September 8, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 3 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

As usual with all 11-yr-old boys, the next day I bounce back to a semi-normal state of mind. At this age, you learn to get over those little things like total humiliation.

It also helps that the day’s plan was especially busy for me. As you may (or may not) know, one aspect of the BSA is merit badges. Those are little round fabric medallions which are collected when you accomplish certain tasks. There are all sorts of categories, mainly having to do with outdoor proficiency. One of these badges is hiking, or something like that.

To earn the badge, the scout hikes 5 miles on his own, using only a compass, to arrive at a predetermined location. Once there, the scout is required to set up camp using only the possessions he’s carried in his backpack. After a night, he’s to pack everything up and hike another 5 miles to yet another location. Accomplish all this, and you get a merit badge. Hooray.

So, 2 other scouts and I decide to give this a try and the morning is spent packing everything we think we need. This is much harder than it sounds; it’s 1972. Forget the modern tents of today. No polyethylene collapsible 3-man 1/2-pound tent for us. We have the thick canvas, metal poled, 2-man-only tent which weighs about 30 pounds. Since there’s 3 of us, we need to take 2; this is on top of all the other junk that little boys think they need when camping, like a complete set of pots and pans, manuals, enough food for a week, etc. After packing, one of the other boys couldn’t even lift his backpack. Not a great start.

That is until one of the other scouts offers a great solution. Instead of those bulky canvas tents, he suggests the orange “plastic tube tent.” The name sort of gives away the design, don’t you think? The idea is to thread a thick rope through this 5-ft diameter plastic tube and then string the rope between 2 trees. Instant bivouac. We shed the canvas tents and off we go.

[The internet is a wonderful, mysterious place. Look, I found a pictures!]

Taken to the mainland (once again using those wonderful canoes), we hustle into a car and are driven away. We stop some 5 miles away and the driver leads us into the woods. He gives us a rough compass direction and then leaves. Yes, he leaves 3 adolescent kids in the middle of the woods at 1pm in the afternoon. Bristling hot. Incredible humidity. No map. No supervision. No cell phones.

Sometimes I yearn for those carefree days when kids were disposable.

So, we take out our compasses, argue for a couple of minutes, wind our way to the road and simply follow it back the way we came…reality always overcomes the Boy Scout ideal.

It only takes us 3 hours to return to shore (remembering to pull our compasses out and emerge from the trees) and then by canoe to the campground. We’re greeted by a chorus of cheers, obviously somewhat sarcastic and somewhat surprised that we don’t require an emergency search party. The plastic tube tent (neato!) is quickly erected, the fire is rapidly started (matches!) and we cook up some hamburger. Eat a partly baked potato. And finish the dinner with lots of chocolate. Bedtime under the stars.

I wake up, oh around 4am. But it’s not the torrential downpour slamming the plastic tube tent (a miracle!) that rouses me. It’s the gurgling sound when I breathe, because half my face is immersed in water. In our haphazard camp, we position our plastic tube tent (hooray!) in a perfect angle downhill. The rushing rainwater is channeled by the plastic into a wonderful, 2-inch deep river. Our sleeping bags are drenched. Our clothes – no longer in the backpack but piled around us – are drenched. We are half-drowned.

Lightning. High wind. Our plastic tube tent (whoopee!) is distorted from the normal A-shape into something more amoeba-ish. In the dark, we hastily pile our clothes at the uphill opening of the plastic tube tent (phfth!) to guide the water around us. That works for a few minutes until the clothes become so waterlogged that the rain simply pours through them. In an attempt to get out of the waves, all 3 of us move to the higher end of our plastic tube tent (blah!). At least this keeps our heads above water.

Have you ever tried to sleep and swim at the same time? It’s harder than you think.

Our morning is not so great, as the fire is out and we’re exhausted. In the tried and true Boy Scout tradition, the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon drift over from the large campfire maintained for the rest of the troop – forbidden territory. One of us shrugs, shifts through his stuff and pulls out an unwashed plate. Off he goes in the obvious direction. Whoops, there goes his merit badge. The other one looks at me and joins him.

I take a moment. I’m surrounded by mud. Everything I need is soaked and caked in dirt. My fingers are white and wrinkly. Lastly, I have to pack everything and march another 5 miles? Alone?

And I really, really need to poop.

September 7, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 2 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

With the whitewater near-death experience behind us, the calm cove we enter is the beginning of a larger lake, which has numerous small islands scattered throughout. My troop stops on the shore and has a quick cold lunch (except for the adults, who have brought hot soup in a large thermos) (okay, I’m making up the hot soup part, but it could’ve happened). After an hour of talking up the great adventure, and watching the 4 drenched scouts dry out in the overhead sun, we load ourselves into the canoes to head to the largest island. This is our camping ground for the first night.

Now, as we’re stepping into our canoes, another older scout approaches me and says, “Can you hold my glasses for me? I’m afraid they’ll fall out of my pocket with all the loading and unloading of the boats.”

I say yes.

Looking back, I wonder why. Why couldn’t he hold his own glasses? Why after a full morning of canoeing was he suddenly afraid that this short trip across the lake would be the downfall of his personal glasses protection plan? Why did he choose me, a boy 6 years younger than he?

All good questions without any real answers. Of course, it’s obvious where this is heading. Three hours later when the canoes are unloaded and the camp is in the midst of being set up and the sun is setting behind the trees to the west and the campfires are started because everyone is starving, he comes to me. By this time, I have already searched my pockets. I search them again. I have walked up and down the narrow dirt path from the shore to our camp. I’ve searched all the canoes. The light is fading, so I have a flashlight in my hand as I scour the bushes and mud and piles of leaves. Yup. I’ve lost his glasses.

He’s furious. I mean red faced, screaming, fists all balled up and waving in the air, yelling obscenities at me furious. The entire camp gathers around – how could they not?

I’m doing my best to apologize over and over, trying to explain how I’ve looked for his glasses for the past hour and can’t find them. Other scouts grab flashlights and walk the path and check the shore. His glasses have entered one of the notorious travelers’ black holes where things go to be mysterious never seen again – at 11, I don’t know about such things. I actually think there’s a chance that his glasses will suddenly appear. Oh, poor little na├»ve me.

Through all this, he continues to snipe at me with sharp words and sarcasm. There are moments of pure rage with a string of curses. There are other moments of muttering and sideways glances and threats. All the while I’m praying to the travel gods to help me out here. Just this once.

After 30 minutes of his wrath, his father steps forward. It’s the same father of the shoeless canoe mate; he has 3 sons in this troop and they all seem to carry a similar gene that curses their possessions. The father walks up to me and I think, “Now comes the really bad part.” But the man looks at me in silence and then turns to his son.

“Shut up!” he says loudly. His son’s mouth, half open with more threats against me, stays that way, but with nothing coming out now. “Whose fault do you think this is? John’s?” He motions to me, but is still facing his son. “He’s a little kid. Who in their right mind would give something so vital to a little kid for safe keeping?” He pauses. Everyone is quiet in the darkness. “No really? I’m asking you a question. Who?”

“I don’t know,” his son answers.

“Perfect answer,” comes the father’s reply. “Your glasses are lost and it’s your fault. No one else. Just you.” Seems the travel gods don’t completely abandoned me.

No one has anything to add to this. The crowd disperses back to camp, with fires to attend and meals to cook. I don’t join them. Through all of this turmoil, I stay in control. In front of all these people, I fight to maintain my composure. As everyone leaves, I head to the shore, sit on a log, face the lake, and then let loose. I bawl as only an 11 year old can.

Fifteen minutes later, the father finds me and sits down. He has a couple of hot dogs and chips on a plate, which he hands to me. “Eat up,” he says. “The world hasn't ended just yet.”

September 6, 2010

The Canoe Trip, Part 1 – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

Of all my camping trips, the 3-day canoe sojourn is the most memorable. Not for the scenic beauty of the woods – mostly I remember brownish, shallow water and lots of nondescript trees – but for the adventure that follows my troop around like a swarm of fleas.

Way back in the 70s, canoes were huge, hulking, steel containers– they’re constructed from steel and are about 10 ft long and weigh a ton. Okay, maybe not really 2,000 lbs, but to the scrawny arms of 11-year-olds, they might as well have been. I found a picture on the net that gives you a good idea what I’m talking about.

Now anyone planning a trip with 20 wild kids and 3 adult supervisors might plan ahead to make things easier. You know, like find a rental place so that the canoes wouldn’t be an issue. Maybe it’s just me, but I sort of find tying the canoes to the roofs of station wagons, unloading them at the campground, carrying/dragging them 200 yards through the woods to the nearest stream, and then mucking around in the mud trying to get aboard not exactly in the spirit of a fun. But then, I’m not troop commander.

So, groggy from lack of sleep and a 4-hr car ride to the wilderness, we are ordered to transport the canoes, our backpacks, extra food supplies (for the adults, not for us), and other misc crap through these wooded hills. The adults? Well, they have to drive the cars a few miles downstream, so that in 3-days time we have a way to get the hell outta here. The troop leader and his lackeys return coincidentally just when everything has finally been lugged to our destination.

Our destination? A narrow, slow moving stream. Sounds wonderful, you think? Yeah. Sure.

We load up the canoes and off we go, sometimes 4 boys to a single carrier. The stream is lazy enough and it’s sort fun at first, if you don’t mind the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. After an hour, the banter between boats has stopped. After another hour, the boredom is intolerable. I’m not paddling; I’m laying atop the mound of backpacks and other junk in the center of our canoe, just watching the brown water. Occasionally the monotony is broken by one of the canoes getting too close to shore and tangling in overhanging branches. Yet, that distraction is only momentary.

Noon hits and still nothing. I can’t sleep because it’s so damn hot; plus, I don’t trust my canoe mates enough to close my eyes – the level of practical jokes is rampant in this troop. It pays to always be on guard. The boy at the rear of the canoe takes his shoes off, complaining that his feet are too hot. He comes up with this brilliant idea to dip them in the water, and then slip them back on. Except – and you see this coming a million miles away, don’t you? – he doesn’t quite make it to that end step. The first shoe is no problem. The second slips from his hand. Plop. Sink. Gone. The 3 of us sit, stunned. “Wait. Wait.” he yells. But you can’t really stop a canoe. The stream is deep enough and muddy enough that even after a second none of us are sure where his show fell in and where it could have settled. The boy calls out to his father, who happens to be one of the additional supervisors.

“Well I guess that’s tough shit,” he father says. “It was a dumb ass thing to do, wasn’t it?” Ah, another lesson, courtesy of the BSA. Oddly, I don’t remember how that boy coped the rest of the trip. I imagine he remained shoeless, cause it’s not like anyone carries an extra pair they’d have to backpack around.

The shoe disaster causes a brief respite from the boredom. The line of canoes are all atwitter as the story winds its way up and down the line of our armada. Everybody is laughing ... until we hear the roar.

The stream has widened a bit since dawn and now moving slightly faster. “Whitewater ahead,” the troop commander yells. And by whitewater, he means a series of rapid, frothing, crashing currents which include large jagged rocks popping up all over, fallen trees partially blocking the stream, and a 4-foot waterfall. I’m not making this up. It’s real.

“Just keep paddling,” the commander calls out. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the total extent of our paddling lessons for this trip. So the boy in front and the shoeless boy in the rear do just that. I lay there. And off we go.

I have only two distinct memories about the violent turmoil we find ourselves.

First, the front end of our canoe catches on a protruding rock, the back end swings around, and we continue down the watery rollercoaster backwards. Yes, including over the waterfall. I admit, we’re laughing the entire way. No helmets. A single life jacket buried beneath the cushy mound beneath me. But when you have no idea what you’re doing, it’s easy to just assume everything will be okay. After what seems like 30 minutes, but in actuality is probably 30 seconds, we cruise into a small cove where the water is almost perfectly quiet. Still facing backwards, I see one of the canoes get stuck on that very familiar rock, but instead of simply swinging around, it somehow wedges across the gap, like a steel canoe dam. The canoe behind it can’t stop, of course. Crash. The sideways canoe is broadsided and flipped. Four scouts pour into the water. The ramming canoe crunches over the obstacle and continues on its way, the riders laughing and screaming.

It takes 15 minutes to finally fish out the scouts and all their gear. The commander's furious and screaming at them. Why? Is it because they weren't wearing their life jackets? Nope. Is it because he was worried sick that they might drown? C'mon, you should know this blog better by now!

His reason for being so angry: half the steaks for tonight’s dinner are ruined.

September 5, 2010

You Do What in the Woods? – Boy Scouts of America – 1972

What I remember best of the BSA were the once-a-month weekend-long camping trips we make. Meeting up at some ungodly hour like 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and then cramming 20 or so kids into 4 station wagons (20 years before the birth of the SUVs), we drive a few hours to some out of the way camping ground for 2 days of outdoor fun. And by fun, I mean torture.

Let’s start out by saying that I’m not suited for the outdoor life. It’s not that I’m prissy. Well, for an 11 year old, I’m a bit sensitive. One of the impacts of these weekend trips is that I refuse to … um … how can I put this? I guess the best way is to be blunt: Unlike a bear or the Pope, I can’t shit in the woods. Maybe can’t isn’t the right term. I just don’t. Oh, I can piss without hesitation – thank the camping gods for the ability to stand and aim. It’s the other (separate yet equal) action of squatting behind some trees, trying to hold my pants out of harm’s way, and nervously looking over my shoulder for either an actually bear who might be doing likewise or, worse, my fellow boy scouts who are prone to practical jokes which is terrifying. Even in those rare occasions when we have a latrine – meaning a plank of wood over a feces-filled hole – I can’t stand the smell. And the spiders/rats/wasps crawling all over the seat aren’t too inviting either.

What this means is that I hold it in for the entire 40+ hours of hiking, camping, eating, scratching, etc. Oh, the first day is okay. And the long Sunday morning urination in the dawn mist does provide a certain relief. It’s usually after the big Sunday breakfast/brunch that my intestines begin to knot – plus the fact that our food isn’t quite e. coli free, because we’re required to cook for ourselves. Ah, many a seared finger and burnt shirt sleeve accompany our meal. Once, after a long day that has me starving, when I go to transfer my charred hamburger from frying pan to plate, it slips and falls. Not the pan. Only the hamburger. Mud. Sticks. Leaves. There’s no extra food. We eat what we bring in the true traditional Boy Scout “I got mine and you got yours” motto. So, I pick it up. Pluck off the debris. Plop it on my bread and eat away. Mmmmm. Crunchy.

This is one example of some of the truly disgusting food I scarfed down out of starvation during these weekends. Of course, this only “helps” my No Dumping Allowed policy. I distinctly remember times when I thought I might accidentally burst straight into my pants – yet for some reason, this terror wasn’t enough for me to head to the woods. So for the 2 years of camping, let’s say maybe 20 weekends, I forcefully stop myself from partaking in the normal digestive process.

Wow, seeing all this written down makes me feel more like I survived “Lord of the Flies” than a simple camping trip. And I have to scratch my head and wonder why. Why did I eat that filthy hamburger? Why didn’t I ask for help? Why didn’t anyone offer? And why couldn’t I simply suck it up and unload in the pine needles? I only remember that every Sunday evening as I return home, I sprint into the house and up the stairs to the bathroom, desperately hoping that I can make it the final few steps.

No one can really decipher the logic of an 11-year-old boy. Not even in perfect hindsight.