By Lori Murray
The dining hall at D-Bar-A Scout Ranch in Metamora, Mich., shakes with enthusiasm as the 162 prospective Eagle Scouts explode in a competition of chants and yells.
"We've got spirit. Yes we do! We've got spirit. How 'bout you?"
A sea of yellow baseball-capped youngsters start in unison: "Yel-low! Yel-low! Yel-low!" A return of spirit from the blue-hat troop follows: "Go Blue! Go Blue! Go Blue!"
The noise is music to the ears of Trail to Eagle camp program director Ed Basar and camp coordinator Ron Schwartz, who run the Detroit Area Council's camp for prospective Eagle Scouts. As the noisefest escalates, the smiles on their faces widen. This is just the kind of enthusiasm they work hard to instill in camp participants.
"They come to camp not knowing anybody," says Schwartz. "At the end of the week, they are willing to give all for their troop color."
But the purpose of creating team spirit goes way beyond the color of members' caps. "We are trying to give these young men something they can't get any other time or any other place," Schwartz explains.
That something includes an "enthusiasm for Scouting" that results in a determination to complete the requirements for Eagle Scout.
"We want the boys who couldn't finish all their requirements this week to go home and say, 'I want to come back next year and finish,'" adds Basar. A jump start Created to give older boys a jump-start toward finishing the requirements for their Eagle Award, the weeklong experience provides Scouts with unlimited opportunities for accomplishment.
Basar became head of the Trail to Eagle program in its second year and was joined by his boyhood friend Ron Schwartz. They assembled a team of 55 adult volunteers who deliver instruction for completing all but one of the 21 merit badges required for Eagle, as well as more than 38 additional badges (many of which include a healthy dose of outdoor adventure).
Basar served as camp director for 17 years at the picturesque, 1,800-acre D-Bar-A Scout ranch, which is located an hour north of Detroit. He is familiar with the inner workings of the ranch, including its animal menagerie - horses, Longhorn cattle, burros, and, at one time, buffalo. With three lakes, a network of hiking trails, and outstanding physical facilities, the ranch-turned-camp is a perfect backdrop for the week's activities.
To attend the camp, boys must be at least 13 years old and First Class or above. "They are the cream of the crop, easy to work with, highly motivated, and good team players," says Basar, who knows a lot about motivating youth - for 37 years he has taught physical education in one of Detroit's toughest inner-city neighborhoods.
According to Basar, the best way to bring the boys together is to have identifications. At Trail to Eagle camp, this means colors, and each camper is randomly assigned to a color-coded troop for the week.
Scouts attend six hours of classes daily, with evenings free for outdoor adventures or other activities. They wear a field uniform or activity uniform at all times. Everyone sleeps in cabins to encourage camaraderie and comfort (plus no time is spent on setting up and taking down equipment).
Basar credits the program's success to the dedication and quality of the staff, whose members range in age from 18 to 65. "This program is only as good as these 55 volunteers," he says. "For 75 percent of them, their lifework or hobby is the merit badge they are teaching."
Jason Booza, 20, of Troop 1452 in Sterling Heights, Mich., attended one of the first Trail to Eagle camps and can attest to the impact that staff can have on a Scout.
"Because of this camp, I got my Eagle," he says, "and it had a lot to do with the staff." Booza was so impressed by the members of the staff that he become one himself. After serving as a junior assistant Scoutmaster, he's now an assistant Scoutmaster and coordinator for the junior assistant Scoutmasters.
Another example of staff dedication is Frank Mallon, a veteran of four summers.
As an instructor for the Cinematography merit badge, he helps Scouts create skits, plan scripts and storyboards, act, and do camera work and editing. As Scoutmaster for the white-hat troop, he carries on traditions like the Friday night pizza party and the "spirit stick." (Raise the stick, yelling begins, and troop spirit soars.)
Schwartz and Basar don't disagree with those who say Trail to Eagle is more like a school than a camp. School-like standards are maintained in areas like completion of requirements and quality of instruction.
"You don't just come and get handed a badge," says Schwartz. Many badges require hours of preparation prior to camp, and attendees must sign up in advance for classes, at which they learn from adult role models who are experts in their fields.
But Trail to Eagle is also unlike any schools most of the Scouts have attended. "Here you get to see your friends all the time, and you get to touch the outdoors," says Daniel McKernan, 13, of Troop 1682 in Southfield, Mich. Greg Deratany, 15, from Troop 1407 in St. Claire Shores, Mich., appreciates instructor quality and dedication. "They explain things clearly and they really understand it," he says. "It has either happened to them or they have been teaching it for many years. And they like to do it."
In the dining hall, merit badge classes are in session - Personal Management, Citizenship in the World, Citizenship in the Community, Public Speaking, Collections, Sports, and Safety.
Outside, visiting Scouters from Taiwan and Canada answer questions about their countries. Martin Anderson, 15, of Troop 5 in Detroit, observes that "Scouting is good here in the U.S., but I would like to see how it's done in other parts of the world."
Nearby, Frank Cleary consults with Scouts working on the Collections merit badge. He reviews about 50 collections, ranging from Michael Jordan basketball cards to assorted devices for performing magic tricks. "These youngsters certainly have creative imaginations when it comes to choosing something to collect," Cleary observes. "But the general subject of collecting is something they're really interested in, and they love talking about it."
Not far away a grouping of bright red barns dots the ranch landscape. Here boys are learning about farm mechanics.
After four days of instruction, 17-year-old Tim Boulanger of Troop 1705 in Troy, Mich., remains highly impressed. "This is all hands-on stuff," he says. "We learned general maintenance, like changing the oil and greasing the machines, and how the engines work."
In an Indian village, boys learn outdoor cooking and wilderness survival skills. In the climbing area, they practice rappelling down a tower. The whole camp buzzes with the transfer of knowledge.
Since its inception four years ago, the camp program has evolved into a highly motivational week of events. Scouts come from five councils in three states. In 1998, 162 Eagle candidates earned 995 merit badges, slightly more than six badges per Scout, up from 1997's 5.3 badges per Scout.
Schwartz credits the growth to better preparation by Scouts for any badge requirements they have to do prior to coming to camp and a more determined effort once in camp. All this, he adds, is "a credit to the individual camp troop leadership.
"We've become more sophisticated, more professional - and tougher," says Schwartz. "We now know what we want to do and what to expect when we do it."
Freelance writer Lori Murray lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Junior Leader Training: Woods and Water Attracts Older, More Dedicated Scouts
Last summer the Detroit Area Council inaugurated another innovative program for older Scouts, the "Woods and Water" Junior Leader Training Conference (JLTC).
Much as the Trail to Eagle camp aims to appeal to Scouts who might otherwise lose momentum in their advancement toward Eagle Scout, the Woods and Water JLTC is designed to attract older Scouts to the council's traditional weeklong session in leadership skills and techniques.
Although it's usually held in a camp setting, the standard JLTC course is heavy in workshop and lecture sessions on topics like "Knowing and Using the Resources of the Group" and "Effective Teaching." While leaving out none of the course material, the Woods and Water version uses the middle days of the one-week conference for a 35-mile backpacking and canoeing trek along northern Michigan's Rifle River.
Ready for the trail
Conference Scoutmaster Terry Scott and six assistant Scoutmasters including Chuck Prohaska held two preconference training sessions to make sure participants were ready for the rigors of trekking.
The Scouts had to be veteran hikers and campers, Prohaska explained, because "this is not an activity where we will be teaching basic Scouting skills. It is understood that participants know fundamental skills, like how to start a fire and cook."
The first Woods and Water JLTC group of 24 Scouts, ages 14 to 17, arrived at the Detroit Area Council's Cole Canoe Base on Saturday, June 20. Their first two days involved orientation, dividing into patrols, setting up campsites, and several standard JLTC training sessions. On Monday morning they were shuttled to the Rifle River Recreation Area trailhead, where their backwoods trek began.
Time on the trail blended JLTC training sessions and presentations with the rigors of wilderness hiking, canoeing, and camping. For example, after Monday dinner at the first trail campsite, the Scouts had a class on map and compass followed by a session on "evaluating." Then, before breaking camp the next morning, they sat down for a session on presenting Scoutcraft skills.
Early Tuesday afternoon the canoe portion began, with a three-hour river trip to the next campsite. Wednesday had a morning training session and an afternoon of paddling to the final campsite. Thursday they were back on the river by noon, returning to Cole Canoe Base by midafternoon, where the remainder of the training sessions took place.
Tradition and innovation
Gus Chutorash, council camping director, says this about the program: "You have tradition and innovation in the same area."
"You don't know each other before you go there; you have to figure out what people are good at and use individuals as resources," said Sean Wilkins, 15, of Troop 1627 in Royal Oak, Mich., who was a member of the inaugural Woods and Water trek. "Once that is figured out, it runs pretty smoothly."
"Organizing your time is the key," added Joe Langdorf, 15, of Troop 230 in Royal Oak, Mich. "Setting up a new camp every night leaves you no spare time, so every minute counts."
After completing the conference, JLTC Scouts return to their home troops and sign a commitment as to how they will use these newly refined leadership skills. All participants gather in the fall for evaluation and future planning.
"The high adventure aspect adds a lot to group interaction and the leadership-experience part of the conference," said Chuck Prohaska. "You can be creative and still deliver the entire JLTC program."
After Dinner: Fun With Purpose
After a day of classes, the campers on Trail to Eagle are ready for outside fun. To that end, program director Ed Basar has combined his teaching expertise with the camp's outstanding facilities to create a network of competitive activities.
On the lake, sharing the water with motorboats, sailboats, kayaks, and windsurfers, 12-man war canoes engage in time trials in preparation for Friday night's final competition.
Near the barn area, hot air balloonists put on a demonstration for the Scouts, then take off, drifting away over the Michigan landscape.
At the dining hall, a robotics demonstration entertains bystanders. In the distance, action is heard at the volleyball court, where teams from the yellow troop and the purple troop battle in a semifinal match of the weeklong tournament.
The following night brings the famed "water ball" competition to camp. Teams of 10 persons each, using fire hoses connected to a fire pumper truck, squirt lake water into the air to forcefully pass a large metal ball back and forth along a metal wire anchored to two tractors.
Competition remains furious - until the staff team loses "power" when jokesters turn off their water. Everyone gets soaked.
Friday night features the traditional closing campfire on the lake. Awards, songs, and skits take place, as well as a surprise visit from "Indians" who arrive in canoes or on horseback from their camp on the opposite side of the lake.
About 300 parents and other family members attend Saturday morning's graduation ceremony.
It's Giddyap! On the Yucca Trail
Shortly after dinner each evening, some 10 to 15 Scouts and four or five staff wranglers set out on horseback along the camp's Yucca Trail. They travel into the woods for about an hour and a half, then set up camp for the night, returning before breakfast the next morning.
Kyle Grim, 14, of Troop 1699 in Beverly Hills, Mich., enjoyed his trek on Monday so much that he signed up to repeat the trip on Wednesday.
"It's one of the best experiences I have had here," he says, as he recounts the details of the 2:30 a.m. thunderstorm that sent the Monday crew running from their tents for the shelter of the more solidly constructed latrine facility. "We had to take shifts during the night to take care of the horses," he adds.
The horseback trek does not require participants to have had any previous riding experience.
"You do have to saddle up and bridle the horse yourself on the second day," Kyle points out, "but the wranglers will help you if you're having trouble."
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