The Nature of Leadership
By Scott Daniels
The lure of Alaska's Yukon River is the hook Venturing uses to teach teens management skills in the nature of leadership.
Shirts soaked with sweat; their hands, faces, and arms smeared with soot, the team of Venturers grunted as they lifted another charred, 12-foot log and carried it to the improvised sawmill. Back in '99, a forest fire blazed through this stand of white spruce along the banks of the Yukon River. Now Tim Henry was cutting the burnt timbers into 4-by-8 beams so he could build a new home for his family.
The teenagers' help was greatly appreciated. To match what the Venturers had accomplished in one afternoon, Henry said, would have taken him and his wife, Tova, nearly three weeks.
The Henrys, who live with their 3-year-old daughter, Solveig, on a secluded, 40-acre homestead deep in Alaska's wilderness, don't receive many visitors. Between October and June, for instance, they greeted only six other people. So when a group of 27 Venturers and adults arrived by raft and canoe in mid-July, it was quite an occasion.
The high school students were on their way to Circle, Alaska, 160 river miles from their put-in spot at Eagle three days earlier. Hailing from all parts of the Lower 48, the teens were combining this high adventure trek with a Venturing skills course called The Nature of Leadership.
After meeting the Henrys near the mouth of the Nation River, the group decided to spend another day in camp to learn about the family's pioneer lifestyle.
"It's inspiring to see how the Henrys manage a simpler way of life," said Matt Stansfield of Festus, Mo. The Venturers were amazed that the Henry family spends less than $300 a year on supplies. Beyond that, the family subsists on vegetables from a small garden, fishing for salmon, and hunting moose, bear, and caribou.
"I love the idea of total self-sufficiency," said Mica Mitchell of Dallas. "I didn't know there were people living like that."
The Venturers may have felt like pioneers themselves as they began their trip at Eagle, a hard-to-get-to outpost of 200 people just 11 miles inside Alaska's border with Canada. Founded by a group of miners in 1898, Eagle became the first incorporated city of Alaska's interior three years later.
At 9:30 p.m., the group pushed off from shore in four rafts and four canoes. Wearing polar fleece and rain gear to shield a blustery wind and intermittent drizzle, the crews paddled until after midnight before making camp. Fortunately daylight isn't much of a concern at these northern latitudes. Although the sun sets around midnight, twilight lingers, and sunrise is scarcely three hours later.
After breakfast the next morning, trek leader Clayton Cranor spoke to the crews about examples of teamwork found in nature.
"When beavers build a dam, there isn't a boss beaver," he said. "They all know what needs to be done. Working together they complete the task and therefore share the leadership.
"You can find another example by studying flocks of flying geese. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird following. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock is much more efficient than if each bird flew alone. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation and another goose takes over at the point position."
What this means for Venturers, Cranor explained, is that it's important for crew members to take turns doing the hard tasks, and by sharing leadership, the team can get more accomplished.
Spread throughout the week were more exercises in leadership skills. One, the "quiet dinner," required each crew to silently prepare a meal of salad, pasta, and an apple cobbler dessert.
"The idea," said Cranor, "was to illustrate nonverbal communication. How can you be successful in cooperating without speaking? Sometimes when you say something, your face and body language is communicating something completely different. It's important to be aware of that."
Back on the river, the Venturers' flotilla entered the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a 2.5-million-acre sanctuary with 30 year-round residents. Only now did the Venturers begin to realize how remote their travels would take them.
This was BIG country. Laid open far and wide. The Yukon itself is the stuff of lore and legend fed by the gold rush narratives of Jack London and poet Robert Service. At 1,979 miles, the Yukon River stretches from its headwaters near Whitehorse in Canada to its mouth at the Bering Sea, making it the third-longest river in North America. It divides Alaska east to west for 1,250 river miles and in some places is more than a mile wide.
There are no whitewater rapids, but the river's murky, brown current flows between five and seven miles per hour. Capsizing or falling overboard would be extremely dangerous, warned Clay Cranor early in the trip. Not only was the water glacier cold and invisibly deep, tons of suspended glacial silt could sink a person as it weighted their clothing and PFD. When canoeists took rests from paddling, they heard a sound like sizzling bacon, caused by minute grains of ground-up rocks polishing the underside of their boats.
Solo paddling in his Old Town Discovery canoe, Clay Cranor swept back and forth between rafts and canoes as the group headed downriver. Using a handheld global positioning system, he could pinpoint the boats' location on the topo maps he kept protected in a plastic sleeve.
With a bushy, red-tinged mustachenot trimmed for seven monthsand his waxed and weathered canvas hat, Cranor meets most persons' definition of a river guide. But river running is just one of his pursuits. He exited college with a master's degree in wildlife biology and along the way earned a pilot's license; climbed North America's highest peak, Denali; and worked in the information technology field. In summer, he serves as director of the Northern Lights High Adventure Base operated by the BSA's Midnight Sun Council in Fairbanks.
This was his first Nature of Leadership trek and he was encouraged by the participants. "If we can get more young people to sign up for trips like this," he said, "they will return home as leaders open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things."
After spending an extra day with the Henrys, the Venturers had to carve out larger chunks of daily river mileage in order to wind up in Circle on schedule. The weather had turned mostly sunny, but strong, brief showers remained a possibility. Following one such deluge, the group was rewarded with the appearance of a vivid double rainbow.
The pattern of finding a campsite, setting up tents, filtering water, and beginning to cook became familiar. As usual, Cranor scouted out the sites before giving an O.K. for the others to disembark.
"I'd always look for a couple of things," the guide said. "First, I wanted to find out if fresh water was available. Second, I'd look around for recent bear or wolf tracks.
"If I had found a dead animal, partially covered up and cached by a griz," he added in an understatement, "I probably would have suggested we not camp there for the night."
Only a few people actually saw a grizzly bear during the trip, and because it was on the far side of the river, high among the crags of a rocky mountainside, they needed binoculars to make a positive ID.
Other wildlife was easier to spot. The crew in Mica Mitchell's raft were coasting (read: not paddling) when they sighted a moose and its calf.
"We were within a hundred feet of a cow when she started swimming from one island to another, and the baby followed," said Mica. "That was so neat to see."
Brian Gilmer was in his canoe along a bank waiting for the rafts to catch up when suddenly an eagle with an incredible six-foot wingspan swooped low across the river. The flash of its white-feathered head and golden beak provided an instant symbol of a proud country. The bird flew to the top of an 80-foot white spruce, where moments later it was joined by its mate.
There was no argument about the fiercest wildlife encounter. Head nets, long-sleeved mesh jackets, pants, and even liberal amounts of lathered bug dope were often ineffective against the ubiquitous, bloodthirsty mosquitoes of the Alaskan bush.
On the trek's last night of camping beside the river, the Venturers reflected on what the trip had meant. Gathered around a campfire, some compared their growth in leadership to an assessment of skills filled out before the trip. Others offered a few final thoughts.
Assistant river guide Jim Latshaw marveled at the river's remoteness. "We've traveled more than 150 miles and never once passed under a bridge, seen a train, or heard an automobile. There's not many places you can do that."
Matt Stansfield made a challenge. "Get out of your comfort zone," he urged. "Don't stay in the still water or you'll never know what you can accomplish."
And John Juzbasich of Devon, Pa., encouraged his friends to "keep your eyes open and your ears willing to listen, because nature speaks in many different ways."
The next day, the river fractured into many fingers of current spread across an open plain. The crews had to be careful to choose the right path or risk passing by the take-out point at Circle.
When their destination finally came into sight, they began to hear music. On shore, a mere 37 miles below the Arctic Circle, an amplified gospel band played "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"
For this group of travelers, it was a fitting end to a remarkable journey.
Scott Daniels is the executive editor of Scouting magazine. He also wrote "Do the Right Thing" in this issue.
May-June 2002 Table of Contents
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