ScoutingJanuary-February 2002

Ready, Weather or Not

By Mac Gardner
Photograph by John R. Fulton Jr.

Expecting a weekend of cold at their annual winter challenge encampment in the Sierra Mountains, Scouts watch temperatures warm up nearly 40 degrees after the first night.

Patrol members Sage Coulter, Mik Fernandez, Mark Ochoa, and Chris Miller of Troop 267, Truckee, Calif., mush through the woods in the Donner Camp sled race.

"Way to go!" yells David Johnson as a Scout patrol pulls on a rope to haul one of its members across the surface of a pond and onto dry land. "Now what do you do?"

Patrol members hand the "rescued" victim a towel and an armload of dry clothes, and the shivering Scout makes a quick change. "You did great, considering that the pond didn't even exist this morning," David tells the competitors.

The moment sums up the impact of an overnight thaw on the 2001 Donner Camp, the annual winter encampment conducted by the Sierra District in the Reno-based Nevada Area council. David Johnson and the other Order of the Arrow (OA) members serving as camporee staff have had to adjust the way they have conducted patrol challenge events.

Heating up

J. P. Donovan, Shane Adams, and Aaron Martini of Troop 37, Incline Village, Calif., peer out of their snow dome.

Friday night's temperatures hovered around 19 or 20 degrees, but Saturday morning's gray skies vanished quickly. The sun soon raised temperatures into the 30s; and the snow, six to 18 inches deep, began melting rapidly. The heat reached an amazing 57 degrees, forcing most campers to doff their jackets. (Previous Donner Camp records were 35 degrees as a high and minus 20 degrees as a low.)

In the morning, David Johnson ran his "pond rescue" event on a surface of snow but had to adapt to a real pond of water as the day heated up. Directors of other events on the challenge course—fire-building, first aid, shelter-building, sled races—did the same.

Donner Camp head honcho was Robert (Beaver Bob) Lange, a husky, mustachioed fellow with a gruff voice and a soft heart. He wasn't worried about the new weather.

"Our bulletin says that 'Common sense, leadership, and basic Scout skills rule,'" he noted. "The events this weekend are designed to test physical and mental skills. The show will go on!"

The Scouts showed they had absorbed common sense in preparing for the encampment. On Friday, for example, observers noted with alarm that some boys had arrived wearing gym shoes. However, this was because they had been picked up directly from school; and by Saturday morning, everyone was clad in appropriate winter footwear, which included shoepacs, insulated hunting boots, and snowmobile boots.

"This is our 10th year, and preparation improves every year," noted Beaver Bob. "Hypothermia hasn't been a problem, but our staff is ready to help out immediately if a Scout gets wet or feels uncomfortable in the cold." Tyler McCollum was on his first ever camp-out, winter or summer. Undecided on whether to become a Scout, he and his dad, Richard, camped as guests with Troop 60, chartered to the Rotary Club of Loyalton, Calif.

"We really picked an exciting test for his first camp, didn't we?" Richard observed. "But it will be fun!"

Site of survival

At the first-aid challenge station, Troop 267 Scouts fashion a splint for a "broken leg."

All campers are well aware that the annual event is named for—and takes place just north of—the area where members of the ill-fated Donner Party faced a much deadlier test 155 winters earlier. As Beaver Bob's promotional flier for the 2001 encampment stated:

"Scouts will camp [at Prosser Campground] near where the Donner Party bogged down in 1846-47, and will be stomping across the same ground where they sought firewood, hunted, and fought for survival." [See the sidebar.]

Most of the troops have previously camped at the site, located just across the Nevada state line, about three miles north of Truckee, Calif. Elevation is slightly higher than 6,200 feet.

At an orientation following breakfast on Saturday, Beaver Bob reminded the 160 boys, 60 adult leaders, and 15 staff members about the Donner Party.

Scouts from Troop 19, Reno, Nev., cook up an omelette for Saturday morning breakfast.

"We have it easy today," he pointed out. "Imagine camping when the snow is 22 feet deep, as it was when the Donners had to stop here." (To date, the deepest snow depth for the annual Donner Camp has been 14 feet.)

Patrol problem-solving

OA staff members Kevin Fromherz and Ross Armstrong summarized how the patrols would compete. "No adult leaders are allowed to advise you," Kevin told the Scouts. "You have already been informed about what materials you needed to bring. Now, at each challenge location, you'll hear, 'This is the situation; you solve the problem.' So be ready!"

Officials time Troop 267's fire-building skills. (It took the team eight minutes.)

"Drink plenty of water!" Ross added. "You'll be surprised with how much you'll need in cold weather."

Several troops had paid special attention to preparation and pulled sleds carrying vital emergency gear. The equipment of Troop 267 of the Truckee Optimist Club, for example, included a first-aid kit, jug of water, sack of dry clothes, and a big bag of high-energy snacks.

At noon, the campers headed for the central area, where Donner Camp cook Eileen Way supervised lunch preparation.

"A few years ago the staff decided having troops cook their own lunch took too much time," Way explained. "That's where I come in."

Way, a leader with Troop 152 of Reno's Faith Lutheran Church, prepared her special recipe for hot soup—corn, chickpeas, kidney beans, chicken broth, meatballs, sausage, macaroni, chili and sauce, zucchini squash, and additional secret ingredients. The troops loved it and many campers asked for seconds.

Over lunch, Scoutmasters shared their experiences. Troop 60 Scoutmaster Brian Bryant said his veteran troop enjoys Donner Camp "because we adults have to 'hide.' And the boys really learn when they have to work out problems by themselves."

To Barry Chilton, Scoutmaster of Troop 218, chartered to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Donner Camp is "the climax to all the other snow camps we schedule."

Troop 267 Scoutmaster Larry Ochoa said that the rugged winter elements are never a problem. "Our gang loves tough camps and brags about the challenges."

Winter opportunities

Chris Miller and Sage Coulter use a rope to "rescue" fellow Troop 267 Scout Mark Ochoa by pulling him across the surface of a "frozen pond" onto dry land.

"Troops need to include winter camping if they desire a true year-round program," says Beaver Bob Lange, who doubles as both the district camping and activities chairman. "And we're lucky to have ample winter opportunities in our area."

Of all the afternoon events, the sled races were probably the most challenging and drew the loudest noise from participants and spectators. Despite the increasing thaw, the staff had no trouble finding shady areas where snow was still in abundance.

Enough shady snow areas were also available for an event new to many campers—snow hut (or dome) building. Scouts Mato Sutherland and B. J. Zierolf of Troop 152 shoveled the biggest pile of snow and after letting it set for an hour, hollowed out the interior to create a solid shelter.

As the day ebbed, fatigue settled in on most of the campers. The conditions—heat, melting snow, and mud—had provided an unusual test for an event known for presenting the toughest challenges, said Beaver Bob, but "everyone seemed to work around the heat O.K."

Despite the big thaw, "it was a great camp," observed Eileen Way. "I know because I listened to Scouts chatting near the kitchen. And they sound as if they'll all be back next year."

Among those planning to return in 2002 was novice camper Tyler McCollum—attending as a member of Troop 60. S

Mac Gardner is a former professional Scouter and Scouting magazine editor. He lives in Eureka, Calif.

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