Fond memories of a Scout camp, where we built a rope bridge over a local creek.
|A version of this true story was published in The Canadian Leader magazine, Aug/Sept 1988, p. 17. Names of individuals have been changed.
The Bridge Over Strawberry Creek
It's Saturday, October 18 and the weather is great for our local Scout troop's first hike to Strawberry Creek, west of Edmonton, Alberta. There is no snow yet, and a glorious autumn sun takes the edge off the crisp cold air. It will be a terrific weekend and we are all looking forward to building a rope bridge across the creek.
Our cavalcade of vehicles pulls in at the trailhead at the appointed hour of 09:00 and disgorges ten boys and assorted personal gear in an ungainly heap. Mothers wave goodbye to their offspring, then drive off shaking their heads. The three leaders – Bill, Don, and I – are left to sort out the mess.
We have the boys haul their gear to the grassy verge of the trailhead to review their packing. This was all covered last week at a troop meeting, but we need to see how their gear is stowed and check the lashings of tents, sleeping bags, and foamies.
Jerry has nothing in his pack but pajamas and his tinfoil dinner (in a plastic bowl with no foil!) but he's warmly dressed and he has good boots. Further investigation reveals that he was afraid of being cold, so is wearing every item of clothing that was in his pack. We peel off four layers and two pairs of socks and help him put them into his pack. "My feet feel better now," he comments by way of thanks. He's good to go.
Howie can't remember my Scouting nickname. "Grape Peel, can you help me?"
"That's Greybeard, Howie."
"Okay. Grey Deer, how do you tie the sleeping bag on again?”
By 10:00, we are en route. Bill and I take them in by the long trail, up and down hills and around the dry swamp, while Don drives our rescue truck with the heavy pioneering gear for the bridge via a shorter route. The scouts complain about how tough the three kilometer walk is, especially up the last long hill to the cliffs overlooking the creek, where we had planned to stop for lunch. Don, who came ahead in the pickup, has lunch ready for us, and the boys attack it with the vigor of starving young animals.
"Grey Mare, where's the washroom?" Howie asks through a mouthful of apple.
"You see the woods down there, Howie? Pick a tree. And it's Greybeard, please."
The boys beg for time to explore. We agree to give them half an hour. Don and Bill and I lean against the box of the pickup to enjoy the relative quiet, while down the hill the woods ring with shouts and laughter. Five minutes later the boys are back.
"Go explore the other way, guys," Don waves a lazy hand towards the west.
Nope, they're tired.
Everybody helps clean up and off we go. Another 20 minutes of easy downhill brings us to the creek-side meadow I'd surveyed with the patrol leaders on an earlier reconnaissance. We down packs and take a tour of the area. Once back in the meadow, the boys decide to camp right where the packs are. Smart lads.
Frank and the Falcon Patrol go off by themselves a few hundred meters across the meadow. Kenny and the Deer Patrol set up almost right where we are, by a small copse of alders. The patrol leaders are experienced older Scouts and we know that we can trust them to make sure their patrols set up a good camp.
"Great Leader, this is a good campsite," calls a cheery voice from over by the alders. Nice kid, that Howie. No memory for names, but a nice kid.
Don and I leave Bill to oversee the camp setup and go for a look around. We decide that this is super terrain for a winter camp and vow to return in a few months.
Back in at the site, we inspect the boys' work. Both patrols have set up good camps and the Deer have built themselves a table among the alders. Both groups have collected a sufficient supply of firewood.
The Deer have also assigned one of their alders as the camp flagpole and have hoisted the Canadian flag ready for breaking. We call the entire troop into a horseshoe (the parade assembly, with the flag at the open end) and break the flag to officially open the camp.
We review fire safety and no-trace camping, and then send each patrol back to its site. We help each patrol dig out circle of turf for their fire pit (at the close of the camp, this turf will be replaced and watered. Previous experience has shown that by mid-summer, there will be no sign that anyone camped there).
The boys build supper fires for their tinfoil dinners. Don lends Jerry a mess tin to cook his dinner.
"Graygears, I found this knife."
"Thanks, Howie. I think it's Jerry's. And call me Greybeard."
I head towards Jerry's tent, pausing en route to collect two foamie straps (Jerry's), a beret (Jerry's), and a flashlight (Jerry's). Planning mischief, I decide to hold onto these things until later.
Tinfoil supper around the fire is great. The Scouts remember from last year that you need to cook these foil-wrapped meals over coals. Jerry, impatient, has heated his over the flames, so his supper is firmly burnt into Don's mess tin. "Now I know why they call it a mess tin," Jerry says as he pokes at his slightly charcoaled dinner.
"You cooked it, you eat it," commands his unsympathetic patrol leader.
After supper and cleanup, we form a horseshoe and lower the flag. To earn his stuff back, Jerry is called to the front to give a brief speech on the importance of being organized. He returns to his place in the horseshoe to polite applause and undisguised snickers of disbelief from the Scouts.
We break off for an evening hike up the creek, across a ford, and half a mile up the opposite bank to a country road on the far side, and back. Along the way we wrestle and ambush each other. We sing hiking songs. The boys hold their flashlights under their chins and make ghostly moans and wails. On the way back, with the group tiring and more quiet, we star gaze, trying to find the constellations illustrated in the Scout Handbook.
"Gray Hair, where's the Big Dipper?"
"It’s up there,” I point, “those four stars that make kind of a square. By the way, Howie, have you ever had your ears checked?"
"Never mind. Oh, look. There's Jerry's knife on the trail."
Back in camp, we end the day around 21:30 with a few songs around the campfire. But the boys are tired and head for bed quickly after that. We argue briefly with the Patrol Leaders about tooth brushing, but we are too tired to enforce it. I forget to brush mine, in the end.
The morning is cold, windy and overcast. At flag break, Jerry gives a brief talk on "How to Pack Your Gear" and gets back the stuff the leaders had collected after bedtime the previous evening.
Breakfast is late because we all slept in, but oatmeal and hot orange drink – plus a few cups of coffee for the adults – makes us all feel better. We eat the pulp out of oranges and fill the hollow skins with muffin mix to bake in the dying coals to have as a mid-morning snack.
We head down the creek a hundred meters or so to where the banks are suitable for our construction project, which is a called a Monkey Bridge. This type of bridge consists of a long main bottom rope with two rope handrails. The ropes are attached at each end to crossed spars, called shearlegs, and anchored firmly to each bank. The handrails and main cable are held together by vertical support lines, each line making a V with the main cable at the bottom and a handrail at the top of each arm. This is a large project for our small troop, but we have trained for this for two years, doing progressively more difficult projects, so that we know enough about anchors, tensions, and breaking strain to do the job safely. We work hard and get everything laid out and ready to go. The boys say they aren’t hungry, and decide to have their orange muffins as an appetizer for lunch. By 13:00, we have everything lashed on and the bridge is ready to haul across the creek. During this period, Sheldon says he is cold and wants his sweater, so we send him off, promising to join him in a few minutes.
True to our word, shortly after that we hike back for our lunch break. When we get there, we find Sheldon warming his hands before a blazing fire.
"Our muffins!" shriek the other Scouts.
We rake out little burnt spheres of charcoal, and stare at them with a mixture of distress and disgust. Finally, Kenny cracks his open, digs out a bit of muffin from the center, and pops it into his mouth. We watch as he chews thoughtfully. “It’s not bad,” he says finally. We all dig in. The muffins are still good, moist and orangey, at least in the middle. Sheldon, having been soundly cursed by his peers, is forgiven.
"Graveyard, Kenny's hogging all the dried fruit," announces Howie, grabbing for the bag that Kenny holds just out of reach.
"It's Greybeard! And Ken, share out the dried fruit, please."
The bag is duly passed from hand to hand. It turns out that Kenny has eaten all the prunes. "And the dried apricots tasted furry," he complains. He ate all of those, too. Scouter Don assures me in an aside that the truck is ready to go, if necessary. He urges Kenny to drink a couple of canteens of water. But beyond complaining of thirst throughout the afternoon, Kenny suffers no ill effects from his apricot and prune binge. Not that day, anyway.
Back to work. Half the troop fords the creek at the shallowest point, then comes back to our bridge site opposite us. We attach light throw-lines to each rope and toss them across the creek. The party on the far bank then drags the 15 meter bridge across the creek, fasten it to their sheer-legs, and anchor it on their side. We pull each rope tight with a block and tackle, and anchor to sturdy trees on each bank.
We survey the completed bridge carefully. As Troop Scouter it is my responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the youth in my care, which means that I have to be the first to cross. To demonstrate my confidence, I remove my jacket and sweaters so I'll have dry gear in the event of a dip in the creek. As I climb on, the bridge quivers. So does my stomach. I go carefully, step by step, testing and adjusting each support line as I cross. With each step I take, the bridge sways and wobbles. Finally, with a huge and no doubt audible sigh of relief, I step off onto the far bank.
"Aw, shucks," one of the Scouts mutters, "he made it."
We re-tighten the ropes, then the other boys scamper across, one at a time. Finally, Scouters Don and Bill cross. Time to tighten the ropes again. Greatly daring, the entire troop lines up on the bridge while I snap a photo. The bridge sags, the lashings creak, the anchors strain. But everything holds firm. Well done, lads!
Thirty minutes later, the bridge is disassembled and loaded back into the truck. We are an hour late for our hike back, and must still break camp. We do so hastily, without taking much time to check the boys' packing. As a result, we are forever stopping to retrieve and retie various bits of gear. Jerry loses his knife again. This time, though, no one finds it.
By following the road out, we make it out in half the time we took coming in. By the time we reach the trailhead, we are tired but satisfied. We're proud of the boys and they're justifiably proud of themselves.
Everyone scatters to meet up with their parents for the ride back to the city. "This was a terrific camp," Keith yells out to his mother when he sees her, "the best one I was ever on!" Thank you, Keith, I needed to hear that.
Howie and his mom drive past me. "Bye, Greybeard," Howie calls out the window.
Well, I’ll be darned. He got it right.