Dadding with Distinction – A Week at Scout Camp
There’s a quote above the basement fireplace hearth in the administration building at Many Point Scout Camp that’s striking for its relative inaccessibility (in the basement, after all), and for how aptly it sums up the Boy Scouting experience for me.
Aaaaaaand, the frustrating thing, of course, is that I never took a picture of it or wrote it down. So call this an out-of-pocket paraphrasing. It went something like:
“When you allow a boy to be lost, you kill the man he would become.”
Scouting was such a formative experience for me. From my wayward time as Cub Scout in my aimless elementary years, through the parade of ever-intensifying lessons and experiences from grades 5 through 12 in Boy Scouting that mirrored my own maturity from agonizingly awkward pre-teen to accomplished high school graduate and college-bound young man.
Aspects of my own growth I partly take for granted today — being able to speak in front of most any crowd, knowing how to organize an agenda for a meeting or gathering, being able to facilitate support and delegate tasks to foster community and, importantly, get the darn thing done, plus the patient nurturing of knowledge necessary to the task and being unembarrassed about quizzing and needling a subject matter expert until you acquire the expertise yourself and put it to use — all were seeds most fruitfully sown in my years in scouting, where you started as one of the unwashed rugrats and, through a careful framework of requirements and discovering the fire in your own belly to make those checklists in the handbook your personal goals, you grew into someone responsible, a leader.
There are certainly other activities in which those lessons can be imparted — athletics, music, academics, family chores and community responsibilities — but none blended these opportunities for personal — and communal — growth over a sustained period in my childhood the way Boy Scouts did for me.
Plus, it’s damn fun to head outside, pitch a tent, build a campfire, clown and talk and play and struggle with your friends. Under the tutoring eye of adults who care for you and challenge you and make sure the whole enterprise doesn’t end up in some half-baked episode of The Lord of the Flies.
Yeah, I have a lot to thank those adults for.
My own parents, of course, who carted me to meetings and campouts and stepped up to lead popcorn fundraisers and other seeming bits of inanity. They got me into another pack, pretty quickly, when my first Cub Scout den folded and I could have slid into idleness.
Bernie Myers, my first scoutmaster, ancient-seeming and possessing wizard-like skills. When he met me and shook my 12-year-old hand, he challenged me: “Are you going to be an Eagle Scout?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“No,” he said, parsing words like a khaki-clad Yoda. “Will you be an Eagle Scout?”
I swallowed. “Yes,” I finally offered. And I never forgot that. Not when I was 17 and had about 6 months to go and a list of seemingly insurmountable merit badges and tasks between me and scouting’s highest rank. I remembered my promise to Bernie. Better yet: I wanted it. And my dad and my scoutmaster, Randy Clements, and my previous scoutmaster, Ed Wallace, all weighed in with encouragement.
It’s that support network but the ultimate emphasis on personal responsibility and effort that makes Scouting so irresistible, as a Dad now with three sons. And I’ve never considered it to be a literal “duty” to “give back” to Scouting. My experience has been so good, I want the same opportunities for my sons, and it’s so rewarding and fun watching them go through it, that I want to be part of that fun, too.
So, I’ve gone on a second, adult growth spurt in scouting from the parent Eagle Scout lurking at my oldest son’s first Cub Scout meetings, to raising my hand for assistant cubmaster, to now taking the reins, along with — acknowledge it in CAPITAL LETTERS — the dozen and more parents who make the whole enterprise go, to now being Dad Eagle Scout again as my oldest son takes his first step as a Boy Scout.
It’s daunting, I admit, when I consider the family calendar: Boy Scout meetings Monday nights, Cub Scouts every other Tuesday, soccer Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday, and campouts on monthly weekends, plus band and karate and work travel and calls with Asia colleagues during our nights. But I almost feel like I’m reliving the hectic — about to get more hectic — days of my own childhood again, when I needed to plot out on college-ruled notebook filler paper my schedule from morning alarm to school to band practice to scouts to cross country meets to football games and piano lessons and recitals and then some.
This is the right place to be right now in my life and in the life of my family. Bring on the bustle!
And then, this summer, I contemplated returning to Boy Scout camp for a week. As a 42-year-old. Hoo boy.
Off to Camp Again
Our local Troop is awesome in the scope of its monthly activities, and the way they amp up for summer camp is right in line with that whirlwind. On tap this summer were not one, not two, but three opportunities for extended camping treks, from our local Lewis & Clark in South Dakota, to a Philmont trek to Scout camping mecca, and a late July journey to Many Point Scout Camp in Ponsford, Minn.
I was fortunate enough to have a slate of vacation days to offer up. And since scouting’s rules require enough adult presence to properly and safely supervise the kids — not to mention cart a couple dozen of them to the northwest woods — I eagerly jumped in.
I am still in awe of the piles of gear necessary to get a dad and son through a week of scout camp. Something I barely considered when it was just me, my backpack and my thick sleeping bag as a Boy Scout. But we laid out all our summer clothes and warm layers for the (hoped-for) cool but rainless nights, flashlights and bug spray and sunscreen and mess kits and (ahem) phones and a work computer in my day pack to stay above the inevitable RFPs and tide of other boring adult stuff that continues no matter where I connect from.
We loaded up before first light that Sunday and ran through the drive-thru at McDonald’s to fuel up before the five-hour-or-so trek north. We were bright-eyed and adrenalized and ready for the week.
Although I’ve gotten used to — a bit tired of? — my 10- and 12-day extended jaunts for work to China, or Europe, or Hong Kong, this trip would mark my son Jonah’s first time away from home for more than an overnighter or two. I wondered how he’d react. And I remembered, as the week went on, the fraught mix of homesickness and taunts and teases and petty little snitfits several days of boys in close proximity can bring.
But I gotta say, for the most part, the week ran like a well-oiled procession of morning-alarm to breakfast to campwide flag ceremony to adult chill time during merit badge classes to lunch back at camp to afternoon troop activities to dinner to nighttime activities to blessed bunk then repeat. The days flew by.
Since the boys all camp in dens, and to pay heed to scouting’s rules, the adult “Coffee Cup Patrol” kept our tents in a little clearing off to the side. I had the choice of toting my 20-year-old Sears three-man tent, with the leaky fly and necessity of crouching, or bringing our family 10-man just for me, myself and I. I chose the 10-man, and at least got it up within 15 minutes all by my lonesome. It weathered the two brief, intense rain storms we had during the week and allowed me the space to stow my gear in a manner befitting an Eagle Scout, I guess, or at least a 40-year-old dude who likes his stuff to stay off the floor and stay where he put it.
I even had an extra room to which I designated my sweaty, sunscreen-and-DEET-tinged dirty clothes. And I hung up a clothesline inside to dry my towel and trunks and other unmentionables.
Tradition at Voyageur
Many Point has a setup uniquely its own. Or, at least new to this veteran camper.
In business-speak, one of the main KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) scout campgrounds are after is for boys to return year after year after year. In my own Buckeye Council, growing up, we had not only awesome grounds and an awesome program at first Tuscazoar and then, six or so decades later, Seven Ranges, but a world-renowned draw in our Pipestone honor camper program. Named for the ceremonial stone mined in the sacred lands around Pipestone, Minn. — a few hours south of Many Point! — boys complete a variety of challenging tasks each summer at camp and receive an ever-longer stone marked with annual symbols at a special recognition ceremony. It’s been going strong for well over 90 summers now, and enough to hook nearly 15% of all campers into attending Seven Ranges for summer camp five or more years.
So, in Ohio, we know scouting KPI. And I still wear my fifth-year pipestone proudly on my slightly roomier Boy Scout shirt.
At Many Point, they offer four different campgrounds throughout their 2,400 acres, each loaded with swimming, rowing, sailing, climbing, ATVs, treehouse villages and other wonders. The camps offer different meal programs: you can go full-service in the camp dining hall — Granny’s delicious domain — have the raw ingredients delivered to camp for your troop to prepare on-site, or even bring your own.
First-year boys generally learn the ropes of camp in traditional activities, while the older you get, you are qualified to trek to some of the pioneer areas of camp, where you can spend the night on a Huck Finn raft, or careen through the brush on ATVs, or take on the highest and gnarliest of climbing walls.
Our troop traditionally plants stakes in Voyageur, where we pick up our meal ingredients set out in milk crates at the trail head leading into camp and faithfully execute outdoor cooking wizardry — and cleanup — ourselves. As daunting as the schedule could seem at times, with kids and adults going from waking, dressing, propane-stove-cheffing, and hustling to activities in barely a half hour, it became a point of pride and I’d say bonded us all more closely together to make and enjoy these meals together in the midst of the blitzkrieg program. And — not to brag or anything — but the grizzled gray beards of the Coffee Cup Patrol fairly sparkled in our ability to bring savory dishes from the slabs of hamburger and butter and pasta and veggies. Knowing some old tricks has its merits at scout camp.
Opening night features a big bonfire and songs and skits from the camp staff. Closing campfire is a reprieve, only now the kids entertain themselves, with packs bringing out old and new groaners alike. The kids are also treated to the Ballad of Many Point, sung by counselors they’d gotten to know throughout the week. Although I made a few jokes about its monotony, and how well the lead singer of Crash Test Dummies could have rendered it — yeah, probably tinged by memories of my own camp days, when we shouted out Trail To Eagle with a glorious hark in the dining hall after every Seven Ranges meal — it’s a moving experience for kids and grizzled old dads alike.
All the more moving, for me, was the way we processed out at the top of the sloped natural amphitheater with just our flashlights lighting the way and the line slowing to a Sunday-church crawl as every… last… counselor lined the trail and said their goodbyes and thanks to each… and… every… boy, greeting most of them by name and sharing their congratulations for a week well lived.
But I’m getting ahead of myself….
The Kids Are All Right
One of the joys of being a Boy Scout adult is sitting back, mostly, and watching as the older boys in the troop run things. This is the way scouts is constructed: you learn, at first, but then you do, and it’s generally expected that the youth leaders will make sure the essentials are covered and keep their younger peers on track.
There may have been some dicey moments, wondering if a troop of bears were going to descend on our campsite with all the stray, dirty mess kits and wayward potato chips and abandoned shirts, hats, shoes, etc., not to mention the mess kit someone had seen fit to run to the top of the flagpole. But that was mostly adult hand-wringing. The kids had it covered. And at the end of the week, you wouldn’t have guessed a gaggle of messy, stinky humans had ever occupied our hallowed clearing.
As for my kid, I couldn’t have been prouder. As dad snored and tossed in his bunk, Jonah was up at first light to take a polar bear plunge at the aquatics beach, gleefully jumped into the Iron Man swimming, rowing and running event midweek, and turned out for 4-mile and 3-mile hikes in service to his First Class and Camping merit badge requirements.
He seemed to relish the independence of a morning schedule that took him through several class periods — much like the Middle School he’s only just started this past week — and he didn’t mind getting dirty. During a rainstorm that hit shortly after we set up camp, Jonah broke out his yellow poncho and proceeded to sing and dance in the rain and muck as the rest of us huddled under the beleaguered dining fly. He managed to avoid daily showers without getting too ripe, but generally, as is our hope with boys of this age, he came through it all a bit dirty but smiling through and through.
He even managed to fit in some passion projects on the side during his free time, including catching and netting a fish for display in the big aquarium at the nature lodge and lashing together an empty corn can, Ice tea can and water bottle for use as a drum kit.
Our Scouting Home Away from Home
What I’d hoped to get out of the week — after first ensuring a wonderful experience for Jonah — was time away from the office and airports and home chores to really soak in that North Woods splendor. I was entirely satisfied on this score.
Many Point brags about its nine miles of shoreline on two lakes — deservedly so. Our camp opened up on a gentle little lake enclave, and each morning was filled with gentle sunlight, each evening glorious pink sunsets. And then the music of the mascot loons stirred up.
A quick sampling:
The moon’s full face filled my tent window each night around 3 a.m., enough for me to zip that side shut and later, forgetfully wonder if it got light THAT early in northwest Minnesota.
The trusty 10-man kept the rain out during our two strong storms, which amounted to a lot of thunder and bluster and maybe 10 minutes of vapor in the air one night. We were blessed to strike camp under threat of thunder showers, but ended up with not a drop, save for the morning dew that necessitated a thorough drying back home anyway.
And You Come Again the Legend Says…
All in all, I found a lot to love about my first week at scout camp as a grizzled old Eagle. There were the familiar rhythms and rituals:
- The giant peg board at Aquatics with our color-coded swim tags. Man, let me tell you, as a former weed of a kid who completed Mile Swims in three different summer camp weeks, growing up, and led the winning relay team on the 4-mile Hutch’s Run at Seven Ranges while jokingly taking the handoff and winking at my buddy, Hildey, letting him know here’s where I turned on the jets and came from behind to win… I was thoroughly gassed as an adult, completing my swim qualification. I remembered what it was like to sweat in lake water. But it was worth it, as I did something I’d never done as a kid or adult, maneuvering a sail boat around the lake.
- The clomping and trudging from activity to activity. Many Point is also unusual in that it invites scouts to bring their bikes for the week. Jonah and I did not, but that just meant notching thousands of steps each day — and coming home 8 pounds lighter for me. Scout camp is good for your health!
- The warm glow of camp buildings, where adults could guzzle coffee and juice and tea and plug in our ever-present devices for a jolt of a different juice. There was a sort of miserable camaraderie in that admin building basement during our morning check-ins with work and professional duties. But the immense relief in being able to unplug again and head back to camp. Would that I could live that transition every work week!
- The pure joy in picking up a new treat from the trading post. In this case, an Arizona Iced Tea Arnold Palmer, ice cold, enjoyed on the walk back down to camp after a hot shower and fresh clothes. Next year, we vow to bring a couple cases or three of our own. This ritual replaced my own, old one of enjoying an ice cold Three Musketeers bar at the Seven Ranges trading post about 4 p.m. I did grab one on camp’s first day, and it took me back, as so many things did that week.
In the end, as the week neared and the Saturday morning trek home called, homecoming was all the more sweeter. That first embrace of loved ones. That first shower without protective sandals and where the hot water came on instantly. Being able to lounge on a couch, inside, in air conditioning. That tall beer from the fridge.
But I’d like to think these returns to civilization only equip us for ever longer sojourns in nature. That our true calling, deep down inside, is going back to the woods and the lake and canopy of stars at night. As the Many Point Rouser instructs:
You hear the loon a-callin’ and the little beaver ROAR
And you come again the legend says, like all good scouts of yore
‘Till next year then!