Saturday, July 05, 2014

Guest Blog by Ray: Camping with 21st Century Boy Scouts

This is a guest blog by our good friend Ray Beimel in St. Marys, PA. Thanks, Ray:

I spent 18 years in the Boy Scouts, 6 as a boy, 12 as an Assistant Scoutmaster. I left the organization in 1980 and never looked back. I learned a lot, I taught a lot, I got a lot of good stories. After I left, occasionally I would see a Scout troop on the trail somewhere and nothing I saw made me feel I was missing something. Then last week, my good friend and Scout from the old troop 99, Joe Labant, asked me if I wanted to go along with his troop on a two night backpacking trip. I hadn’t done any backpacking since the week after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 so I said yes right away.

Part of the fun is the packing, making a list, finding all the gear, figuring how to fit it in the pack. I would be on the trail without my long time travelling companions, Brad and Chris, so I couldn’t count on their carrying their share of the common gear. I would have to pack it all myself. The big decision was whether to tent camp or tarp camp. The weather would be fine if the weather guessers knew anything so tarp would work. But we were hiking on the Quehanna Trail and camping near streams which made me think there would be mosquitoes and flies. That meant taking the tent. I offered to do the cooking for Joe and me so there was some shopping to do. But come Friday afternoon everything was in the pack and I was already.

The hike would be a on the Quehanna Trail, a 70 mile loop whose westernmost point is Parker Dam State Park. We weren’t anywhere near there. The hiking started easily enough, following an old dirt road. But soon enough, it veered off into the woods and became not so much a trail as a series of blazes. Relocation had happened and it is my experience that they never put the relocated trail in a better place. It reached a nice overlook and we gazed down into a deep gorge in the shape of a wye. Joe said we were going down there. This would have been fine had it been a trail of well-engineered switchbacks. But it went almost straight down. It was the nearly steepest descent I ever made in all my days hiking. I was afraid that the slightest slip meant a really quick to the bottom. The boys took it all in stride and cheerfully made it to the bottom without incident.

At the bottom of the hill we ended up on an old railroad grade of the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company. This was our campsite for the night. It was flat, hard by Mix Run, and in the middle of a hemlock grove. We didn’t have a lot of time left before dark to get the tents up and firewood gathered. The boys pitched their tents right on the grade while I found a flat spot for mine just a few feet away. The boys started their cooking, most of them over the open fire. One kid had an alcohol stove that he fueled from a large bottle of 91% isopropyl. Given the weight of the fuel bottle, I am not sure he was traveling lighter than I was with an MSR canister stove. I cooked steak fajitas for Joe and I. This cooking thing felt a little funny as normally Brad would be doing that. I was using the smaller of my two frying pans. The bigger one makes everything stick. The smaller one does not stick but of course, it holds less. There was a log there and I put my seat pad on it and had a comfortable place to sit and cook. That was more than faintly reminiscent of many nights with the troop and the Travelling Circus. It was nearly dark and we were at the bottom of a deep hollow so the carbide lamp was fired up to the usual chorus of oh wows! The kids had never seen anything like that so I explained the process using the technical terms. Water added to calcium carbide releases acetylene gas and leaves behind calcium hydroxide. The gas burns with a bright yellow flame and with a polished reflector, lights up the whole kitchen area. The boys went to bed surprisingly early so Joe and I and Duane, the other adult along, spent a pleasant time sitting by the fire trading anecdotes.

The night was clear and cool. I soon learned that my lightweight summer bag required my wearing more than underwear to be comfortable. Once I put my long pants on, I slept well enough. Of course, the kids were up earlier than me. They spent the time eating. It could be argued that they spent half of the daylight hours eating. I marveled at the amount of food they brought and how much they ate. I made scrambled eggs with crumbled sausage for breakfast. And of course, they were served in MexAmerica tortillas, a most excellent product made here in St. Marys. I filtered water from Mix Run for the hike ahead. Since there was less than 6 miles to hike there was little time pressure to hurry. The trail led upstream on a branch of Mix Run, crossing several times. The bridges were made of aluminum I beams and were several feet about possible high water. They all survived the great floods of late May so whoever designed them did well. What we couldn’t figure out is how they got the beams into that location as it was quite some distance from a road. We also marveled that no one had stolen them for the scrap value. Sometime the trail was in the bottom, sometimes it slabbed along the hillside. Often it was very muddy. Occasionally it was rocky.

We stopped for lunch at a rustic camp that had a picnic table outside. For Joe and I lunch was chicken salad flavored with Cajun Spice and Caribbean Jerk Seasoning, a recipe I got from my friend Chris. Again I was impressed with the pile of food they put away. The trail followed the branch but the hollow grew steeper and we got into some uphill hiking. The day was sunny and warm and the uphill lit off the sweat pumps but the kids continued hiking at a good pace. Finally we crossed the crest and had level walking all the way to the campsite. This site was a largely open area but covered with small shrubs and ferns. 

There was a very small stream very close that was the color of weak tea, the characteristic look of waters that pass through wetlands. The color comes from tannic acid. When run through a pump filter, it tastes fine. In a dryer summer, it might be hard to find enough water at this site.

Since we got there early in the day, the boys had a lot of time to kill. Mostly, they ate. They had eaten lunch just two hours before. And now they were eating again. One kid who probably barely weighed 90 pounds ate a whole can of Spam in one sitting. There were beanie weenies, Vienna sausages, homemade sausage, candy bars, Pringle’s, other starchy salty snacks, and more. Of course, there was nothing that could remotely be called a vegetable or a fruit. After ingesting considerable calories, some of them decided to build a bridge over the little stream. They actually did finish the project with nothing more than one saw and one axe.

One of the younger guys, out on his first trip, started periodically throwing up. After several bouts of barfing, we decided it was more than punk grub and Duane evacuated him back to St. Marys. Duane took advantage of being home to get a shower and bring two hammers and some nails to put the finishing touch on the bridge. When it got closer to traditional dinner time, the boys started eating again. There seemed to be no end to the grub they carried. For my part, I made a dish that we used often on trips of the Travelling Circus. A can of white meat chicken in a pot of a Lipton instant noodle dish makes a tasty meal. Joe had not encountered this before and thought it was a good thing to eat. I also had some carrots, celery, and green peppers. These constituted the sum total of vegetables present. I had a lot and Joe had some. I offered them to the boys but they declined this unusual (by their view of it) food.

This night the boys stayed up later but I went to bed shortly after it got dark. Since most of my recent backpacking has been in late fall, the idea of it still being light at 9PM was a little odd. It was a warmer night and I slept well. Since there was no need to be up and out early, the morning was leisurely. Of course, they boys were eating again. I just had peanut butter on MexAmerica whole wheat tortillas. There was the usual business of cramming it all back into the packs. It was easier for the boys since most of what they brought was food and they had eaten very nearly all of it. It was a short hike out to the trucks and once on the trail, the troop was hiking like horses headed for the barn. We lost sight of them in the first 50 yards. But I have to compliment them for hiking in a compact group with no laggards.

And that’s my most recent outdoor adventure. It is always good to be out on the trail and it was a fun time with these guys. They restored some of my lost faith in Boy Scouting.


  1. Great story Ray and thank you so much for sharing it!

  2. I enjoyed reading about your hiking experience. Sounds like everyone had a good time -- well, except for the poor guy who got sick.


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