Let's Hit the Trail

By Suzanne Wilson
Photographs by Robb Hill

An Illinois pack's monthly hiking program helps younger boys become more confident and comfortable outdoors, making for an easier transition to Boy Scouting.

On a sunny October morning, members of Pack 110, Naperville, Ill.—Tiger Cubs, Wolf and Bear Cub Scouts, Webelos Scouts, families, and leaders—head out on a wooded trail along the Illinois River.

It is a perfect day for a hike that will take them up to the tops of the sandstone bluffs and down into the canyons of Starved Rock State Park.

‘It’s fun’

Pack 110, chartered to Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873, Naperville, goes hiking almost every month.

Spectacular waterfalls and sandstone rock formations make LaSalle Canyon a favorite stop for Pack 110 during hikes at Starved Rock State Park.

Mel Sears was Cubmaster in 1991 when he had the idea for a hiking program. “The inspiration was, mainly, I like to hike,” he admits, “plus I wanted to get the boys outdoors more.”

The pack began with four to six hikes per year, but eventually they hit the trail each month. From the start, the Cub Scouts had an extra incentive, a hiking stick for any boy who reached 50 miles. The program “really zoomed” after the first Cub Scout received his hiking stick, Sears says.

The incentive program expanded, and now hikers receive awards for every 10 miles. During their years with the pack, most boys hike 100 miles or more, and many have logged more than 200.

“The Starved Rock hike is the hardest and the most miles [seven] we ever do,” says veteran hiker Andy See, 10, who has participated in the pack’s “hiking club” program since he was 6. “It’s fun,” he adds, “and when you get a lot of miles, you get cool stuff like patches and a hiking stick.”

Besides providing enjoyment and rewards, the program helps boys become confident and comfortable outdoors and encourages healthy habits and lifestyles.

And it makes the transition to Boy Scouting activities easier. For example, when Andy’s brother, Jeremy, 13, became a Boy Scout, he had already hiked a total of 211 miles as a member of Pack 110.

“I think it’s essential to prepare Cub Scouts for Boy Scouts,” says current Pack 110 Cubmaster Steven Bernardi.

“If you’re a sixth grader and you haven’t been out in the woods a lot, it’s a tougher transition,” adds assistant Cubmaster Greg Pronger, coordinator of the hiking program and a former Cubmaster. Thanks to the program, Pack 110 Cub Scouts are “comfortable going hiking, comfortable with being out in the forest in the snow or the rain,” he says.

When leaders in Indian Prairie District of the Three Fires Council had concerns about Webelos Scouts being ready for Boy Scouting activities, Pronger presented his pack’s hiking program at the April 2006 Cub Scouting roundtable.

Someone asked, “What do you do with the little guys?”

He answered, “Just be certain they’ve got a decent pair of shoes on and something to drink, and they’ll go as far as the older guys do.”

Pronger says at least three other packs in the district planned to adopt the program, and several Pack 110 families who moved away have formed hiking clubs in their new packs.

A pack of hikers

For this October hike, families meet at a designated time and place in Naperville and travel 71 miles in numerous leader and parent vehicles to Starved Rock State Park near Utica, Ill.

The Webelos Scout hike leaders review their route during a rest stop along the trail.

As they gather outside the visitor center, hiking coordinator Craig See announces that four Webelos Scouts, using a trail map and accompanied by an adult, will lead the hike. See will be the “tail” or “sweeper.”

“Stay in the middle,” he tells the group. “Nobody goes behind me.”

One of the four Webelos Scouts is Jason Piske, 10, who has led hikes before. He says that his job includes “knowing where everyone is and making sure people don’t get in front of you, because they could either get lost or hurt.”

Even some Tiger Cubs qualify as experienced hikers. Tiger Cub den leader Jason Lohman and his son Rahadi, 6, have been on two shorter hikes. Rahadi knows what to pack: “A flashlight, water, a lunch, a few more snacks and stuff.”

Wolf Cub Scout Jarod Thelen, 7, knows another essential: “First-aid kit — my dad’s got it,” he says, pointing to Wolf den leader Rob Thelen’s day pack. Jarod has hiked 39 miles since he became a Cub Scout. “I’m going to get a hiking stick this year,” he promises.

The trail takes them through the forest, along the riverside, over boardwalks, and up stairs that seem headed for the sky.

The group stops at a lookout point for a view of the actual Starved Rock, a 125-foot-high butte.

(According to American Indian legend, in the 1760’s a band of Illiniwek took refuge on the rock. Trapped by their enemies, the Potawatomi and Ottawa, they died of starvation.)

In LaSalle Canyon, kids explore the sandstone landscape, and several sit in an egg-shaped niche in the wall. A waterfall pours over the bluff.

Kevin and Claire North are on their first hike with their Bear Cub Scout son Ryan, 9. “I’m so glad we came,” says Claire. “It’s beautiful, breathtaking.”

Pam Page, mother of Webelos Scout Brandon, 9, goes on all the hikes. “I enjoy it,” she says. “And it’s healthy to get out. We even hike in winter.”

Starved Rock is a perennial favorite with these hikers. “I like this place because of the waterfalls and the views; they’re beautiful,” says Steven Laskey, 10, a second-year Webelos Scout.

Webelos Scout Zachary Storey, 10, and his brother, Jacob, 7, a Wolf Cub Scout, agree their preferred trek is the “fossil hike” at Mazonia-Braidwood Fish and Wildlife Area, because “we get to dig for stuff,” Zachary says.

Webelos Scout Dean Pappas, 11, likes the River-walk hike in downtown Naperville, “because afterward we get ice cream.”

On the long Starved Rock hike, adults watch for kids who might be tired. On the last uphill climb, the leaders ask if everyone is doing O.K.

Ryan North answers for himself and all his buddies: “Sure! We’re Cub Scouts!”

Contributing editor Suzanne Wilson writes from Joplin, Mo.

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Copyright © 2007 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.