On the surface, it all seemed so seamless: one Scout troop, split into three crews based on experience level, cruising through miles and miles of the backcountry of Yosemite National Park.
As the Scouts and adults from Troop 65 in Morgantown, W.Va., soaked in the sights and sounds of the pristine wilderness around them, you’d never know the twists and turns that went into planning and executing such an adventure.
Plan A? Plan B? Not quite.
“I think we ended up on our Plan E,” says Dave Campbell, an Eagle Scout and one of the adult leaders who helped the Scouts work out the details for this outing last June.
Looking to the West
Troop 65 is a dynamic troop that mixes up smaller trips, regional excursions and national events — and then, every few years, what they call their “Big Summer Trip” out West. Most recently, about 50 of Troop 65’s Scouts and adults traveled 2,500 miles from home to hike in Yosemite.
Planning began almost a year before, when the Scouts settled on California as their destination. Their first choice was Kings Canyon National Park and some high-altitude areas outside Yosemite.
They had made reservations and were in the final stages of planning, and then the snow came. And stayed. And then more snow came.
“Once the snow really started piling up, it was like, ‘OK, let’s start looking at something else,’ ” Campbell says.
Under the direction of Scoutmaster Hank Burton, the troop checked webcams and road closures in the area. They even called local hiking clubs.
The clock was ticking. The prime time for securing a permit to one of the busiest national parks was slipping by.
“I started submitting reservations for Yosemite,” Burton says. “Monday morning, this one is accepted, andt hen this one is accepted, and it’s like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve got two crews in there. Let’s see if I can get a third.’ ”
Their luck held, and Troop 65 had permits for three crews in the southwest region of Yosemite. At a time when permits are few and far between, this was nothing short of remarkable.
But the fun was just getting started.
Making It Happen
Normally, the temperatures in the Yosemite area rise enough in the spring to melt the snow, leaving plenty of clear trails for hikers in early-to-mid June.
Not this year. An unseasonable cold snap in May delayed the snow melt, and many trails remained closed dangerously close to the troop’s trip.
That’s when Burton gathered the Scouts together to discuss their options.
“OK, here’s what we gotta do,” he remembers saying. “We’re going to stay below this elevation. And we’re going to make changes to the backcountry plan.”
“All that preparation and all that luck came together to make it happen.”
A big advantage to the troop’s ever-changing plans was the fact that almost all of Yosemite is designated wilderness, meaning their permits to the backcountry let them camp wherever it was feasible, as long as they followed Leave No Trace principles. This way, they could be flexible.
“If we had to have made backcountry campsite reservations and then had to stick to it,” Burton says, “we would have had to cancel the whole itinerary, not being able to get to those campsites.”
The success of complicated trips like this one hinges on buy-in from the Scouts themselves.
“The first thing is to have the boys heavily involved in the planning,” Campbell says. “That goes all the way from ‘Where is it we want to go?’ Then whittle that down to ‘What sort of mileage do we want to do?’ and ‘What are your goals?’
“Is it pure mileage? Is it sightseeing? Is it the ability to fish?”
For this trip, the group decided to split into three crews, based on backpacking ability and experience. The crew with more experienced boys planned and executed the longest and most challenging hikes.
The adults helped them set up the itinerary. They also dealt with the logistics of transportation and permits. The Scouts tackled meal planning, selection of crew leaders, gear organization … and pretty much everything else.
The troop did multiple training hikes, short and long. Those helped get everyone in shape and helped everyone — particularly the less experienced adventurers — get mentally prepared.
“We stressed to the younger Scouts that this isn’t a weekend trip where you can be sloppy,” Burton says. “If you forget something on a weekend trip, you don’t worry about it because you’re home in 24 or 36 hours. This was not a weekend trip.”
Keeping Everyone Happy
The training hikes also helped everyone get used to new gear and understand what is needed and what’s not.
“On the training trips, you would see the light switch come on and they’d start to grasp things,” Campbell said. “They’d start talking among themselves, saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to whittle this gear down’ and ‘I don’t have that.’ ”
Then there was the matter of keeping everyone happy. And, hence, the idea of splitting the group into three crews.
“If you want to keep the older Scouts interested, you’ve got to do a trip they’re going to find interesting,” Burton says. “The challenging trips. The physically demanding trips.
“If I told my older son, ‘Hey, we’re doing a 20-mile trip,’ he’d look me in the eye and say, ‘Been there, done that.’ Whereas if I told my younger Scouts, ‘Hey, you’re going to do a weeklong trip covering 50 miles,’ there’d be immense hesitation with that, because they’d not be mentally or physically up to that challenge.”
By splitting into three groups, they were able to keep everyone happy. The group with the youngest, least experienced Scouts got a taste of the backcountry without pushing their limits too far. The most experienced group did some heavy-duty trekking and set up camp in the middle of nowhere. And the intermediate group experienced something in between.
In the end, all three groups got what they came for: a weeklong adventure in one of our most popular national parks.
“Am I going to run out of food? How hard is it going to be?” says Colin Petsko, a 12-year-old member of the beginners’ crew, when asked about his concerns going into this whole thing. “But I thought about how my dad is going to be with me, I’m going to have Hank, I’m going to have all these other good leaders.
“I know we’re going to have enough food, because we planned for it very well. And I knew Hank wouldn’t plan something for us that’s way too hard … but also not too easy.”
GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER
As a Scout leader, you get to help develop leadership and character in youth. If you’re a Scouting alum, you get to give back to the program that gave you so much when you were a kid.
Another advantage? You get to relive the good old days.
“Nowhere else in my life have I made the connections that I made when I was a Scout,” says Dave Campbell, an Eagle Scout and alumnus of Troop 65 in Morgantown, W.Va.
Campbell was just one Troop 65 alum who joined the troop on its adventure to Yosemite National Park last summer. Several of the troop’s adult leaders were Scouts together years ago. Back then, they hiked together and achieved the rank of Eagle together.
Now they’re back in Scouting.
“I’ve explained to people,” committee member and Eagle Scout Robert Ryan says, “that it’s like going Scouting with my buddies again.”
And then there’s Scoutmaster Hank Burton, another Eagle Scout from Troop 65 who’s now serving in his old troop.
“It’s definitely fun to have those who you grew up with to continue on and do the same activities and have fun again,” he says.
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