When I was in 7th grade, my father left the military and we moved to South Jersey, where we stayed for some years. I joined the Boy Scouts when I moved there, and stayed involved thru high school, and yes, earned my Eagle Scout.
I was very lucky, however, to have found a troop that even then still modeled itself after Baden-Powell’s vision – turning boys into men, and using nature as the forum for learning. Our troop was fortunate to own two dozen canoes, trailers, and tents to be able to get out often, and get out often we did. Starting in the spring, we would get the canoes out (most of them fiberglass behemoths, with a few aluminums) and clean them up and make any repairs necessary. Then every Sunday until fall we would have a canoe outing – sometimes it was just down to a local lake, but mostly it was into the Pine Barrens of South Jersey to explore some interesting route or other. In the summer the troop would take up to 20 kids to Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada for a four week canoe camping adventure.
In addition, during the warmer months, the troop would hold a backpacking trip at least once a month – we would head out to Pennsylvania, Delaware, or parts of Jersey and hike to a designated spot where we would set up camp. It was never too much, and the Scoutmaster did a great job of getting everyone to work as a team. Oftentimes we would visit historical sites like Gettysburg and combine that with our camping outing.
My best camping recollection from those days was always the January campout – in the days between Christmas and New Year’s our Scoutmaster would gather the unsold Christmas trees from the area and dump them off at a wooded area where we had our troop camping location. Then one weekend in January we would go out there, drag the trees for about a mile and half to the campsite, and pile them up. In teams of 3 or 4, we would strip the branches off with machetes, and use the trunks to build lean-to frames in the woods, and the branches to seal in the lean-to’s. The first time I did this, I remember we built a traditional top-only lean-to, and we woke up with our sleeping bags covered with snow. In subsequent years we learned to build full shelters, to the point where our problem was not snow, but the fact that we had actually built Indian-style sweat lodges!
February always meant Klondike derby, where we would build dog-sleds, with wheels, and use boy-power to traverse a course thru the woods. The goal was to use orienteering skills to get to the right place at the right time – at which point you should have found various skill stations where you would be tested. This was a contest between the troops of our district, and was a high point for the year.
My son had joined the local Cub Scouts a couple of years ago, and I was as excited as he was at first. It didn’t take long to see that something was different from when I was involved. First, the emphasis was not on the Scouting principles I had learned, but rather on how quickly one could get their books signed off to move onto the next rank. Outings were few and far between – admittedly these were only Cub’s, but with no associated Boy Scout troop, there also seemed to be nothing to look forward to. The drop-out rate among the boys was high, and I am still trying to convince my son to get involved again but with no success.
My question, then, is as noted in the title – is Scouting still relevant? How does its relevance (or non-relevance) relate to the “Last Child in the Woods” book? Perhaps parents are too protective, and don’t see the value of what Scouting has to offer. Without parent involvement, no troop could be as active as mine was. Or is it simply that other organized activities like Little League and soccer have dominated the time constraints on our children?
I have seen little evidence in my area that Scouting is alive and well – but would love to be proved wrong, and would love to have something to show my son that would convince him to reconsider.
If not, then the best answer may be to pull out my own Scout Handbook and attempt to use it as a guide to teach him what I learned – not just how to tie knots and paddle a canoe, but how to live with decency, respect and reverence. As always, it’ll be one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.