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Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana

The lightweight philosophy coupled with high adventure creates a schoolroom for incredible growth. Witness it here.

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by Eric Vann (Photos and Video: Ryan Jordan) | 2013-09-17 00:00:00-06

Preface

In July 2013, I participated in the first ever BSA-sponsored packrafting school at the Montana High Adventure Base in Dupuyer, Montana. The program principles and curriculum were developed by Ryan Jordan, and I had the great privilege of serving with Ryan as an instructor and mentor for a select group of Scouts who would be our guinea pigs and pioneers, and who would pave the way to opening up a dramatic new mode of high adventure wilderness travel in the Scouting program.

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Scouts search for packraftable rivers in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

This essay and trip report reflects some of my experiences, thoughts about Scouting, and importance of a lightweight philosophy as part of effective wilderness group dynamics.

Introduction

The paddles dug into the water, spilling us into the river, and we were off.

The landscape around us was enveloping, and peaceful. As we paddled I couldn’t help thinking how cool it was to be doing a Wilderness packrafting trip with teenage Boy Scouts. But this trip was greater than the packrafts. In fact it was greater than the location, the gear, and the hikers individually. This trip was about working together to overcome obstacles.

When we simplify life - boil it down to the basics as we are forced to in the backcountry - we begin to identify what really matters. We see that the people around us and their safety and well-being become the priority. We begin to rely more on ourselves and then work as a team to come out safely. Couple the backcountry with learning a new challenging skill that forces participants to go out of their comfort zone and you have a recipe for growth.

At the beginning of the trip the Scouts were uncomfortable as they adjusted to new experiences with their as-yet-unproven decision making matrices. But with each riffle, rapid, and river bend, their confidence increased with their experience. I was amazed at the transition. By the end of the trip they were totally different; far better equipped to face challenges, more resilient, and willing to be helpful and be helped. This latter attribute was surprising, and reflected the positive benefits of going through shared experiences that test physical, mental, and emotional limits.

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Ryan and Eric teach Scouts how to attach their packs to their boats at the put-in.

High Adventure (especially, backcountry travel in remote environments) is one of the best schools for growth offered by the Scouting program. There is something about a challenge that forces people to look deep within to overcome the obstacle. We started as a group of individuals and by the time we ended we were functioning as a team and loving every minute of it. I’m sure the lure of the backcountry and the growth that comes along with it may be why some of you subscribe to BPL and why you seek intimate backcountry experiences.

Honestly, I was blessed to serve as an instructor for this trip - the first ever BSA-sponsored wilderness packrafting program. So the trip was born; 5 days in the majestic Bob Marshall Wilderness: 4 scouts, 4 adults, and 8 packrafts. The trip was challenging, it was engaging, and it was fun. It was a pilot trip - to see if packrafting was a feasible high adventure BSA program.

On the trip, we ran challlenging water for newbies (Class 2-3 / PR 2-4), saw diverse forms of wildlife (ducks, bear, deer, and lots of trout!), saw some beautiful country, but the best part was watching the Scouts grow as a result of the challenge.

To better accommodate our high adventure itinerary we stayed true to the principles of lightweight backpacking, choosing our gear based on anticipated weather and actual need. This included packing thin, light, non-absorbent clothing, sharing a significant amount of personal gear (knives, first aid kits, insect repellent, and more), and taking advantage of careful cooking and water treatment techniques to minimize our need for fuel and water chemicals while learning important skills.Our necessity-based packing and sharing mindset enabled us to run this trip with less than 40 lbs of gear per person, which included 12+ pounds per person of whitewater packrafting gear (individual and group shares), 8 pounds of food per person, and a variety of lightweight luxury items that included tenkara rods and bratwurst.

Day 1: Straight Creek to Pretty Prairie

We got out of the cars at 10 am and after a short restroom break inflated the packrafts and put into the river right from the parking lot. How cool is that! Wilderness packrafting from a car. The water was cool and the boys immediately faced a challenge - a strainer. This water hazard (a log stuck in such a manner that the current flows over it) is an unwelcome sight to inexperienced and experienced packrafters alike. The boys readily adapted and relied on their previous training to easily navigate the hazard.

Shortly thereafter, after hitting a tricky PR3 rapid, we had the first (and only) unplanned wet entry into the water when one of the Scouts flipped his packraft after his stern was bandersnatched by a pourover. He quickly recovered demonstrating proper recovery form as he kept his feet off the river floor (to prevent them from becoming lodged in the rocks) and swam to bank, shaking his head, but smiling. He later remarked how his experience flipping the boat was a blessing as he understood that he could safely and comfortably handle a wet entry.

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Ryan teaching the art of scouting rapids, and helping new packrafters make paddle-or-portage decisions.

The day passed without further incident as we traversed the beautiful landscape before us. We had been floating for 4 hours or so and the sky was darkening - it appeared that a thunderstorm was about to let loose.

One of the values of Scouting is that it promotes leadership and responsibility at a young age. These 13-16 year olds took the initiative when they saw the storm approaching in the distance to make finding a campsite the main objective. We stopped to scout a potential camp and the boys made the decision to continue downstream to find a nicer place to camp, their confidence in paddling and inclement weather management keeping their options open

This ended up being a great decision as the storm passed us by but what amazes me about their behavior was not only did they have the foresight to look far down the horizon they saw what was coming and prepared a plan to meet it head on. The storm’s drama dissolved, but these Scouts demonstrated the Scout Motto "Be prepared" when they decided to take their fate into their own hands.

We floated some beautiful country down to our camp and the two patrols (one adult patrol, and one Scout patrol) each set up their respective shelters and bear bags, treated water, and arranged the cooking area. That night we carved willow sticks, built a fire, and roasted Bratwursts.

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First night weiners roasted on a willow stick over fire. We introduce Scouts to an important packrafting tradition.

Day 2: Pretty Prairie to North Fork

Day two dawned with all of its glory and we packed up. Ryan was quick on his tenkara draw while the rest of us were tying our packs to our boats and caught 15 trout in 15 minutes, foreshadowing what would become a continuing theme on the trip - superb fishing.

After packrafting for an hour or so we stopped for a tenkara fly fishing class. Tenkara fly fishing is becoming increasingly popular among backpackers. Its light weight and collapsible design are ideal for backcountry travel. The scouts immediately took a liking to the fishing with a few catching fish right away.

We packrafted without incident as the landscape enveloped us. We had to be focused today. At the bottom of the South Fork lies a gorge that marked a transition point for us, and we didn’t want to suffer the inconvenience of running whitewater beyond our current ability when our route was to be transitioning to trekking. Navigation played a role here as we had to make sure we didn't accidentally plunge into the gorge where the close proximity of the cliffs to the water’s edge would not only make water travel hazardous but would also make portaging an extreme challenge. We wanted to pull out of the river before the gorge.

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Working together to portage loaded boats around a logjam in a braided side channel.

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The majesty of river travel in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

As with all things on this trip the Scouts were in charge with the adults serving as advisors and making sure extremely dangerous situations were avoided. Therefore it was the Scouts’ responsibility to evaluate every rapid, navigate on both the water and trail, and execute route decisions accordingly - without the aid of GPS units (we teach precision map and compass navigation combined with a continuous “look up and pay attention to the landscape” routefinding).

They did an excellent job relating what they saw around them to the features on the map. We pulled out above the gorge, ate lunch, and were soon on the trail to evening campsite. That evening, we camped on a gravel bar island and ate fresh trout that night.

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A tenkara-caught wild rainbow from the North Fork.

Day 3: The Upper North Fork

Today we would leave our camp set up for the afternoon, trek up to the North Fork headwaters, and float back to camp. Upon our arrival back to camp, we packed up and started making our way down the top of the North Fork Gorge with an uneasy evening float as ominous weather, a nearby forest fire, and loud whitewater echoed on the canyon walls below. Our camp would be located above the gorge’s first major rapid in a lovely meadow protected by pines on three sides and decorated with bear scat.

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Packrafting is about “packing a raft” as much as “rafting a pack”. Climbing out of the South Fork Gorge.

Day 4: North Fork Gorge

After scouting a solid Class 3 (the entrance rapid to the gorge), and teaching more advanced packrafting principles, Ryan ran the rapid while the Scouts teetered on the edge of excitement and fear. All of the Scouts attempted it, and ran the rapid carefully, intentionally, and aggressively -- the hallmark attributes of seasoned packrafting veterans. This point was a shining, proud moment for us as instructors.

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Chase running the entrance rapid to the North Fork Gorge.

Although the rapid was a challenge the preliminary scouting was perhaps a more crucial learning experience. It gave the scouts an opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned, reinforce their comfort on the water (especially compared to Day 1!), and parse complex whitewater into its less-intimidating parts. When we were scouting the rapid, we felt that this was the type of challenge that Baden-Powell had in mind when he envisioned a patrol of Scouts facing a backcountry challenge.

We continued downstream a quarter of a mile to a river-wide pourover shelf and spent a few hours fishing in the riffles and pools near our boats.

In the early afternoon, we decided that we wanted to give the gorge a shot, so we scouted the next several rapids downstream of our fishing spot. Unfortunately, within the span of just a few days, water levels had dropped enough to make safe navigation of some of the rapids problematic - we were worried about the prospect of repairing boats incessantly as they scraped through razor-sharp limestone bedrock bands for the rest of the day.

After scoping it out we decided to play it safe and trek around the gorge and camp in the vicinity of the entrance gorge to a stillwater body downstream. We pitched camp in a sagebrush meadow overlooking the gorge while casting tenkara flies to finicky trout until well after dark.

Day 5: Elbow Gorge

We woke up at 5:30 am to ensure we had enough time to reach our pickup point by 1:00 pm. We caught the sunrise as we came through the top of the reservoir’s entrance gorge, which would lead into our final stretch of paddling.

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Early morning paddle through a stillwater canyon.

The last day was a tough paddle against the wind and after having a final packrafting exam (which included a deep, open-water wet entry and exit with a loaded packraft in high wind), the scouts were sufficiently exhausted. We stopped for lunch halfway across the lake, took some time to readjust, and hit the trail for a midday walk in blazing heat to the trailhead.

Challenges

There were many obstacles on the trip that forced the boys to demonstrate their knowledge and leadership. I think the most prevalent example and the most defining moment of the trip was when they made the decision to not continue down the North Fork gorge. We had walked a ways into the gorge in an effort to scout it out and it was clear to us that low water, tall cliffs, some private property, and a steep gradient would make portaging extremely challenging. The adventurous side of me really wanted the scouts to go down the gorge but at the current water levels the likelihood of a packrafting trip turning into a packraft repair trip was high. Even though I was marginally disappointed I knew they made the right decision and I was impressed at their judgment. It was one of those moments. They probably don’t even realize how special it was. It was just an affirmation to us instructors that they were paying attention and learning and they knew their limits. It was cool to see them exhibit that wisdom and elect a mode of travel that was dictated by their desire for efficiency to keep moving across the wild landscape.

Summary

I am no stranger to high adventure and can say that it is one of the reasons I am who I am today. I draw upon my 50 miler in the Beartooths and other trips often. Not because it was such a cool trip (which it was) but because serving as the crew leader on that trip gave me an incredible opportunity to demonstrate leadership in an adventure setting. The beauty of the Scouting program is that it not only gives boys training on skills and leadership and service, it gives them tangible ways to experience them.

I saw this type of leadership demonstrated first hand on the trip. It was rewarding to come full-circle and observe the boys meet similar challenges that I faced and watch them grow as they handled them. I really admire the Scouting program and am grateful that it gave me so many opportunities to demonstrate and learn leadership in an adventure setting.

These types of experiences are distinguished from other leadership programs in that high adventure breeds trust within the Scout patrol. When faced with extreme adversity we begin to identify who we can actually depend on because of the way they handle that pressure. And for those who are not quite ready to lead, just being a part of the patrol structure furthers their preparation by giving them experiences to witness leadership at the edges of challenge.

On the trip we talked about four principles that Ryan incorporates into his high adventure instruction: Honor, courage, service, and leadership. These four attributes became guiding principles and shaped our mindset for how we acted during the trip:

  • Honor symbolizes the need to respect the beautiful area we were in as well as realize that all members of the patrol had something meaningful to contribute (whether skills, personality, or companionship).
  • Courage represents the requirement that no matter how tough it is that all members of the patrol have an obligation to contribute whatever they have (and we respect that by honoring what they bring to the table).
  • Service emphasizes that we are all a part of something bigger than our individual selves and that our success depends on achieving group goals - a higher standard of achievement than any of our individual goals. Each person must put the needs of others as the priority in order to have a safe and successful high adventure outing.
  • Leadership places emphasis on personal responsibility and attentiveness to other’s needs. This can take many forms - peer leadership, active leadership, and self leadership - but the main requirement is that everyone needs to take ownership of their leadership responsibilities and remain acutely attentive to each other.

I suppose I share all of this with you out of some sense of pride. When I went through the Scouting program as a youth, it was tough to see what I was actually learning and how I could apply it to my life. The Scouting program is unique in that it explains leadership and provides examples and facts about it, but it goes a step further than other youth leadership programs in that it gives creative, hands-on experiences that allow the participants to really learn what leadership is. It gives them opportunity in a high adventure type-setting to face problems together.

Looking back on it now, when I am faced with challenges in school or at work or in the backcountry, the lessons I have learned from Scouting continually point me in the right direction. The purpose of this article is not to recruit for the BSA (most of you are probably past the 18 year-old cutoff anyway) or to encourage you to get your kids involved (which is still a good idea). I hope that in writing this article I could encourage you to take some of the lessons from the way Scout troops operate their high adventure programs and apply them to your own trips in the backcountry, whether it’s using the patrol method, teaching skills to other members in your expedition, or cultivating a sense of bonding by sharing difficult challenges together.

As was noted in the introduction, we also shared a lot of gear to cut down on weight. At first pass this makes sense from the methodology of lightweight backpacking. Cutting down weight means we can travel fast, safer, and conquer more advanced terrain. Aside from those benefits, sharing gear forces you to be more dependent on those around you. This may sound limiting but in the wilderness any excuse that brings you closer and forces you and your group to operate as a team is a good thing. In the wilderness, hazards can appear in the blink of an eye and we are continually adjusting to meet the circumstances. The closer you are with your group the better prepared you will be to successfully meet the challenges.

Another benefit of lightweight philosophy is that less time is spent looking for, thinking about, repairing, using, and otherwise managing gear. Gear gets out of the way so the most important parts of the Scouting curriculum can be emphasized: learning skills, building positive relationships, and working towards the group’s goals.

This is High Adventure

“This is High Adventure” is a film written and directed by Ryan Jordan and produced by the Montana Council BSA and the Boone and Crockett Club that will be released in the Winter of 2013, promoting packrafting in Scouting and the importance of high adventure in building youth leadership, outdoor skills, positive group dynamics, and character.

View an unofficial “pre-trailer” of “This is High Adventure” here:

Learn More

If you are a parent of a Scout, or a Scout leader and would like to inquire about youth participation in this program in 2014 and beyond, please contact the Montana Council BSA High Adventure Committee Chair, Ryan Jordan (publisher@backpackinglight.com).


Citation

"Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana," by Eric Vann (Photos and Video: Ryan Jordan). BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/paddle-scouts-vann.html, 2013-09-17 00:00:00-06.

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Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana
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Maia
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana on 09/17/2013 21:25:59 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Very Nice on 09/19/2013 18:10:36 MDT Print View

Very nice trip report Eric. I can tell you are proud of how your Scouts did. I love getting kids out in the woods and using the experiences there to teach teamwork and responsibility.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Paddle Scouts: BSA Packrafting the Sun River Drainage, Montana on 09/24/2013 13:35:26 MDT Print View

Great work, Eric. I see some future participants in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Classic here.

Chris Grow
(growchris)
Group cooking on 09/24/2013 13:56:53 MDT Print View

Can we get an article about the techniques used for group cooking on this trip? I noticed a trout being cooked over an open fire that looked great. Other than tinfoil, what was holding the fish above the coals? How do you pack cooking supplies, that have been used for fish, in bear country? So many questions....