25 April 2010


During my pre-high school years in northern Montana in the 1950s, I was lucky to be a member of the Cub Scouts (my mom, bless her heart, was a den mother), and later the Boy Scouts. Scouting was an awesome adventure for this shy boy. My luck was doubled by virtue of living within easy travel distance of the Rocky Mountain Front. The eastward-facing slope of the Rockies offered limitless camping opportunities in its canyons and high country.

And camping was the ultimate lure of Scouting. Weekly troop meetings were fun. Community projects were fulfilling. Earning any of an array of merit badges in recognition of achieving skill and knowledge in a particular activity (art, first aid, wilderness survival, camping, archery, canoeing, et al.) was an exciting challenge. But camping out, especially in the mountains, was paradise.

Our troop leader was an able and enthused man who'd served as a Marine in WWII. He was a certified Scuba diver who helped with search and rescue. He was a man's man who inspired awe and obediance. And he was an expert organizer for the myriad logistical details which are required to make a weekend or weeklong camping trip for thirty boys a success.

Back then, equipment was crude compared to contemporary gear. The standard Boy Scout backpack was canvas, no padding, no backboard. The tents we used were also canvas affairs, notorious for leaking at the spot where you touched the roof during a rain storm (see image above -- click on any image to enlarge). But we were happy and proud of our gear, and ourselves. It is a mighty thing to realize that you have the skills to survive in the wild -- and a mightier thing still to set off by yourself into the wild, treading where no human foot has been. Wildlife sightings included moose, deer (whitetail and mule), Canadian lynx, elk, black bear, grizzly bear, pronghorn, mountain goat, and numberless birds and small mammals. We fished and ate our catch. We played tag in canoes on frigid alpine lakes. We listened to tall tales around the nighttime campfire. We explored mountain streams and dense quiet forests, marveling at the view and the sound of the earth breathing as wind swept through the trees. We lived as both social and primordial beings.

A few snippets from memory --
~~ going swimming in a glacier-fed stream, wearing only our (in those days) white briefs in lieu of swim suits, one boy's underwear turned blue. We were astounded, thinking that the water must be even colder than it felt. It turned out that the boy's mother had used a bit of starch when washing her whites.
~~ during one campout with a troop from another town, I was tentmates with a friend who played the bugle . He'd volunteered to play Taps at lights-out, then suggested that I give it a shot (I was a French horn player). At first reluctant at the thought of screwing up such a venerable moment, I finally jacked up my courage and stepped out into the starry dark, raised the bugle to my lips, and lost myself in the flood of feelings and senses as I played the camp to sleep. Transcendent.
~~ taking part in Camp Napi, Montana's state equivalent to the national Scout ranch Philmont. Scouts from all over the state were there. It was a heady mix of skills contests, solo hikes and campfire gatherings, a highlight of my youth.

The skills and values taught by Boy Scouts served me well -- in the military, and during numberless camping and kayaking trips throughout my adulthood. The words of the Boy Scout oath, law and motto (see link to Boy Scouts above) still slide easily off my tongue. Some things are worth remembering.

Those days of innocence and adventure seem to be long gone. The name of Scouting has been tarnished by scandals -- sexual abuse, homophobia, the paramilitary aspect of the uniform. But I believe the founding spirit of scouting lives on. As it happens, my belief is shared by the articulate and iconoclastic travel writer Paul Theroux. His article on the Boy Scouts is both entertaining and provocative.

No comments:

Post a Comment