Boy Scouts canoe, portage back in time
By Sonia Duggan
While some teens were busy attending camps, playing Xbox or just sleeping late over the summer, 22 teens and six leaders from Boy Scout Troop 1776 were off on an adventure of a different sort. An adventure that provided them an opportunity to learn how to master a canoe, have some great fun fishing and hone their camping skills, all the while being totally disconnected from the real world.
The Scouts took part in a high adventure program called Northern Tier, known as the Boy Scouts of America’s oldest national High Adventure program, outfitting scouting groups for canoe trips since the summer of 1923.
“Northern Tier offers wilderness canoeing expeditions in Northern Minnesota, Northwestern Ontario and Northeastern Manitoba through three canoe bases. All trips are fully outfitted and provisioned. A highly trained staff member, called an Interpreter, accompanies all crews on their trek,” according to ntier.org.
The trek is open to Scouts age 14 and up who have completed the 8th grade. Due to the physical requirements of the trip, Scouts must weigh more than 100 lbs. to attend.
Planning for this type of trip is not easy. Troop 1776 Scoutmaster Jeff Joiner said their planning began about a year ago. “We had to request and get assigned a trek from Northern Tier and also start the paperwork to get passports, RABC’s, etc. to get into Canada as well as complete some required first aid training to ensure we were prepared for the remote wilderness,” he said. “My crew had 3 meetings to get ready for the trip. We mainly talked about gear, travel plans, expectations.”
Troop 1776 sent three crews on the high adventure trip. Two of the crews started at the Charles L Sommers Base in Ely, MN and the other crew departed from the Northern Expeditions Base in Bissett, Manitoba.
Scoutmaster Joiner and adult leader David Wille led one Ely crew, while Assistant Scout Master Mikel White and adult leader James Fisher, Murphy City Manager, led the other crew. The boys in the Ely crew were Blake and Josh Bathman, Daniel Fisher, Philip Kimberlin, Anthony Migliaccio, Jared White, Bradley Davis, Max Dooley, Colin Engbrock, Trevor Joiner, Brendon Norwine and Nathan Wille.
Adult leaders Russell Downey and Jim Richard led the Bisset crew. Crewmembers were Jacob Bommersbach, Ryan Downey, Michael Lee, Kyle and Jimmy Richard, Marcus Russell, Will Russell, Nicolas Teachenor and Matthew Zhao. The Bisset trip is considered the “most extreme high adventure in Scouting.”
The Ely crews departed from DFW June 27 for Minneapolis St. Paul. They stayed in St. Paul the first night, taking a side trip to the Mall of America. The next day, they traveled four hours to the base camp in Ely, MN. Once there, they checked in, met their interpreter (also known as a guide) and did a gear check. After being outfitted with canoes, paddles and lifejackets, the guides helped the groups pick their particular journey depending on their interests. For the Joiner/Wille team, they chose fishing as their main goal for the group.
The Scouts stayed in a cabin on property the second night, eating in the mess hall that evening. The next day, they were on the water by 8 a.m.
They traveled in two Kevlar and one aluminum canoes. The Kevlar canoes weighed 50 lbs. each, the aluminum canoe weighed 70 lbs. On the journey, whenever they got to an impasse, such as waterfall or the end of a lake, they would portage their canoes on a trail.
Their guide, Will, taught the crew the proper paddling techniques to the canoe novices. They utilized three types of paddling for the trip, the J-stroke, the C-stroke and the forward stroke.
“Once we got the hang of the paddling, it was much easier to handle the canoe,” Scout Colin Engbrock said.
“We paddled in big waves against a pretty strong wind on the second morning for 3.5 miles or so,” Wille said. “After we got through that, we knew we could handle just about anything we could expect to encounter.”
The Scouts took turns in their position in the canoes each day. “The front person in the canoe is the bowman, the back person is the sternman –while the middle person is called the duffer, “ Colin said.
Each morning, the Scouts would map out their journey and campsite for the evening. Most days they averaged 10 miles per day, while some days they would travel further.
“We were usually up at 5 a.m. and on the water before 7 a.m. This allowed us to get to our next campsite early and get a good campsite as well as avoid the usually windy afternoons, where we might be paddling against a headwind,” Joiner said. “We typically were at our next campsite between 1 and 3 p.m.; depending on how many miles we needed to go.”
The crew led by Joiner and Wille would travel on the water just over 100 miles on their journey.
“We portaged and paddled 101 miles. When we were paddling, we averaged about 3 miles per hour,” Wille said. On portages, they averaged only about 1 mile per hour.
Joiner said that portaging nearly 700 lbs of gear over trails between the lakes and dealing with conflict within the team on occasion was the biggest challenge for the group. “But, these challenges are there to provide a means for the team to learn to work together and become stronger,” he said.
After setting up camp each day, the Scouts kept busy by fishing, swimming, or playing card games. During the day the weather was mild (70 degrees or so), nights were in the 50s.
“One of the great things about being out of range of cell phone towers is that the Scouts discover that there is much fun to be had without the use of a phone,” Wille said.
Paddling and hiking for miles daily, setting up camp, cooking the meals, cleaning up afterwards and then fishing for an hour or so before bedtime made the Scouts tired enough so the majority retired around 8:30 p.m., often prompted by the arrival of the mosquitos.
“The only time you didn’t have mosquitos on you was when you were in your tent,” Scout Trevor Joiner said.
With fishing being one of the Scouts primary goals, and with all the opportunities to fish, the Scouts were successful. They caught pike, small-mouthed bass and walleye. One day, they were fishing on Dark River when they had an unusual fishing experience said Wille.
“Joiner had caught a nice bass. Colin pulled in his line to help if needed and to see the fish. He set his rod down on the floor of the canoe with lure dangling over the side,” he said. “A bass jumped and took the lure and took the pole over the side with it. After canoeing around, they spotted the lure on the floor of the lake. Colin dove in and recovered the lure and the rod and also spied a big pike while he was down there.”
Aside from fishing, the crew had the opportunity to see some Native American pictographs that were hundreds of years old on rock formations along Dark River. The canoe country they traveled is considered one of the last great wildernesses on the continent. While wild animals were not seen on their journey, they did have the opportunity to see some bald eagles.
All adult leaders from Troop 1776 were traveling were with their sons. For Wille and Joiner, it provided a great opportunity to spend quality time bonding.
“There is nothing to compare with experiencing a trip like this with your son, “Wille said. “ Watching your son perform, try new things, struggle with some new things, and improving on those new things is rewarding, Sharing these experiences is one of the joys of Scouting.”
Joiner said spending 10 days with one of his boys (he has four) and building a stronger relationship with him was priceless. “I know I will look back on this trip as having a great time with him without any distractions.”
After nine days on the water in the wilderness, the Ely crews arrived back at the base camp. Thankfully they had the opportunity to take a long awaited shower, change into clean clothes and eat a meal that they did not have to prepare. They were tired but fulfilled, having followed in the footsteps of the French-Canadian voyageurs, paddling the same waters and straining over the same portage trails two centuries later.
Want to learn more about Scouting and Troop 1776? Go to troop1776.org.