By Will Woodard
A Texas troop's annual Wilderness Survival merit badge weekend includes a hike by starlight, a rugged orienteering challenge, and rattlesnake meat for dinner.
Troop 175 has had a long drive to the wilderness camping area. Midland, Tex.home to the troop and headquarters of the BSA's Buffalo Trail Councilis two and a half hours away to the northeast. As the troop's 10 vehicles turn off the last paved road, some of the younger passengers begin to wonder what the next two days hold in store.
They are entering the dry, rugged Glass Mountains in southwest Texas, where juniper and oak trees are rarely taller than a man and 4,700-foot peaks appear to rise abruptly out of the surrounding flatness. Moving deeper and deeper into the heart of this wild land, the vehicles follow circuitous, dust-choked dirt roads cut by cattle ranchers.
At a fork, some cars turn right, toward the weekend's designated campsite. The others veer left and, after a few more turns, stop and let out a group of Scouts and two adult leaders. As these cars turn around and drive away, the group begins preparationsadjusting pack straps, checking waterto set out on foot.
The Scouts are alone in a true wilderness with only minimal equipment and provisionslike sleeping bags and waterbut no map or compass. The stars shine dimly overhead. The silhouette of the mountain range stands before them, mute and distant.
Troop 175's wilderness survival weekend has begun.
Focus on advancement
The annual adventure is the brainchild of John Balden, assistant Scoutmaster responsible for coordinating troop camp-outs. Weekend activities are based on requirements for the Wilderness Survival merit badge.
"The first one of these camp-outs was overly ambitious," admits Balden, who is originally from South Africa and a former photo-safari guide. "We tried to do too much and ran out of both daytime and nighttime. We've since worked out a program that alternates events each year."
Troop 175 has a strong focus on advancement, and well-planned outings like this, designed around the requirements for a specific merit badge, are important. Such challenging activities help keep older Scouts involved in the troop and moving up the advancement trail.
"For about three years you'll have a boy who will regularly come on camp-outs, and then they start to become a little less regular," Balden explains. "There's so much peer pressure on these older guys. If they haven't reached Eagle or are not close to it by the time they get to 16, they're gone."
Tonight the Scouts have no outside distractions, but they will soon learn that things don't always go as planned.
As they marvel at the sky filled with stars, Balden gives their marching orders: "Your first bearingand remember that these are magnetic [compass] bearingsis 170 degrees, for three-quarters of a mile. The next bearing is 104 degrees, and you'll walk that line into camp."
The leaders had set up the night route ahead of time. Because they would have no compass, the Scouts had prepared by learning to use the stars for direction and counting paces to estimate distance traveled.
Now they study the stars for another moment, determine their direction, and set off. The rock-covered ground constantly shifts under the hikers' feet, and the descent, into a valley made black by the moon's shadow, is steeper than anticipated.
A cloudbank rolls in with unusual swiftness, and by the time the Scouts reach the three-quarter mile point, the stars they need to navigate have been obscured. Overhead is only a dark gray, misty dome, illuminated dimly by the moon.
The Scouts ask Balden to help them navigate, but he steadfastly refuses. "If you're asking me questions about direction and distance, I'm mute!" he declares. The Scouts realize they will have to rely on their own decisions to reach camp.
They become discouraged as they fall behind schedule and off course. Finally, they locate a dirt road that leads to camp, three miles away.
Balden turns their mistakes into a learning experience. "You can relate what's going on here tonight with anything in life," he counsels. "Don't lose sight of your goal. If you can't see or feel it, it doesn't mean you can't attain it."
Locating coffee cans
Saturday morning features an orienteering course. Scouts must use map-reading skills to locate coffee cans with different point values spread throughout a one-square-mile area.
But they soon discover that plotting a route on a map is easier than making your way along the actual path through wilderness terrain. Searching for a 30-point can, one patrol has had to hike over very rocky terrain, gaining about 200 feet in elevation in a little less than 500 feet of horizontal travel.
A leader notices that patrol leader Kyle Sheldon has become frustrated in trying to determine the patrol's exact location. The leader reminds Kyle that he can calculate his position by taking "back bearings" with a compass.
Kyle lays the map on a rock, and the leader leads him toward the solution, never doing it for him. Three landmarks are spotted, and Kyle shifts the compass across the map to note their back bearings. Then he draws pencil lines for each bearing, forming a tiny triangle which contains the patrol's location.
The look in Kyle's eyes changes as discouragement turns to excitement. He leads his patrol to the 30-point can, and they go on to win the orienteering competition.
Look, Ma, no utensils!
The weekend continues, with no dull moments.
The Scouts cook their breakfast and dinner without utensils. For breakfast, they discover that an empty orange or grapefruit shell makes a great frying pan for cooked eggs.
For dinner, they learn that rattlesnake meat cooked on a stick is actually quite tasty. The troop had purchased the meat prior to the camp-out from professional rattlesnake handlers; this was so Scouts could experience firsthand that one can indeed avoid going hungry by eating food taken from the wild.
Building a cooking fire without matches is also a merit badge requirement. After some instruction, each Scout builds a campfire and starts it using flint and steel.
That achievement generates a big jump on each Scout's self-confidence meter. And this helps to achieve the weekend's ultimate goal of providing leadership-training experiences in addition to passing merit badge requirements.
"Training boys to be leaders is, in effect, the quintessence of the Scouting experience," John Balden says. "Watching each boy take a step toward gaining leadership skills, such as creating a plan, communicating that plan effectively, and setting an example for others, is what this weekend was all about.
"To me, confidence-building and personal development are the most critical objectives of leadership training," Balden says. "If a boy has confidence, he will be willing to venture into a great deal more uncharted territory."
Balden sums up his feelings about the results of the weekend this way: "Take a group of boys. Some will lead, most will not. Will they all gain something by putting into practice the leadership skills we are trying to teach them? You bet! More so than if they were never exposed to them and did not experience the joy of success and learn to get up and try again anytime that they fail.
"And we will be night-hiking again next year."
Freelance writer Will Woodard lives in Irving, Tex.
May-June 2001 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2001 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.