By Robert Peterson
A century ago, the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada experienced a gold rush that lasted about four years.
Eager prospectors swarmed into the area. A few got rich, but many more suffered from the harsh conditions and returned home without having made their fortune.
Last January, for the 50th consecutive year, 300 Boy Scouts and Webelos Scouts in northern New Jersey staged their own gold rush.
No one got rich - at least not in the traditional sense - although many earned handfuls of "gold" nuggets and a few victorious teams carried home golden trophies.
And everyone left with a treasured memory or two.
Every winter Scout councils, districts, and troops hold Klondike derbies from coast to coast. But the annual derby at Garret Mountain Reservation in West Paterson, N.J., is billed as the oldest continuous event of its kind.
First held in 1949 under the auspices of the now-defunct Tamarack Council, the derby today is run by the Broken Arrow District of the Essex Council. (The Verona-based council took over that part of the Tamarack Council's territory in 1986; the rest went to the Fair Lawn-based Bergen Council.)
A Klondike derby is a test of Scout skills and endurance. In the best of all possible worlds, patrols pull special sleds (called "sledges") over a rugged course covered by a blanket of snow on a cold winter's day.
But as Broken Arrow District chairman Joe Fucito pointed out: "Snow's a little iffy here. You've got to go farther north to be pretty sure it will be present on derby day."
In northern New Jersey, the mean annual snowfall is only 26 inches. More often than not, the Klondike derby is contested on a bare forest floor.
And that was the case for the golden anniversary event last January. Only skimpy patches of snow were visible. Although a pale winter sun and light wind put the windchill at about the freezing mark, it was clear to all that this wasn't the Klondike.
It was fun, however. The derby began with the 38 patrol-size teams racing their sledges up a 60-yard hill in heats of seven or eight. The first-place team in each heat earned 15 points; others received fewer points.
After their race, each team was given a map of the area. Numbers indicated the locations of seven "settlements" where Scout skills would be tested.
To spread out the competitors, teams were sent to different towns for their first test. After that they could go to any other town for more tests - although they didn't know what the tests would be until they arrived.
The Scouts did have a good idea of which skills they would need. A month earlier they had received a list of equipment to carry on their sledges, including a compass, dry wood supply, flint and steel, first-aid kit, poles, ropes, pocketknife, and sheathed ax.
Adult leaders were discouraged from accompanying their patrols around the course on the theory that Scouters should "train 'em, trust 'em, let 'em lead." (But the few Webelos dens in the derby had one or two adult leaders with them.)
The tests were based on Scoutcraft skills through First Class rank and the First Aid merit badge. (Tests for Webelos Scouts were based on activity badge requirements.) Map-reading skill was tested right away, as teams had to find their first town by using the reservation map. If they arrived at the wrong station, their score suffered.
At Skagway the challenge was fire-building and cooking. The "mayor" gave the patrol leader a raw egg, a handful of chopped raw potatoes, and a cooking pot with a bail. Patrols were told to make a fireplace with rocks, erect a tripod with their poles and ropes and hang the pot from it, put the egg and potatoes in the pot, and fill it with water they carried.
Using their own tinder, wood, and flint and steel, the patrol made a cooking fire, boiled the water until the egg was hard-boiled and the potatoes were soft, then doused the fire and restored the site. The mayor and other judges awarded points for proficiency and teamwork. A perfect score was 20.
At Chilkoot Pass, the test was to draw a simple map showing a road winding according o prescribed distances and degree readings without using a compass or ruler, then add landmarks at designated locations. The patrol's skill with a compass was checked at Sheep Camp town, where they were asked to locate specific points on two compass courses and mark the traditional 16 points on a blank compass face.
At Porcupine Hill the mayor asked the teams to have all members tie a square knot correctly, then pick three of their number to tie the other knots shown in The Boy Scout Handbook. They also had to join short ropes together with square knots and use this long line to pull their sledge up a 15-foot rock cliff.
At Lindeman City the test was to use lashings to make an A-frame ladder, lean it against a tree, and have a patrol member climb it and write the patrol's name on a sheet of paper eight feet up. At Taglish Post, sledges were weighed and equipment checked. (Only two sledges were found to be under the 50-pound minimum.) The Taglish Post mayor asked patrols to find landmarks on a topographic map of Garret Mountain and nearby communities.
First-aid problems were posed at Bennett. Patrols there had to demonstrate cardiopulmonary resuscitation, show how to make an ice rescue and treat for hypothermia, and demonstrate how to deal with a badly lacerated knee, a fractured arm, and shock.
Bringing a touch of color to the Klondike derby was Broken Arrow District's Boy Scout activities chairman Bob Cunniff. He was dressed as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, courtesy of his wife, who created an authentic-looking red jacket for him.
Much more authentic was a letter to participants from the office of Yukon's Government Leader Piers McDonald.
"The Scouts participating in your event share the same enthusiasm and sense of adventure as the many brave individuals who tackled the Chilkoot Trail 100 years ago," the letter said.
It was addressed to the derby's veteran co-chairmen, "Klondike Al" Welenofsky and "Yukon Mike" Groome. Welenofsky is Scoutmaster and Groome is committee chairman of the Franklin Reformed Church's Troop 147 in Nutley, when they are not preparing for a Klondike derby.
Klondike Al Welenofsky has taken part in 47 of the 50 Garret Mountain Klondike derbies. He joined Troop 147 in October 1949, too late for the first derby. He missed another during his Navy service and a third when he and a friend spent a year and four days canoeing and portaging from coast to coast. (He is an avid adventurer. He has climbed the highest peaks in 47 states and hiked the real Chilkoot Trail.)
The Garret Mountain Klondike Derby has changed over the years, Welenofsky said. In the 1950 derby there were only 15 sledges and all the teams had Scouts aged 11 to 17. Today age limits are imposed, and most Scouts 15 and older compete in an Open category rather than with the younger Scouts.
"I would say that some of the events may have been more hazardous years ago," Welenofsky opined. "For example, we had an event where you crossed a creek by either a rope or log, and you had to get your sled across, too. There was another event where you climbed a cliff maybe 10 feet high and hauled your sled up. So maybe some of the events have gotten a little tamer to make it more safe."
Participation reached its high point during the 1960s when 72 sledges were entered one year. "My troop came in first in that one," Welenofsky remembered. Most of the sledges in the 1998 derby came from Essex Council troops, but there were also entries from four other councils in northern New Jersey.
The event was fun but exhausting. "I'm not doing this ever again," said a panting Scout at the finish. Wanna bet?
Scouting magazine contributing editor Robert Peterson writes from Ramsey, N.J.
Derby sledges are patterned after Eskimo dog team sleds. Most are about six feet long, 18 inches wide, and three feet high at the driver's end. They are pulled by six Scouts holding a rope bridle.
Many sledges are used year after year. Terry Davis, a committee member of Troop 23 at Bloomfield's Bethany United Presbyterian Church, said the troop has three working sledges, one of which was loaned to a new troop.
"The one our troop is using today goes back at least 20 years," he said. "It's all steel - probably the only all-steel sledge here. The steel runners are good on macadam and hard ground such as we have today, but in deep snow or mud you're in trouble because it sinks right down."
Most sledges are made of wood, often with downhill ski runners. For a free copy of plans for a typical Klondike sledge, send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to Klondike Sledge, Scouting magazine, 1325 W. Walnut Hill Ln., P.O. Box 152079, Irving, TX 75015-2079.
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