle of attempting requirement 9C: Complete a 50-yard solo course while paddling on one side only.

Nichols finished the course himself a few minutes ago, proving it could be done. But the wind is stronger now, and one wonders whether his shouts are even reaching Jack.

“You got this!” Nichols tells his son. “If the wind is pulling you to the right, sweep! Looking good! Looking good!”

Jack conquers the course. After dragging his canoe onto the sandy shore, he’s full of adrenaline and optimism.

“Scouting takes you places you probably would never go,” he says. “This is way better than a videogame. I actually get to do this. I’m not staring at a screen.”

Go For Gold

Weekend campouts are great, but long-term trips are when Scouting really shines. Troops and crews that participate in long-term camps (at least five nights for troops; approximately four days for crews) get credit on their Journey to Excellence scorecard. Learn more at

Watch as Photography Director W. Garth Dowling and Senior Editor Bryan Wendell share more photos and stories from this epic Yellowstone National Park journey.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this informative article. I’ll be visiting Yellowstone park this Christmas holiday after my work transfer to Montana. After working in Louisville for almost a decade, I have enjoyed kayaking in Kentucky more than any other outdoor activity. I’m looking forward to joining the paddling buddies and sharing the awesome experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.