Eight years ago I was looking for a way to motivate my older Scouts. They just seemed to need a little push to get involved with the younger boys. My solution is now referred to as “The Scoutmaster’s Invitational”. This is a special trip for older Scouts that have participated on most outings and had actively taken a leadership role with newer Scouts. Our first trip was a combination backpacking and float trip near Hot Springs, NC. I can still hear the laughter and screams as we passed through a rapid appropriately named Haystack. The last few years the trips have become primarily backpacking with one or two good swimming holes along the way. This past June the crew planned a hike along a 100 mile section of the Appalachian Trail from Catawba, VA to VA 606 at Kimberling Creek. Three boys accepted invitations, two for the whole trip and one other joined us near the half way point.
Prior to the trip I had a meeting with not only the boys but also their parents. I wanted them to understand this was not like a usual weekend trip. We would be hiking for eight days covering as much as 16 miles a day. There was a high probability we would experience inclement weather. There would be ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. This trip would be challenging both mentally and physically. Despite all the warnings I felt I needed to give, there would also be a lot of fun on this trip
Finally the day arrived to head for the trail. The crew consisted of two boys and three adults plus a Siberian Huskies. Harold, one my assistant leaders, raises Huskies and usually brings one along. Jeff, another assistant leader also was with us but could only stay for the first half of the week. The other Scout would meet us at Wind Rock and bring a resupply for the rest of us. After a couple of stops for our last taste of civilization, we arrived at the trailhead and started our hike south.
The terrain was easy and the first few miles easily disappeared, however the closer we got to Dragon’s Tooth the more rugged the landscape became. The boys were focused on the scenery. Each time the trees opened for a view, cameras came out for pictures. Trying to keep us on some sort of schedule I reminded them that the best views of the day would be at the top of the ridge. Eventually we topped out at Dragon’s Tooth and dropped our packs to climb up on the rocks. Aaron and Mark agreed that these were the best views of the day.
From there we made our way to one of the many shelters on the AT. Our plan was to tent close by and use the shelter’s picnic table and water source for cooking. Shortly after we arrived our first of many rain storms hit. Without a lot of discussion the boys decided sleeping in the shelter was a better option than pitching tents in the rain. Once they chased off a bat and countless spiders we all, including a couple of thru-hikers settled in for the night.
Morning never comes early enough for me. I really enjoy hiking and this day was one of the longer hikes. The rain continued as we set out for an uphill climb to the Audie Murphy Memorial. The decorated World War II veteran died in a plane crash close to the site. The boys not only appreciated the history of the memorial but were happy to finally make it to the top of the mountain. The hiking was pretty easy until mid afternoon. We hit the continental divide and walked the rest of the day on slick wet rock slabs pitched on an angle. There was a lot of sliding around and several sore rear ends.
Once again we stayed near a shelter to take advantage of a water source. Sarver Hollow Shelter is a nice structure but there was a hiker who did a great impression of a freight train so we set up tents a decent distance away. During the night the sky opened up and poured. I had expected a dry night and had told the boys their packs would be fine next to a tree by their tent. I ended up putting on rain gear, checking on everyone and moving the packs up the hill to the shelter. Nothing got too wet except me.
After the night of rain we all found it a little hard to break camp. Aaron commented how much better he slept in a tent than on a wooden shelter floor. The plan for the day was to reach Laurel Creek by lunch time. Jeff and Aaron had a couple of hot spots and I was thinking a good long foot soak would help. What I didn’t plan on was the normal rock hop of a stream being a pretty technical crossing. It didn’t take too long to locate a spot that we all could cross without getting too wet. Jeff was a little reluctant but I took his pack across for him and he soon followed. We ate lunch while we all soaked our feet in the cold water.
At the top of the next ridge we came to Kelly Knob. Several sections of rock have split away from the mountain. It was only a short hop over to the monoliths so we took a break on them. We completed the day near War Spur Shelter in a grassy field. It was our first night without rain. Waking up to an almost dry tent was such a treat.
As we began our day we had a little excitement. Aaron and Mark left camp first and as I caught up with them I thought they were taking a break. They had seen a bear and were not sure exactly what to do. I told them “be polite”. We rounded the bend in the trail and I spotted a black bear foraging on the side of the trail. I called out “Hey Mister Bear”. The bear was gone in two seconds. The boys found it funny that such a large animal was so timid. I warned them that they had to make the bear feel its best option was to run. Making noise before getting too close allowed the bear an avenue of escape.
Just before lunch we arrived at Wind Rock. Unfortunately clouds had moved in and there were no views. We waited down at the road crossing for Graham to join us. To our pleasant surprise he and his dad showed up with Subway sandwiches. There were extras so a couple of passing thru-hikers scored big.
Graham seemed to energize the other two boys. For the first time all week I actually had to exert effort to keep up. We arrived at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter about 5:30 PM. The place was over grown and there were dead trees everywhere. While we were discussing our options a couple of hikers came up and suggested The Captain’s Place. It is a private home next to the trail where the owner allows hikers to camp. We decided to give it a look. When we got there the Captain met us at the driveway. “Are you Boy Scouts?” he asked. I answered yes and he explained that most of the Scouts he knew didn’t backpack and he was happy to have us there. He even got the boys to build a fire and gave them sodas from his back porch. Camping at the Captain’s was a great experience.
The next morning we climbed Peter’s Mountain. I stopped at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter to use the privy. For some reason the rest of the group thought I was ahead of them. They were hiking as fast as they could to catch me and I was hiking as fast as I could to catch them. Finally they took a break and I caught them. You should have seen the look on their faces. Lunch was at the summit just above Symm’s Gap. It had been up hill all morning so everyone was ready for a relaxing lunch. While we ate I started watching the skies to the west. It looked like we were in for a major storm so I reviewed what to do during a lightning storm while we ate. One of the boys asked why I was talking about lightning and my response was “because you are about to get to practice this for real.” Almost immediately the storm struck and we scrambled to a low grove of trees down the side of the mountain. It passed quickly but later in the afternoon we got caught again so we spread out and crouched down to wait it out. About the time the rain ended we arrived at Rice Field. We could see clearing skies over West Virginia.
As we started down the mountain the next morning everyone was excited. We were going into town for hamburgers! The trail took us through an industrial area and then across the New River. After a road walk we arrived at the Dairy Queen. All of us definitely packed it in with a trip back for ice cream after the burger and fries. I guess the locals thought we were starting a laundry since we all had clothes lying out to dry. After lunch we made the long climb back up to the ridgeline. At the top we took a break and soaked in the scenery of the valley below. Our destination that day was Doc’s Knob Shelter. There was a clearing just before the shelter for our tents and we cooked over at the shelter. Mark got a chance to try out Harold’s homemade wood stove while cooking supper.
On our next to the last morning I could tell everyone was starting to get tired. Aaron, Graham and Harold were all taping blisters and even the dog looked like she was ready to head home. I threw out a suggestion to hike to Dismal Creek Falls for a swim and camp for the night. I told them that was only two miles from the trailhead making our last day a short hike to the van. They all liked the idea and hiked up on the next ridge looking for a view and a lunch spot. I’m not sure what exactly motivated them but they covered 6 miles in two and a half hours. They were still going strong after lunch and were excited to at least soak from the knees down in the cold mountain water where we camped.
The next morning the boys completed their hike to the van. Like all backpackers their minds were on sleep and food. During the eight day trip they had hiked over 97 trail miles plus over a mile of side trails to and from shelters and approximately three miles of road walks to The Captain’s and into Pearisburg.
So the question is how did the boys feel about the trip? One month after the trip I spent a week at summer camp with the Troop. All three boys from the backpacking trip were there talking about next year’s hike. All three were talking about gear changes and how to prep. They even had a couple of other Scouts asking if they could go next year. As for me, I’m already itching to hit the trail.