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A Yankee Notebook

February 13, 2012


CAMP CARPENTER, NH – I’d almost forgotten how much fun it used to be to go overnight camping in cold weather with a bunch of other boys whom I knew only through our membership in a Boy Scout troop. But all around me here have been the sounds and sights of happy campers: hardwood fires blazing in stone rings, boys seated in circles passing around hot pots of macaroni and cheese, and the whack of axes splitting wood. Friday evening, when we made the rounds of various Scout camps scattered through the woods here at Camp Carpenter, everybody we talked to seemed delighted to be here.

To satisfy a truth-in-reporting requirement, I must admit that all of us here have dodged a major weather bullet. The forecast for early this weekend promised an arctic cold front and clear skies. So I brought my husky four-season tent, the 20-below sleeping bag, polyfleece boot liners, and several layers of fleece and down. But the front has stalled west of us, held back by a slow-moving warmer system to the east, so we’ve been basking in temperatures around 20 degrees, and I didn’t need snowshoes to stamp out a circle in the snow for my tent.

The weekend campout is called a Klondike Derby, and borrows some mythology from the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, in which dog sleds and an ability to operate successfully in very cold weather were at a premium. So each competing patrol – there are over 200 boys here, with their adult leaders – has built a sled to carry its required gear. Instead of a line of dogs to pull it, the boys do it, with one of them riding or running at the back of the sled to steer and stabilize it.

Camp Carpenter comprises a little over 200 acres surrounding Long Pond, just east of Interstate 93 and south of Manchester. It boasts a large dining hall and function room, cabins, leantos (called “Adirondacks” in New Hampshire), camping and activity areas, and a Scouting museum. When it was first laid out, half a century ago, its setting was quiet. But the city’s metastasizing suburbs and the growth of the its airport now provide a low, constant background roar; and when large, Miami-bound jets take off, our film crew has to stop recording. From my tent, I can look through an oak grove and the slingshot target range to the back side of a row of generic condominiums. If the boys notice, they don’t give any sign of it. They’re just as excited about what they’re doing as if they really were somewhere in the bush near Dawson or Whitehorse.

The Scout troops began to pull into camp after school Friday, and continued to arrive well after dark, setting up in their assigned campsites. The flickering fires reminded me of the line from Julia Ward Howe’s famous marching hymn: “I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps...” Big tarps went up over picnic tables and stoves; piles of split firewood went up beside fire pits; and tents popped up in every halfway-level dry spot. During the evening, inspection teams of older Scouters visited the camps with checklists of required items – first aid kits, hats, gloves or mittens, jackknives – and awarded or deducted points. Taps was at 10 o’clock.

I was up just before six and was making breakfast on the Coleman stove – scrambled eggs, cheese, bacon, coffee, and sweet rolls – when the film crew showed up with their camera batteries recharged after a night indoors with electrical outlets. We dined, washed up, packed away the tent, and abluted before a cannon went off at eight to announce the start of the Derby. The patrols of Scouts began dragging their sleds around the pond on a woods road, stopping at stations along the way to perform outdoor skills tests on which they were graded. Because of the lack of snow, almost all the sleds were mounted on wheels, some with great originality and others with obvious last-minute desperation. One Senior patrol opted to stick with just skis and carry their sled on their shoulders like a coffin. It worked better than anyone expected; they won their class.

We followed a patrol named Dynamite, whose cheer (required for entry to each activity site) was, “Boom! Dynamite!” They were first required to lash together a sawhorse, set a heavy log upon it, saw off a two-inch-thick section, and bore a hole through that to make a wheel – all of this within 20 minutes. But their sawhorse was a bit too limber, so they lost a few points. They went on to Fire-Building (flint-and-steel; they did beautifully), Knots and Lashings, Map and Compass, Obstacle Course, Ice Rescue, and several others, ending up with a Citizenship quiz. Through it all, they were judged on Organization and Delegation, Problem-Solving, and Leadership. They gained points if the judges at each site could pick out the leader without asking; then each leader was judged on his performance. Dynamite’s leader was a very impressive kid named Jacob, clearly in charge and respected. It occurred to me that if I were a prospective employer, college admissions officer, or military recruiter, this event would be ideal for checking out candidates.

There was another quality, rarely overt, but thoroughly in the grain of the organization. I can best express it by what kept running through my mind: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Vermont anymore.” This was the good old-fashioned God-and-Country conservatism that I knew in Boy Scouts myself 60 years ago, before I went off to school and became a smarty-pants liberal questioning every assumption. There was authority here – and unquestioning acceptance of it – that we don’t see much in general society these days. I heard and saw no cellphones. The boys were consistently called boys. When I opened my food box in the company of some leaders and lightly mentioned that my wife had sneaked in a one-ounce bottle of whiskey, everybody jumped back as if it were an angry rattlesnake. I hid it. Only a churl would attempt to disturb or disrupt in any way this great weekend of learning practical and social skills that will last for life. It was good to recall how much fun it used to be to thrash around in the winter woods with a bunch of other boys.

Photo by Willem lange