On Aug. 15, after a year of prep hikes and multiple overnights, six Scouts with two adults from Port Washington’s Boy Scout Troop 7 completed 12 days and over 80 miles of backpacking at Philmont High Adventure Base in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. All scouts are students at Schreiber High School.
Philmont is considered the most challenging of the BSA (Boy Scouts of America) High Adventure program at over 220 square miles with 300 miles of trails and land use agreements with surrounding ranches and National Parks. Scouts sharpen their outdoor knowledge and skills with a four-tier system of “treks” ranging from seven-day 25 milers to super strenuous 12-day 80 milers to choose from. This crew of Port teens, known by the call sign “803-Bravo”, took on a tier three strenuous 12-day 66-mile minimum itinerary.
During the first two days, these youth are evaluated and given additional training by a staff ranger to ensure they are capable of the trek demands. The team’s ranger, Audrey, is a senior cadet at Annapolis Naval Academy, training to become a naval aviator. The adults were mainly health and safety supervisors, getting the boys there and home.
803-Bravo started with a short four-mile hike in House Canyon to an elevation of 6900 feet on day two, building to Baldy Mountain’s 12,400-foot peak on day 10, hiking 13 miles and gaining 3500 feet in altitude in under 10 hours that day to the summit and back to their base camp at Ewells Park. But every day brought new challenges in exposure: elevation, weather, heat, water supply, constructing a campsite, cooking a hot meal, hanging bear bags, setting up sun/rain protection, and the critical navigation with only map and compass; UTM markers, compass bearings and triangulation. These skills are lost these days with smartphones and mapping software at your fingertips.
“Here at home, we are used to following blazed and marked trails with the help of our cellphones. At Philmont, we were navigating the unmarked trails requiring planning, checking, and re-checking without one,” said Crew Leader Gavin K. After miss-reading a marker on the first day and having to back-track, there was never another mistake on the trip. “After that, I memorized our next day’s route at night and met with the team and adult advisers (assistant scoutmasters Tim Carl and Windsor Kinney) to confirm the plan and the terrain.”
The group carried 65 to 75-liter backpacks weighing up to 60 pounds, which made for long days in the high desert. What is everything? Personal gear included a 20-degree sleeping bag, ground pad, three sets of clothes (one being worn), a fleece pullover, an insulated jacket, bare minimum personal toiletries, upper and lower rain gear, sun hat and glasses, headlamp, trekking poles, a lightweight camp chair to flop in. Then the crew equipment is distributed, which included maps and compasses, two-person tents, three ropes and carabiners for bear bags, sun/rain fly, two liquid fuel stoves, three fuel canisters, two eight-quart cooking pots, water purification tablets and ten-liter dromedaries for extra water, hand sanitizer, ever important “TP” and cat hole tool, mess kits, first aid/trauma kit, foot repair/sewing/gear repair kits, multi-tools, sunscreen, bug repellent, an OTC medicine kit for Tylenol, Advil, Pepto and Chloraseptic cough drops. In addition, about five liters of water each and three meals daily for three to four days. On their backs every day. “Be prepared” is the scouting motto. These are the tools for survival in America’s Outback.
It wasn’t just hiking and making camp, though. Waking up at 5 a.m., breaking down, and packing up to be on the trail before 7 a.m. would mean beating the peak afternoon heat. Also, get to a staffed location early enough to take part in special programs to enhance their experience: rock climbing, shooting black powder rifles, inter-troop games, tomahawk throwing, and team building exercises like building a bridge with only hand signals and swinging across a lava lake on a rope (not really lava, but drag a foot and you fail). The team also attended a cantina show where adviser Tim Carl, a musician by trade, jumped in on piano to add color and evoke cheers from the crowd.
There were responsibilities such as team Wilderness Guia (Guide), Rigel K., who was versed in wilderness ethics and also documented wildlife sightings: mule deer, black bear, owls, falcons, vulture, and rattlesnakes which were reported to Base Camp HQ for tracking and conservation. They also took time at night to reflect on their day’s experiences with “Roses (what was liked) Buds (what is hoped for) and Thorns (what was thorny)” led by Chaplin’s Aide James K., who also was charged with diffusing tensions that would arise due to fatigue and frustration.
What was the most exciting day of the trek? Day eight was Iris Park, a low-impact camp that took the team out of Philmont and north into the Carson National Forest. After hiking nine miles up hot, burn-scared Bonita Canyon to the Dan Beard camp the day before, the team left for Iris Park at 6:30 a.m. and encountered un-spoiled landscapes crossing paths with deer and bear, rattlesnakes, and 20 cattle with a cowboy watering at Beatty Lake. After a hot, seven-mile journey to the Iris Park site, the team set up camp, explored the ridges and fields or napped under the pine trees.
Soon after eating a late lunch, small spotter planes started flying over into the west mountain ridges. They then escorted white and red fire tankers, followed by a few white helicopters. This continued late afternoon until sunset.
“We watched as this pattern took place for hours; they flew a few thousand feet directly over us,” recalled Windsor Kinney, adult adviser. “After dinner in the twilight, we were about to try to make contact with the Basecamp HQ about these observations when someone was shouting, ‘803-Bravo, are you here?’”
The team could see three dark silhouettes walking through the knee-high grass. The adult advisers met them, and Philmont Logistics HQ sent an extraction team to evacuate the crew. Wildfires were a few miles away, and for the crew’s safety, all were transported miles back from the fire lines in four-wheel drive trucks.
“Since we were following our pre-planned itinerary, they knew where we should be, and it was too close to the fires. The not-so-fun part was setting up our campsite again at midnight and breaking it down a few hours later at dawn,” said Kinney.
This evac changed food ration rendezvous but not mileage, and the team continued their trek without incident.
The next exciting day was the Baldy Mountain ascent, getting to the final trailhead early in the morning to get bused back to Philmont Base Camp and showering for the first time in 12 days, eating a dinner they didn’t have to cook, then packing up gear for the flight home was the long-awaited “we all made it” moment.
During any difficult endeavor where we experience adversity, insecurity, fatigue, or even danger, the transformation of a personality, emotional maturity, and self-confidence will not become immediately evident. As time dulls, the sharp edges and the vivid colors fade, the subconscious will create a psychic photo album. It will always unite them with memories when there is a reflection on the journey and the wisdom gained from it.
Troop 7 is the oldest continuously chartered scout troop in Nassau County. The troop meets Wednesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. at the United Methodist Church, 35 Middle Neck Rd., and is open to all boys aged 11 to 17. Troop 7G girl’s troop meets on Friday evenings at 7 p.m. The Community Chest proudly supports Scouting; visit www.troop7bsa.com for more information.
—Submitted by Assistant Scoutmaster Windsor Kinney