This story originally appeared in the January-February 2019 issue of Scouting magazine.
Near the top of a climbing route deceptively named “The Butterfly Patch,” Lauren Gogal pauses to catch her breath. She has found a narrow ledge where she can stand, lean against the wall and give her aching arms a break.
The 14-year-old from Venturing Crew 91 of Gainesville, Va., shakes out her hands. She grits her teeth and eyes the next handhold: a piece of polyurethane just 2 feet from the top of the rock wall. She extends her legs and reaches.
And then, like she has done at this exact spot a dozen times before, she loses her grip and falls.
“No!” she screams. The automatic belaying device gently lowers her to the gravel below. “I almost had it. I was so close.”
Lauren takes a drink of water, finds a foothold and tries again.
Across the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia, Venturers like Lauren challenge themselves to reach new heights. They’ve gathered — about 1,800 young men and women from across the country — for VenturingFest, a celebration of all things Venturing. (Venturing, the BSA’s program for young people ages 14-20 — or 13 and finished with the eighth grade — was founded in 1998.)
At VenturingFest, young people enjoy SBR’s seemingly endless menu of world-class venues. That includes mountain biking, zip lining, challenge courses, climbing, stand-up paddleboarding and more. But the week also promises experiences not typical to SBR — things befitting a big party like VenturingFest.
That means dance parties, impromptu games of flag football and a big closing show. With several weeks’ worth of activities packed into four days, the one thing Venturers won’t get at VenturingFest is enough sleep.
“In the end, it’s about having fun,” says Torrance Jenkins, a 14-year-old in Crew 6 of Gastonia, N.C. “Even if you’re tired, you’re sore, don’t give up — and don’t go back to the camp and do nothing. You’ve got to do something.”
‘Challenge by Choice’
The high-banked turns look like something out of NASCAR. As the path curves to the left, the trail slopes in the same direction, forcing riders to lean into the turn as they keep their speed. Features like these make SBR’s mountain biking trails fast and fun. They also make them kind of intimidating for a beginner.
Alex Whearty is here to help. The 21-year-old SBR mountain biking staffer from Walpole, Mass., matches each rider to the perfect trail. If SBR’s “black diamond” routes are too intense for someone, Whearty selects an easier green or blue run. If that’s still too much, he’ll invite the participant to ride around the pavilion for a while. This is a zero-pressure zone.
“You get a lot of kids who come in and say they’ve never been on a bike before,” he says. “We try to encourage them, but when it comes down to it, it’s challenge by choice.”
That’s the mantra here at SBR and in Scouting as a whole: challenge by choice. In Scouting, you’re encouraged to try new things, push your limits and widen your comfort zone. But if you’re ever uncomfortable or just don’t feel up for something, that’s fine.
“If you don’t want to do it,” Whearty says, “we won’t make you do it.”
That supportive environment appeals to Mason Jones, an 18-year-old from Crew 62 of Spring, Texas.
“With the safe environment that this camp provides, you can take as many risks as you want and still be perfectly fine at the end of the day,” Mason says.
A Small-Town Feel
For William Burns, a 20-year-old from Crew 503 of Dacula, Ga., three elements combine to make VenturingFest such an unforgettable week: SBR’s activities, SBR’s staff and his fellow Venturers. The Venturing program attracts a special type of person: young men and young women who crave routine-busting experiences. SBR helps them channel that interest.
William says there’s magic in “just being surrounded by all these other Scouts who are in the same shoes as you — looking for an adventure that they can’t grab back home.”
Over a breakfast of pancakes and eggs or while walking to program areas, William and his crewmates exchange ideas with other Venturers.
“You get to meet Venturers from all over the country and see how their crews work,” he says, “And then you can stay in contact with them. With social media, it makes it so easy.”
And, really, where else but VenturingFest could a Venturer from Georgia swap recruiting tips and trip-planning ideas with a crew from Alaska?
Four Venturers from Crew 300 of Wasilla, Alaska, took two flights totaling eight hours to get to VenturingFest. And while the West Virginia weather is a little warmer than back home, the people are just as friendly.
Wasilla’s population of around 10,000 means “you’ll go to the grocery store and see 10 people you know,” 17-year-old Mary Sewell says.
In just five days, VenturingFest’s population of 1,800 develops a similar small-town feel.
“The people are really nice,” says Maddie Barlow, 15. “We’ll walk around, and they’ll just say ‘hi’ to you.”
Those new friends might accompany you at karaoke night as you belt out Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Since U Been Gone.” Or perhaps they’ll meet you at the drive-in movie theater, where it’s strictly BYOC — Build Your Own Car — out of cardboard and duct tape. Or they’ll strap on a helmet and life jacket, and join your four-person Water Reality team.
Nothing bonds a group quite as effectively as a timed aquatic obstacle course. Each inflatable impediment is a mini-metaphor for Scouting. You can struggle over by yourself, but it’s easier if you work together.
“It’s been really fun, and you get to try all these great things in one area,” says Zaria Ascue, a 15-year-old from Crew 469 of Charleston, S.C. “It’s something different every day.”
Among the Trees
Franco Allegro isn’t the biggest fan of heights. So you wouldn’t expect to find the 14-year-old from Crew 91 zip lining from tree to tree high above the forest floor.
But that’s just what he did. Again and again.
“I just wanted to push myself,” he says. “I saw the rest of my crew having fun with it. Once you learn the equipment is going to help you, it’s easier.”
Sure, that’s easy to say from solid ground. But what was he feeling on that first zip line platform?
“I was literally shaking,” he says. “I got through the first one and just hugged the tree. By the third one, I just started looking around to see how beautiful it was.”
Franco says the harness and helmet — plus the training everyone received on the ground — gave him the confidence to get up there in the first place.
“It helps to understand that you’ll be safe,” he says. “Scouts really goes all the way with safety. It gives you more confidence to go out and have fun.”
Larissa Johnson, a 16-year-old from Crew 514, found the strength to conquer SBR’s high ropes course, where participants walk from tree to tree across challenging obstacles. In one direction, there might be a bunch of wooden squares suspended in midair. You have to step — or leap — between each one like Mario. In another direction, you must tightrope-walk across a thin metal wire while grabbing ropes that hang like vines.
“I’m so terrified of heights,” she says. “I was worried about it, but when you actually get up there, and you’re doing it, it’s not as bad. Brenna [Emery, their staff guide,] was like, ‘You’ve just got to trust the system and know that it works. You’re not going to fall.’”
In Venturing, Larissa has found the perfect place to shine a light on self-doubt and watch it skitter away.
“I was thinking, ‘Physically, I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough,’” Larissa says. “But I did. I did it.”
Back at The Rocks, Lauren is making her latest attempt to reach the top as Johnny Jones delivers encouragement from the ground.
The 21-year-old from West Virginia staffs the climbing venue. Jones was never a Scout, but the senior at Marshall University started climbing as a freshman and liked it.
His primary job at SBR is teaching Scouts and Venturers how to climb. That involves a lot of reminders that climbing shouldn’t be an arm workout.
“Use your feet more than your arms,” he tells them. “You could probably climb some of these routes without ever pulling up with your arms.”
His secondary job: chief motivator. He keeps the climbers’ spirits high, even when they fail to reach the top.
“I know how it feels to fall,” he says. “It really sucks, but you have to keep going.”
Some climbers give up. But that’s not failure, he says. Failure would be not trying at all. But then there are climbers like Lauren, who looks like she’ll keep trying until the last shred of daylight dips below the mountains.
“That’s how people are who like climbing,” Jones says. “They keep working on that problem without breaking.”
This time, Lauren doesn’t pause to rest at the ledge. This time, she keeps going, her arms and legs finding new strength. This time, she reaches the top, slapping the flat surface and releasing a scream of victory.
“I feel accomplished,” she says once she’s back on the ground, giving a smile.
Her dad, Crew 91 Advisor Daniel Gogal, has a certain glow, too. Lauren has three older brothers, all Eagle Scouts; a younger brother, who is a Scout; and an older sister, giving her “an inherent competitiveness,” he says.
VenturingFest has helped Lauren harness and focus that drive in a supportive environment.
“One of the things that inspires me is seeing young people take on new adventures and overcome their fears,” Daniel Gogal says. “They’re encouraged by the feeling of accomplishment. It’s fabulous to see this.”
Homes for High Adventure
Like to climb, sail, hike or paddle? The BSA has a national high-adventure base for you.
Paul R. Christen High Adventure Base at Summit Bechtel Reserve: For anyone who wants to test their limits. Participants can enjoy a sampler of each of SBR’s adventure sports venues or focus on a single program area, such as skateboardingor rock climbing. summitbsa.org
Florida National High Adventure Sea Base: For anyone who craves aquatic adventure. Participants explore the warm, clear waters using their choice of transportation modes: large sailing vessels, smaller sailboats, powerboats, kayaks, scuba equipment — or some combination of the five. bsaseabase.org
Philmont Scout Ranch: For anyone who wants to hike through history. Participants can experience one of the base’s legendary seven- or 12-day treks. These treks challenge hikers mentally and physically, and include stops at several of Philmont’s staffed backcountry camps. philmontscoutranch.org
Northern Tier National High Adventure Program: For anyone who feels the call of the wild. After loading their canoes, Scouts and Venturers explore pristine lakes, meandering rivers, dense forests and fascinating wetlands in Northern Minnesota, Northwest Ontario and Northeast Manitoba. ntier.org
Photographs by W. Garth Dowling