Our happy Crew gathered for our spring backpacking shakedown on Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. Normally, I'm pretty intent on getting out the door on time, but this is a training weekend and we had two first-time packers (Abby and Shelby), so I figured it would take a while to distribute gear and make sure everyone was truly ready to hit the trail.
I wasn't wrong. Shelby's backpack was totally inadequate, but we loaned her Anna's old pack, which was still good enough for a weekend trip. Abby's pack was small, but would do. Both Anna and Shelby were a little shocked at how much crew gear we had to share out. Food was going to be a bit heavy, too, since we were expecting Zach and Jeffrey to go, and they backed out at the last minute. T.J. and Dakota (both Philmont veterans) rounded out the youth component. Deanne and I were the adult advisors. So, we could leave a tent and some other things behind, but the food had already been packed, and that meant six people carrying grub for eight. Leftovers.
We got out the door by 10:30, though, and headed on out to the Hoosier National Forest. We were going to a section called the Deam Wilderness, where the good ol' boys can't camp out of the back end of their pick-em-up trucks. Even on a busy weekend, one is rarely crowded in the Deam.
A great disturbance in the Force
As I drove out to the woods, my heart was very heavy. Just this week, the BSA National Council voted to change its membership requirements, allowing openly gay youth to belong to the organization. I understand that change. Indeed, I supported it, but there were other questions which were not submitted to the Council that are not settled by this step. I worry about where BSA goes from here. And a great many old friends and fellow Scouters were hurt and outraged by the decision, and their cry of pain went out over the intertubes for all to hear. I still occupy something of a leadership position in United Methodist Scouting Ministry, which meant I was reading a lot of this stuff and replying to it. It was emotionally draining. Still, I thought it was good to get away from it and do what we do in Scouting ministry. Weekends like this are what Scouting (and Venturing) is about. Sufficient unto the day, and all that, too.
And here we are
My reverie was cut short by our arrival at Hickory Ridge Fire Tower. We parked our vehicles and got our gear out. Dakota was the weekend leader, so I had her show the others how to make a pack line. And the teaching began with lunch.
Lunch on Tower Green
Our adventure begins at Hickory Ridge Fire Tower
We have to explain leadership roles: the hike leader sets the pace, while the mapigator (or naviguesser) keeps track of where we are. There's a way to start the crew, a way to stop it. There's a difference between a short break and a long break. There are ways to get by certain obstacles, etc. The teaching takes all weekend, and both Deanne and I are constantly explaining, demonstrating, critiquing. This is why a shakedown isn't very strenuous. We're not trying to cover distance, but to teach and practice all the many routines that equip you to make your way in the backcountry.
Off on the road to adventure
Heading down Terrill Ridge
It's all downhill from here
Abby leads us down the Sycamore Trail
Along the way, we point out important things to be able to identify. Like Poison Ivy. And Virginia Creeper, which a lot of people mistake for Poison Ivy. And I always make sure to point out Jewelweed (a.k.a. Healall or Touch-me-not). Jewelweed is pioneer medicine. The juice of the plant is soothing on skin if you've got a rash or bug bites or have brushed against nettles.
The traveler's friend
Getting used to our packs is always part of the first day on the trail, especially if you haven't carried a full load in a while (like me) or have never carried a full load (like our newbies). Shelby was finding the hip belt strange to get used to. "I feel like I'm wearing a seat belt," she said. Feeling every pound on my back, I replied, "I feel like I'm wearing a car." Still, you get used to it, and the weight gets lighter every day as you eat up your food. Plus, you get stronger every day on the trail.
We got to camp early and started talking about how to set up a camp, what to avoid, about the Bearmuda Triangle. That last is the area where bears are wont to prowl through camp, where you especially don't want to pitch your tent. There are no bears in Indiana (we think), but the Crew often goes to places where there are bears, so we try to stay in training for all circumstances at all times. It's easier than trying to switch instructions in a new place.
After setting up camp came the cooking of dinner. More lessons on the operation of camp stoves, on sanitation, on not leaving leftovers followed. After dinner and cleanup, there was time for some card playing. And then to bed early. We were tired, and the rain was coming on.
Learning (re-learning) how to set up tents
Deanne has mad wilderness skillz
Dakota playing Up and Down the River
Into each life a little rain must fall
It rained steadily all night long. The camp was soaked in the morning and we were slow and grouchy getting up. I made coffee for me and Deanne and then we started heating water for oatmeal. After breakfast, everyone felt a little better. Then it was off to the creek to teach how to purify water with a water filter. This is an essential skill in the backcountry, and not one to approach in a lackadaisical manner. You screw this up, and you get the crud in your gut; that Ain't No Fun.
It took us about two and half to three hours to get packed up and moving. That's very slow time, even for us, but as I explained to them, this is a teaching weekend. We're deliberately taking it slow and making sure everyone knows what to do. This is not a trek, where we're trying to push ourselves to make time over the next ridge to get someplace.
T.J.'s socks are disturbing
A primary skill in the wilderness
Staying dry can be a challenge
A little ways down Sycamore Creek from our campsite, the trail turns up the ridge and rises rapidly. This section of the Deam Wilderness is a series of ridges, sort of like the splayed-out fingers of a hand. We were climbing the pinky. After getting up on the finger ridge, we would skirt the next couple of fingers on the outside, until we got to the center ridge. This accounted for the meandering course of the path and the frequent steep valleys on our right side.
As we rose, the woods opened up more and the kind of trees changed. Beeches and maples predominated. The path was wider and there wasn't much up and down. We made very good time along this section.
We had lunch at a deer pond by the side of the trail. Shelby led grace for the first time ever, and she did a fine job. We take turns at this little duty, and several teenagers have learned to pray with others just because that's how we roll. It was Sunday, so after lunch, we had a short church service. That, too, is how we roll. Dakota brought her Bible she got from Philmont and we put it to good use.
They say these things are edible, but I don't know when they're ripe
A stricken tree arrested in its fall
The Road Goes Ever On and On
The forest widens out, the path is easy
A fungus among us
I know some shelf fungi are edible, but thanks, anyway
Other than the nightly rain, which wasn't really annoying, the weather was excellent. Skies were bright during the day, but overcast. The air was cool. It was really perfect hiking and camping weather.
We arrived at our campsite on Terrill Ridge a little after 3:00 in the afternoon. It lay beside a large pond mostly covered in water lilies. There were plenty of frogs, who kept up a constant chorus on into the evening. We had time to play around. And to nap.
T.J. can sleep anywhere
Perhaps because we had so much free time on this trip, the verbal fun and physical horseplay got a little rude. Up to a point, this is perfectly normal, but it can escalate to a degree that is unacceptable, and I had to speak sharply to our girls several times before it settled down.
Suffice it to say that there are several levels of conversation in an intimate setting such as life on the trail. Most of the time, we are at the FRANK stage, where we speak plainly and easily to each other, even on subjects that some people are slow to talk about back home. After all, we have to talk about physical comfort, personal hygiene, and a host of other topics that require a certain level of openness to each other. I'm happy to say that our Crew is comfortable with each other, usually helpful in our speech, and not easily embarrassed by anything. That our Venturers should be able to be so frank while giving no offense is a tribute to the way we conduct our Crew. We strive for a supportive atmosphere for all, and we do a good job of achieving it.
A step beyond FRANK is RIBALD. Now, a bit of ribaldry can add the spice of wit to the conversation, and I don't get grumpy about it. I only get concerned when we get to the next stage, which is BAWDY. Even here, as long as the talk is to a point, or it doesn't monopolize the conversation, I'm okay with it. But sometimes, people go on to the level of CRUDE, and I have a very limited tolerance for this. If you let that go on, it'll feed on itself as kids try to top each other, and you reach the stage of OVERTLY SEXUAL/UGLY. At this point, you begin to see what we call "a hostile environment" being created. Even if the commentary is not being directed at someone else, too much of this kind of talk repels members of the other sex (and sometimes members of the same sex) and makes people uncomfortable. If it's not stopped at this point, it can go on to the openly LEWD, which is where we start talking sexual harrassment or bullying.
Believe it or not, our three girls managed to reach the next to last stage of this process and I had to be quite emphatic with them to get them to stop. I'd seen this sort of thing before, with (say) three guys talking loud and stupid without realizing how it was being received by the one girl in their group. They probably had, too. They just didn't think it could happen the other way around, I suppose, but there it was. I mention it here not to shame our Crew members, but to point out that part of our ministry is to set boundaries and regulate conduct so that we keep that open and comfortable, supportive environment which so distinguishes our Crew. 'Nuff said.
The day ended on a better note, as we did our evening devotions. We shared the day's high points and low points and finished the day with prayer.
It rained again overnight. We even had some thunder and lightning. Still, it made for very good sleeping weather. Things were a bit soggy when we got up, but we soon had coffee made and breakfast ready. Today was some of our favorite chow: pre-cooked bacon (a gift of God to backpackers) and chocolate chip Clif bars.
We packed up much more efficiently than the day before and made our way easily up the road. First, we stopped off at Terrill Cemetery, where there is a particular headstone I like to point out to youth. Five daughters of the Axsom family share a stone. Four, ages 13 and younger, all died in 1931. House fire? Flu epidemic? Who knows. But these old farmer types didn't sink into self-pity. The fifth daughter was born seven years after the loss of her four sisters -- and only lived a year. And I'll bet the Axsoms went out and milked the cow and mended fence after her loss, too.
Our youth carry some big loads, and I don't want to minimize them. But sometimes, they think nobody ever hurt before like they hurt, and they wallow in their miserableness and won't come out of it for anything. I like to point out the grave of the Axsom girls and ask them to consider that family. There's somebody who had a cross to bear, indeed. Our woes look a lot less terrible and we're a bit embarrassed to be asking for so much sympathy when we compare ourselves to those folks.
After that, it was an easy mile or so up to the Fire Tower. I dropped to the road and did my usual five pushups in full pack to celebrate. Rougher! Tougher! Buffer!
Shelby and Dakota had been in withdrawal from their phones, which I had them leave behind in the truck. Abby had left hers at home. By this time, I was tired of hearing the three of them fantasize about them. Two whole days without phone or internet! Oh, noes! Deanne said I should have more understanding. "This is their lifeline," she said. I replied that kids today are like a bunch of digital primates grooming each other electronically. T.J. agreed with me, so it's no wonder I think of him as an amazingly mature kid. I have reached a point where I put up with a lot more gizmos on a trip than I used to, so I've adapted to the kids' world, but I still think one of the prime virtues of going to the backcountry is being forced to pay attention to the natural world -- and to each other.
We left Hickory Ridge at 10:30. by 11:15, we were home and setting up tents to dry in the back yard. Parents and grandparents arrived to carry off the returned adventurers. Another great backpacking trip is in the books!
For the record, we covered only about six miles the whole trip, but that brings my lifetime hiking total up to an estimated 1,476 miles! Our next biggie is the 20-miler scheduled in a couple of weeks at our cabin. Ho, for Lost Bridge! The adventure continues.
Don't leave me!
Deanne pausing before taking the last hill back to the fire tower
Another successful backpacking trip!