*Backpacking with Scouts*
By: Fred Heiser
15 September 2003

In August I went on a backpacking trip with my son's Boy Scout troop in the High Sierra. It turned into a minor survival adventure.

We would start out at 7600 ft. elevation at Big Meadow camp in northern Sequoia National Park, climb over 5 miles to Poop-out Pass (Its real name!) at about 9200 ft then drop down to 8900 at our destination: Jennie Lake. It was a well established trail all the way. It was to be 4 days and 3 nights in the wilderness.

I'd been watching the weather on line very closely. The predictions on Weather.com were for scattered thunderstorms for the Mono Lake area, about 20 miles east of where we'd be and the same elevation. I wanted to verify this so I went to some other weather sites, the Wunderground.com (Weather Underground) site and the Accuweather.com site. The closest reporting area on the Accuweather site was also Mono lake and they gave essentially the same forcast. Wunderground.com gave a report for the High Sierra from Sequoia to Yosemite with specific temperature ranges for 5000 and 8000 ft elevation and detailed precipitation predictions. It predicted 30-40% chance of precipitation for the 4 days of our trip and daytime highs in the low 70s and lows in the low 40s. OK, so we'd better be prepared for wet weather.

Wednesday afternoon we drove up in a 4 vehicle caravan, 15 scouts from ages 10 to 16, 3 fathers (including me) and a scoutmaster. In the distance I noted lightning flashing in the approximate area we'd be staying. Suggested to the scoutmaster we might change plans and spend that night at a different campground I knew of at a lower elevation. We could inform the people back home by cell phone. he pooh-poohed the idea and none of the other fathers were particularly concerned, so on we went. When we got to Big Meadow campground at about midnight, strokes were happening every minute behind the mountains to our east. Some were so bright they left you seeing spots, yet they were not directly visible and they were so far away you couldn't hear any thunder.

The plan was to simply spread groundsheets that night and sleep in the open. The next morning we'd just pack up the bags and begin the hike. I suggested that with the storm in the distance and a 40% chance of rain that night perhaps it would be better to pitch tents, but got no support from the others. Too dark and too tired.

The rain hit at 3 in the morning and we all scrambled for the cars. The sleeping bags got soaked. Sleep did not come easily from then on.

The next day we drove down to Hume Lake. There's a small private resort there where we ran our gear through their dryers. One of the boy scout fathers happened to know the camp manager. He told him that if we were going to Jennie Lake we should expect to get soaked.

I suggested to the Lord High Scoutmaster that the better part of wisdom suggested that we should retreat to a lower (and dryer) elevation for our trip. There were lots of other excellent backpacking possibilities to be had and I knew the land well. He wouldn't have any of it and I got no support from the other fathers. Then it was back up the hill to begin the hike.

Hiking at altitude is not the same as hiking near sea level. Hiking uphill for extended distances is not the same as on level ground. Hiking with 40 lbs. of gear is not the same as with a 5 lb. daypack. There was a wide range of fitness levels, ranging from the Scoutmaster who was a hard core long distance hiking and biking enthusiast to some 10 year olds who hadn't done anything more physical than play Nintendo for most of their lives.

Scoutmaster set out at a blistering (IMHO) pace and had reached the two mile mark just as the tail had made a mile. I didn't see the point in all this as some of the kids were burning themselves out just to keep up with him. We stayed in radio contact from head to tail with FRS walkie-talkies and he'd have to stop and wait for us to catch up or the tail would be out of range. The fathers gravitated towards the rear of the pack, partly out of tiredness and partly because that's where the kids who needed the most help were. I guess it made his rest periods twice as long as the last people in line since he had to wait for us to catch up and rest before continuing.

I suddenly realized I was the only one to bring a map or a compass. (In fact I'd printed out several copies for the boys to use when we got into a bit of orienteering. I use a set of topo maps on CD by National Geographic.) Scoutmaster had this trip memorized from having done it a dozen times and hadn't considered using the opportunity filling the boy's hike requirement. (You have to use map and compass on for your 5 mile hike to qualify for scout first class.)

While en route, clouds came in. There was occaisional lightning and thunder and intermittent drizzle. You're a lot closer to the weather near the top of a mountain and the clouds are flying by very fast, just a few hundred feet above you. Intellectually I understood that the middle of a forest is a very safe place to be during lightning but I still felt a bit nervous about it.

At one point a couple of boys became frightened because they'd gotten separated from the rest of us on the trail. They'd fallen way behind the leaders but were still way ahead of the hikers in the rear. Not being with an adult the had no radio com. They started blowing their emergency whistles and scouts came running from both directions to their aid. (One boy said he was fearful of being attacked by a "wildebeast"!) It was a good reaction to being in possible trouble but I was starting to ge really irritated at how our glorious leader had let us get so spread out. He could have taken it easier rather then proving his superior fitness at the expense of 10 year old couch potatoes. Some conditioning hikes would have been a good idea too. My son and I were doing fine but this was many kids first introduction to backpacking.

We made the lake with no injuries other than stomach cramps in a couple of the younger kids. Tents were pitched, fishing poles brought out lunch eaten. It was clearing off and everything looked fine.

That evening as we started preparing dinner, a cloud came over with quite amazing speed. In about two minutes we went from sunshine to overcast to rain. Lightning and thunder followed and then pea sized hail. Everyone scrambled for their tents. Five minutes later many started scrambling out of their tents as they began to flood. Every level spot on the ground had turned into a puddle and the flatter slopes had a thin layer of water sheeting across. We picked up the tents that were in danger and carried them to safe locations.

I'd been in such a hurry to move the kids tents that I'd forgotten to put my ponch on and had gotten totally soaked and was starting to shiver. Tried to eat something but my stomach wouldn't accept it. Still raining. I noticed water was building up at the entrance of my &29.95 bivy sack, so I excavated drainage ditches and piled up dirt as a berm around it. As I turned in for the night I noted with satisfaction that the Scoutmaster's $250 one man, 4 season mountain tent looked ready to float away with him in it.

The next morning I was feeling pretty good. The sun was out, I was warm and in my dry set of spare clothes. My wet clothes from the previous night would soon be dry.The boys got a fire started with wood from the underside of logs and by splitting old deadwood apart for the dry stuff inside. I checked on the scouts and they were all okay as well. One of the fathers was even seen swimming. (Brrr!)

Scoutmaster announced that we had to go back right away. We wouldn't be able to take another night like that. (Now that the tents were all in safe locations, I didn't see why.) Gotta leave before it rains again. 4 days and three nights had telescoped into an overnighter.

The trip back was easier than the trip out. Going in took 6 hours and going out only took 3. Even though a my back ached a bit on this trip from a poorly adjusted pack, I've decided to take my son and daughter on some shorter backpacking trips when time and weather permit.

I'm glad the troop only does this once a year. I'm limited in how much of this scoutmaster I can take.
Fred Heiser



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