How one troop makes an outdoor tradition survive and thrive

No knives! Not allowed!” Scouter Jonathan Wiik loudly announces over the hubbub of Scouts rooting through their backpacks pulling out gear before the Survivorman Challenge. “No multitools, no rope, no cord, no whistles. I want to see that bag get full. Let’s go!”

Second Class Scout Braden House pauses before adding to the communal bag of forbidden items.

“No compass?” he asks.

“No compass. Compass goes in the bag!”

Over the next 24 hours, Braden and his fellow Scouts will call upon their ingenuity and survival skills to complete rugged tasks the adult leaders have created for them. While many in Troop 16 of Parker, Colo., have attended this annual campout before, every year presents new and exciting challenges that keep the Scouts coming back.

Building a tradition

About a decade ago, then-Scoutmaster Mark Abell concocted the Survivorman Challenge, a wilderness survival campout named after survival expert Les Stroud’s television series.

The weekend excursion, held at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch south of Denver, involves splitting the troop into three groups: Levels 1, 2 and 3. The first level consists of first-year Scouts, the second level has more experienced youth and the top level includes the older Scouts, some of whom have attended this campout four or five times.

What keeps the Scouts coming back? Aside from the friendly competition with bragging rights and a trophy full of candy on the line, it’s the variety.

Another draw this time is meeting Stroud, who is attending the campout.

“They have a great cross section of handling so many of the various survival skills,” Stroud says. “There are 150 skills to learn, and they’re touching on them all.”

Assistant Scoutmaster Chris Fournier took over the planning duties several years ago. Every year, he incorporates a theme, like The Hunger Games, in which the “fallen” patrol leaders were removed from their patrols, forcing other Scouts to step up and lead, or a military rescue mission, in which patrols had to care for a balloon (injured soldier) as they trudged across rocky terrain.

This time, it’s a plane crash. Scouts will sift through debris for items that can help them through the weekend.

“It’s been fun to add new levels and see what I can come up with to make it challenging for the boys so they stay interested,” Fournier says. “I think the most important part is not doing the same thing over and over again.”

The planning requires about six months of work — plus two weekends setting up the cache points at the council-owned camp. These cache points, spread throughout more than 1,000 acres of the camp’s undeveloped land, are where the Scouts test their skills and collect supplies. There’s a site for knots and lashings, one for fire- building, a couple for signaling for help — and hat’s in addition to the faux plane-crash sites.

“It’s almost like setting up a big movie set,” Scoutmaster Sonya Lipman says.

For this campout, the Scouts are the stars.

All about the skills

Not only do the adults plan this outing, but they also carry out all the logistics, including cooking meals at base camp. It’s the one time in the year when the Scouts don’t have to worry about the details. They can focus on their survival skills — because they’ll need them.

“There’s a psychological element to it,” Assistant Scoutmaster Ron Carlson says. “It’s them taking what they’ve learned and surviving out there.”

While the Level 1 and 2 groups stay at base camp the first night, the oldest group of Scouts heads out for two evenings in the wilderness. In the morning, the younger Scouts begin their challenges of navigating a 5-mile orienteering course and practicing knot-tying, plant identification and first aid.

Meanwhile, the Level 2 Scouts venture into the wilderness. Equipped with very little gear, they’ll be relying on the skills they learned as first-year Scouts. More important, they’ll have to demonstrate teamwork, positive attitudes and awareness of their surroundings.

“The adults love this campout,” Fournier says. “They like to see how these boys think and what they’re trying to do.”

At the first crash site, the Level 2 Scouts move in to assist a couple of “injured” people, but they’re briefly taken aback by the gruesome-looking injuries. The bloody bones protruding through the skin are prosthetics, which appear quite realistic at first glance. The Scouts compose themselves, put on some medical gloves and start administering first aid.

The adult referees, scorecards in hand, keep careful watch over the Scouts’ techniques. Meanwhile, the Level 3 Scouts are at a different site, showing their accompanying referees how to collect potable water.

Stroud watches how months of planning pay off.

“The amount of organizing involved and the level to which they had to put this all together was handled superbly,” Stroud says. “They’ve essentially created what was my original vision for Survivorman.”

That vision is for people to Be Prepared in case of a real survival situation. He provides a few tips to first-year Scouts learning about knots and orienteering, but when observing older Scouts, he can sit back and watch them work.

“It’s getting boys and girls out into the wilderness to learn these skills, step by step, with good instructors guiding them every step of the way,” Stroud says. “It’s not easy to find these teachers, but the Scouts is definitely a place to do that.”

Teaching never stops

Over the weekend, the Scouts create a compass by magnetizing a sewing needle and floating it in water, describe how to ignite a fire with steel wool and a battery, reflect sunlight with a CD to signal a rescue plane and cook a rabbit stew with the vegetables they earned by pointing out several edible plants.

“This is a skills check,” Assistant Scoutmaster John Christiansen says. “After this event, everyone will go back and see where they weren’t doing so well. They’ll open their Scout books and review that.”

Next year, they’ll be more confident in these skills, and maybe their patrol will win that trophy. Perhaps they’ll return as adults to help out, like Eagle Scouts Trevor See, Jordan Abell, Connor Carlson and Brandon Abell did. See piloted a Cessna 172 single-engine plane above the camp for the patrols to signal.

“When they look back as an older adult, they’ll remember the Survivorman Challenge better, I think,” Fournier says. “They’ll be telling their kids about it, and when their kids are in Scouts, in some other troop, in some other state, maybe they revise Survivorman for that troop. That will be the success of it all.”

Off-season opportunity

The Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch isn’t just for summer camp. It has been home to Troop 16’s Survivorman Challenge for years.

Kevin Fox, Denver Area Council camping director, says council camps are perfect places for outings, no matter what time of year. Troop 16 schedules its wilderness survival campout in the spring and its Webelos recruitment outing in the fall at Peaceful Valley, giving them more access to facilities that aren’t in use.

“Their opportunities just triple, quadruple during the off-season,” Fox says.

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