Going the distance on a Virginia troop’s 115-mile challenge

Dallas Wells was ready to give up.

After backpacking, canoeing and cycling 67 miles over the past week, the 13-year-old Scout, along with the other members of Troop 141 from Christiansburg, Va., had to get up at 4 a.m. to pedal another 38 miles into Washington, D.C.

That was 8 more miles than they’d planned (due to a monsoon-shortened ride the day before) and 7 more miles than Dallas thought he could handle.

Riding at his side, Scoutmaster Mike Abbott reminded him of how far he’d come and challenged him to win the mental game.

“For 7 miles, I could hear him under his breath going, ‘This is a mental game. This is a mental game,’ ” Abbott recalls. “He passed people in the last 7 miles to finish this trip.”

When the troop debriefed the experience that night at their D.C. hostel, one of the other Scouts gave Dallas a shout-out, saying he’d probably worked harder than anyone else. The entire room applauded.

That’s when Abbott knew the troop had truly completed what ended up being a 115-mile challenge.

“My definition of success is that you want as many kids as possible to face failure and get past it,” he says. “They have to understand that the best things in life are one step beyond fear, and that their mental and physical limits are beyond what they think they are.”

One, Two, Three — Go!

The trek ended on the National Mall, but it began a world away at a trailhead near Linden, Va. On their first day, the Scouts hiked 2.5 miles — and climbed nearly 1,000 feet — to reach the Manassas Gap Shelter, where they set up camp, began preparing dinner and realized they’d left the spaghetti sauce back in the trailer.

And so was born “deconstructed spaghetti,” a dish that consisted of noodles and nothing else.

Mealtime miscues were just one obstacle the Scouts would face during the trip, which included two more days of hiking, two days of canoeing on the Shenandoah River and two days of cycling on the C&O Canal Towpath, including the marathon that nearly defeated young Dallas.

Since the trip included three very different activities, everyone found something he liked and something that really challenged him. Abbott’s sons, Iain, 14, and Cole, 12, both preferred cycling, for example, while Jeremiah Garretson, 13, really enjoyed backpacking.

“I think it’s awesome that you can carry a 25-pound bag with everything you’re going to need for a couple of days,” he says.

Cody Bruce, 17, liked canoeing best, although, he says, “The highlight of the trip probably had to be the bonding that happened with everyone.”

Plotting a Course

The inspiration for the trip came the year before, when separate groups of Scouts participated in canoeing and cycling programs at the East Carolina Council’s Pamlico Sea Base. Afterward, they couldn’t decide which activity had been more fun, so they decided to plan a trip that included both — with backpacking thrown in for good measure.

Abbott, an Eagle Scout and experienced backpacker, sketched out a tentative route, then turned the planning over to the Scouts.

“I could have easily planned the entire thing and had them watch me do it,” he says. “And it would not have been as impactful.”

The Scouts, already accustomed to running their own show, jumped at the opportunity, but they also realized the job was too big for any one person. So they decided to have one Scout plan each leg and serve as senior patrol leader for those days. (Three patrol leaders served through the trip.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, outfitters and campsite managers were hesitant to work with teenagers.

“They kept getting gatekeepers saying, ‘Is there a parent or an adult I can talk to?’” Abbott says. “And they kept saying, ‘No; this is my job.’”

Sam Sheppard, 17, who planned the cycling leg, recalls spending two months during his free period at school calling outfitters.

“Some of them would tell me really good prices and say they could deliver, then I’d give their number to our Scoutmaster, and they would tell him something completely different,” he says.

He and the other Scouts persevered, however, relying on the adults to do little more than sign contracts and pay bills.

“I think it’s really cool how we’re a Scout-led troop,” he says. “The adults are here for the BSA standards and our protection and stuff, but other than that, everything gets handed off to the youth in the troop, and we plan pretty much everything.”

The patrol leaders would often call their own meetings. With two-deep leadership present, they would spend a couple of hours talking about menus and other aspects of the trip.

Setting — and Achieving — Goals

Freed from day-to-day leadership, Abbott focused on his single objective for each leg, such as making sure Scouts qualified for the Canoeing merit badge on the river. By focusing on a single objective at a time, he says, you don’t have to sweat small stuff like missing spaghetti sauce.

“You’ve just got to smile, deal with it and move on,” he says.

He also made sure the group debriefed most evenings.

“You’ve got to give them time to complain,” he says. “You’ve also got to give them time to explain what would have made things better. Because when they hear themselves saying, ‘I think we can do better tomorrow,’ that moment is uplifting.”

Also uplifting was the Scouts’ realization that they had planned and led the trip themselves.

“What I’d really like people to take away from this story,” says Dallas, “is all of this was boy-led.”


Aiming For the Stars

When Mike Abbott became Scoutmaster in 2016, Troop 141 was struggling, and its membership was small. The troop doubled in size with the half-dozen graduating Webelos Scouts he brought with him.

Early on, he asked the Scouts to draw pictures of the things they’d like to do. Sam Sheppard, who was then 14, drew a stick figure with “Boys’ Life” written across the top. “I drew a picture of a Boys’ Life magazine,” Sam says. “I wanted to do something cool enough to get us in Boys’ Life.”

(Fun fact: The trip will be featured in the June-July 2020 issue of BL.)

Challenge accepted, Abbott thought, so he encouraged the patrol leaders’ council to plan increasingly adventuresome outings.

“I told them from the beginning, ‘My goal is to get you to the point where you’re doing high-adventure trips that none of your peers are going to be touching,’ ” he says.

Case in point: Having successfully covered 58 miles of the C&O Canal Towpath during their 2019 trip, the Scouts are now considering riding the entire 333 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington. In fact, Dallas Wells, who was this close to giving up last summer, is already on board for that epic adventure.


Planning Particulars

• Scoutmaster Mike Abbott planned the initial itinerary based on the physical ability of the Scouts who wanted to go. Also, a nine-day trip that included two weekends was perfect for adults who could afford only a week away from work.

• The troop did little training. Given the relative ease of each leg, Abbott felt on-the-job training was sufficient.

• The Scouts decided Second Class rank and the First Aid merit badge were satisfactory prerequisites. Adults had to be certified in first aid and CPR.

• The per-person cost of the trip came out to just more than $250, about half of which went to the outfitters that provided the canoes and bikes.

• Adults who weren’t on the trip supported the transitions among the three legs. They delivered food — including some surprise treats — at the start of the canoe leg, collected spare gear at the start of the cycling leg and accompanied the group to D.C.

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