My son joined Troop 66, a local Boy Scout troop in San Antonio, Texas, in 2003. Boy Scout troops today require some adult involvement. Long gone are the days when a scoutmaster managed a large troop on his or her own.
Like many parents, I attended almost every campout my son attended and many of his summer camps. And, trust me, the first year was a killer. As first-year scouts, the boys were in their own patrol. Some six boys, all in sixth grade, were required to plan and cook all their own meals and clean up afterward. The boys agreed pretty quickly on what they wanted to eat. The only restriction was they could not use canned food or prepared meals. But that first year, almost always, they would fuss over who would clean the big pot with crusted food stains. Cleaning a pot like that is hard enough in a modern, home environment. But try cleaning a crusted pot the size of Rhode Island when you are 11 years old and you have nothing more than one big bowl of semi-soapy water with which to clean it.
Cleanup was a challenge for scouts and adults. We tried not to do their work for them. But we would be required to settle disputes or, once in a blue moon, break up fights. The boys generally cooked on a camp stove. Until they reached a certain scout rank, they could not light fires—the patrol adult would have to light the stove before the boys could start cooking. Of course, their cooking skills were very limited at first, so adult supervision was necessary to ensure a semi-edible meal.
In that first year, my day on campouts would start at 6:00 am, when I would make sure the boys were getting up and find my coffee. Breakfast would last well into 9:00. Then, the day’s activities would start. Lunch was easier, but the evening meal was always difficult. The boys would cook everything from simple hamburgers to more involved macaroni and cheese or a casserole. The more complicated the meal, the more difficult the cleanup. The more difficult the cleanup, the more stress for the scouts and the more supervision required of the patrol adults. We generally had two adults per patrol of six boys; on a few campouts, I was on my own with some long days.
Still, scouting is so wonderful because you see not just your boy but all the boys grow up. They grow from that very difficult first year. By the time they are close to finishing, the scouts can function very well on their own. My son and his group stayed together for seven years. Another adult and I took the boys on a six-day canoe trip down the Brazos River in northern Texas. The boys, now 15 and 16 years old, performed admirably. The other dad and I rarely had to get involved. The teamwork displayed by the boys was beautiful. They took turns with all the arduous tasks. Almost cheerfully they would clean the once-hated big pot of crusted food.
A year after the Brazos River trip, we took the boys on an even more challenging canoe trip. We canoed six days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Northern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters are isolated and pristine. There is no cell phone coverage. The closest convenience store is 20 miles away. The nearest phone is ten miles distant. We cooked sophisticated freeze-dried food. The trip was one of the Northern Tier expeditions offered as part of the Boy Scouts of America’s High Adventure programs reserved for senior scouts. These programs are very well run, with the best, most competent staff. The Northern Tier guide assigned to our “crew” knew the waters very well. He coached the boys expertly in primitive camping and canoeing.
At this point, the boys were 16 and 17 years old and able to do much more. They functioned like a well-oiled infantry squad. They complained some but mostly responded well to the challenges of mile-long portages and complicated meals. We had to pick up every trace of trash as we went and carry it back to civilization for disposal. We fought mosquitoes and enjoyed sleeping on the ground to the music of falling water.
We adults did suffer. In our “crew,” we had four dads and four scouts. The lakes have many lengthy portages. The longest was one mile, but most were one-third to one-half mile. I used to think I was in shape, but at 53 years old, I definitely felt the weight of the allegedly “extra-light” canoe. Even when I was not carrying the canoe, the packs were very clumsy. They were made for canoes, not for humans. They were square and contained heavy cooking gear or food. The canoe packs lacked the contours and weight distribution of a backpack. So, every time I carried the canoe packs on my back, I slipped at least once on the slick rocks. The water was only six inches deep, but six inches is deep enough when your 50-pound canoe pack wants you to go down, down, down. . . .
Another dad, Fred, not in good shape, slipped four to five times every day. On the last day of canoeing, two of the dads, not very sympathetically, bet on whether Fred would fall more or fewer than five times that day. I do not remember who won the bet. But Fred smiled well past the last day. No one has slipped more and continued to smile more. We all had a great time, seeing the beautiful Boundary Waters. And nothing can replace the opportunity to see our sons grow and mature.