A Spying Adventure

Last weekend, I packed bags full of clothing and equipment and left for secret destination to lead my Venturing crew in a reconnaissance mission that would not only test our scouting knowledge, but threaten to tear my team asunder. I went…to Mafeking.

In 1988, Lord Baden-Powell and a small troop held Mafeking against siege by the encroaching Boers. One of his main strategies was making his force appear stronger than it was by simulating landmines, making fake searchlights, and acting as though areas were cordoned off with barbed wire. Likewise, every year my troop simulates a war situation in which teams compete to show their skills in medical emergencies, navigation, evasion, woodcraft, knotwork, rescue skills, fire craft, and most importantly team work. For the first time, the Venturing crew was invited to enter an all-girls team. As we learned later, no one thought that we could handle the challenge.

2100 hours. The first hurdle was in woodcraft. We were informed that enemy snipers had been posted throughout the camp wielding (water)guns which they would fire upon any team they spotted. We had to be very quiet. Our first assignment was to take a bearing a certain distance north from a flagpole and report it to our contact. We spent several minutes first getting to the pole, and ensuring that no other teams (possible enemies) were there before realizing that it was impossible to take the bearing because the north was blocked with dense forest. We consulted our map and decided that the flagpole in question was probably one overlooked in the center the territory. As we took our bearing, we were surprised by a mass of enemy agents stampeding past in the guise of deer. We realized, however, that there are no real deer at Scoutland.

The team then proceeded to sneak along the shoreline that marks the outward perimeter of Scoutland. Loud enemy voices and lights in the distance reminded us that though we were fairly silent and blacked out, we were woefully exposed. Climbing through a bed of dead leaves onto a bridge was the work of a moment. We reassembled just as the enemy started back down the path toward us. We dove into the brush–the crackling brush. Now we were fairly well hidden but woefully loud. As first shapes of the enemy passed silently through the gloom, agent Delta stood up because she thought the enemy was me. I realized that amidst the signals for silent, come here, and convene, I had forgotten to set a signal for coming out of hiding.

At the first-aid station, I was struck by a piece of shrapnel, and my leg crumpled beneath me. The team remembered how to set a splint, but I began to enter shock, which was none the less disturbing because it involved talk of infant rabbits, fuchsia, and bright gleams of light. Fortunately, I had the foresight to imprint in my subconscious the exclamation, “Are you listening to me? I’m going into shock, you fools!” Agent Bravo was quite perceptive and prevented the unthinkable. Our stellar medic Gamma removed the shrapnel on site and applied a healing potion, and we were fit to continue our mission within fifteen minutes.

Our contact instructed us that an enemy camp was situated at the other end of the territory. As we crouched in the underbrush plotting our next move, screams emanated from the site and then all was silent. An enemy patrol exited shortly afterwards. We had been informed that the enemy had set a watch, which had been quietly been taken out by one of our own. The rest of the group would not notice us unless they heard us, but all were armed. We were instructed to discover the bearing of the gun in the camp, and report any other information we gathered. The trail leading down to the camp was fraught with risk, but the hillside flanking it was covered with dried leaves. In the silence, gunshots squirted boomed. Agents Gamma’s and Bravo’s bullet-proof vests had come in handy. It appeared that snipers had been posted to replace the downed watchmen. As I dove under a table, a machine gunner turned and sprayed a hail of bullets at us. We made hasty notes. In the distance, shouts and the baying of hounds alerted us of our danger and we fled into the night.

It grew progressively harder to evade the enemy teams. One point in our favor was that they were typically loud and careless who might be watching. Dissension arose in the group as a member pointed out that the team leader didn’t confide in her team. However, both parties were too tired to argue. All parties agreed that the enemy teams were annoying, and extra rations of chocolate were apportioned. It was now about 0330 hours. Frustrations rose as holes in each member’s preparation and knowledge were observed. Nearly an hour was spent in failed attempts to get in touch with our contact, as enemy teams searched for the mole in their operation. Finally, we reached the relative safety of the other side of the peninsula and made a fire against the wind to warm chilled nerves.

As team leader, I had been in this area before, but was now thoroughly disoriented. We made our way to a hidey-hole Agent Delta knew. Unfortunately, although we were in the correct area, we could not now discover the place in the dark. We signaled to the one we knew to be guarding it. He signaled back from the brush. He seemed far too complacent and blanketed to actually be doing a very good job of guarding. However, he was skilled in sleeping in silence. He emerged from the brush, gave us the coordinates of our resting place for the night, and vanished into the darkness. It was now 0600 hours. We stumbled to our camp and collapsed. The next morning would hold our most challenging undertaking yet: boiling coffee in under two hours.

Thanks to elizabethmerrill for the coffee.


The Nightmares of Planning a Backpacking Trip

Having just planned and completed a thirty mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, I am rather tanned, and still getting some grief about my planning process from some of my participants. Here is a summary of lessons learned. Or unlearned. I still feel rather self-righteous.

Start Early. I started a little over two months early. It apparently was not
enough time. All plans change according to the number of people coming.Many times participants do not confirm in time. Set a deadline. I re-planned the route of our trip a week before going after discovering that we only had one car going, and thus needed to hike a loop. Nonetheless, the earlier you start, the more time you have to deal with unexpected problems and get permits–but the more devastating cancellations are.

Get a good map. Detailed maps are imperative. The best online map of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia was not detailed enough for me to use my compass. To wit, the best use of my compass the entire trip was as a weight for the end of the line for hanging the bear bag. If you can buy one, an official map or guidebook is a good thing to have. (My local outfitter was sold out.) Elevation profiles and detailed descriptions are helpful, to a point. (The mileage to the privies on side trails in the detailed description is actually the mileage of the trails to the shelters.) It is important to realize, however, that a mile in mountainous country will feel like five because of the vertical distance covered.

Double-check your best source. For the reasons mentioned before, and
because many points on one description are often not mentioned in another–and vice-versus. Research many different sources and kinds of maps. Topo maps are good resources, as long as one has a standard of comparison. Exactly how high is six hundred feet? And how hard is it to climb that high in two-thirds of a mile? The surface of the trail also makes a big difference. It is easier to climb both purely rock and purely dirt trails, than it is to climb trails of dirt and rock, mostly because rock comes loose under the feet, wasting half of the effort one puts into hiking.

Know where to find water and shelter. Ideally, each camping spot should have water within a quarter-mile. Running down Blood Mountain in twilight to replenish our water supplies is not one of my fondest memories. Not all camp sites or streams are on the map. Many streams are seasonal, so know where the reliable ones are, know the mileage between them and pack enough bottles for an all-day dry hike if one looks likely.

Have a contingency plan. Especially on the weekend, camping spots fill up quickly. Note alternate camping spots and sources of water in case of changes in plan, and remember, in mountainous country, these spots are generally not as near as the mileage would suggest. Leave a copy of your route with someone, and note highway crossings, approach trails, and takeout points in case of emergency. If one is really organized, one may plan an entire alternate trip for if the weather turns sour, fewer participants show up than expected, or fewer cars are available than planned.

Test your equipment. Borrowed equipment is especially prone to malfunction. Even if someone demonstrates a water purifier for you, take it home, play with it, remove the batteries and replace them, and see if you can making the tool work yourself, with your eyes closed. Trying to purify water at twilight with a temperamental Steri-pen was not fun. Neither is drinking water with chlorine tablets in it–test the tablets too, and find something to temper the taste. The same goes for backpacks. Load new backpacks down, put them on, and adjust them. If any weight sits on the shoulders, than you are doing it wrong. Readjust. Get a new backpack if it is not possible to make the backpack feel like a glorified fanny pack. That is what it is. The straps are only there to keep the backpack on, not to carry weight. The same rule goes for new boots. Test them until they are no longer new.

Insist on a shakedown. Have everyone unpack their packs one by one, and leave anything that is not essential. The backpack should only be a quarter of its wearer’s weight at most when fully loaded, including water. (A gallon of water is eight and a third pounds, not including the weight of the bottle/bladder.) No one is too experienced to get a shakedown, and anyone who insists on bringing more than a pound of excess stuff is better off staying at home than saddling others with their junk or slowing everyone down, as they inevitably will. Shakedown hikes are also a good idea. When someone has to hike up Stone Mountain with a loaded pack, they will both get used to their equipment, and voluntarily shed equipment, at least in theory.

Ask experienced backpackers for advice. In the first place, they will be a grave help in the shakedown. Secondly, if they have been in the area before, they will supply details that the map neglected to mention, such as how far
the next campsite is from a particular point and how far the next campsite feels. Someone who has been in the area before will also know whether a stream is a reliable source of water, as well as the surface composition of the trail. The Freeman Trail is a boulder field, littered with fallen trees. It looks like a whitewater riverbed that has been moved to the shoulder of a mountain. I did not discover that until I spoke with someone who had been on the trail before. A hiker who can mentally measure distances is an asset, even if he has never been in the area. All experienced backpackers, however, will probably be doomed to queries of, “Are we there yet?”

Plan for your participants. One lesson I could have learned before coming was to know what my hikers could do. This is where a shakedown hike would have come in handy. Nevertheless, it will lighten the load on the slowest person if you put them in front and make everyone go at their pace. The slow pace will hopefully help everyone go on for longer without as many rests. Hopefully, this will also help the slowest person to go at their own speed. Than again, it may make them feel that they are slowing everyone else down, and they may go to the back, where they worry about trying to keep up. At this point, everyone else might need to take a share of their load. I do not know how to set the pace to a comfortable level yet, and I am barely able to carry my share of the load, much less lighten someone else’s.

It is always the trip planner’s fault. Rest assured that any unforeseen difficulties on the trail, even those not mentioned in the best of sources will be blamed on the planner. There are three ways to deal with this. 1)Plan by committee–delegate. Less blame sits on any one person’s shoulders. Even if no one does what the planner asks them, the principle planner can shift the blame. 2)Do not come on any of the trips you plan. The advantage is that when the hikers feel like strangling you, you will be well out of reach. The disadvantage is that neither you nor anyone else will ever go hiking again if you are the only one willing to plan. 3)Do your best and roll with it.

No one is perfect. No trip is perfect. Do your best in the planning stage, and then take lots of  pictures.

If anyone knows a better map of the Georgia Appalachian Trail please feel free to link to it, or send me the ISBN. Please. Backpacking stories are also welcome.

Planned Chaos

I will begin with the inevitable plea to anyone who is able to vote. Please… 😦

Now then, I would like to spend an entire post trying to steal your vote. However, it is election day and most of the US has already voted. Go vote; shoo!

I took the PSAT several weeks ago. It was very traumatic. Because the school didn’t have me on record, they didn’t have assigned seating for me. I had to sit in the corner and smell the cafeteria ladies making pizza. Despite my fear on the day before and my subsequent massive panics, I am fairly sure that I did well. My mother is laughing.

My dad has proclaimed that the house is to be clean. It is so. Sort of. My younger sister has taken advantage of the opportunity to have a clean room all to herself by contracting a fever. Little did she know that the vacant bed in my brother’s room is far more comfortable than my own. Ignorant of this information, I put off going to bed an hour to memorize Morse code for an upcoming campout.

This upcoming campout was to be the epitome of planned perfection. Because our trips are often canceled, the Venturing crew made up lists of the people coming, their phone numbers, who was riding with whom, and our activities. We were going to teach the older girls from the local AHG troop how to tie knots, signal Morse code, make fires, follow a compass, cook over a campfire, build shelters; and last, but surely not least, we were going to do team building COPE activities with them. We had this all planned out. We then discovered that the leader in charge had forgotten to schedule and reserve spots for the girls to do COPE. Ducky. This didn’t dissolve our plans, but it sure made it harder for us teach the girls. Gah!

Anyway, I’m learning Morse code, fire lays, knots, how to make shelters, and picking out easy camping food recipes. I thought that becoming the president of the Venturing crew would cause more planning to be done and fewer under-planned trips to be had. It has accomplished that, I suppose, but I happen to be doing a whole lot of the planning.

Philmont Trek

*Due to procrastination and laziness, this post went unwritten for over a week. We now give it to you not yet in progress.*

Philmont was nothing less than amazing. The reason I put off talking about it for so long is, (a) my inability to describe it with words other than, “It was good.” and, (b)The pure coolness factor which I could go on for pages about;–but I’m too lazy. Here is a brief (comparatively) overview.

The plane ride was cool. I loved the plane ride. All the different kinds and layers of clouds were just like in my science book. As always, I wrote extensive descriptions of the plane rides but less as each day wore on. As result, I have a little more than two (notebook) pages of description of the first plane ride, a little less than two pages of the second, 1/2 a page of the actual five days I was out there, and nothing of the plane ride back. To make up for this, I will give you a good description of all.

The plane ride was my very first. It was in a rickety, swaying plane which had only two seats on each side of the narrow isle. I was glued to the window. Unfortunately, my row-mate was between me and the window, and she was staring intently at her book. It was pretty funny; I think I made her sort of nervous and afraid that I was trying to read her book over her shoulder. I could have. Then we got to talking; she seemed slightly enlightened (and relieved) by the fact I was fascinated by the window and not her book. She gave me much advice about surviving in airports. A plane is rather like a car on a bumpy road or a ship trying to balance in the water. Having ridden in the back of cars all my life I was fine…sort of. It is rather uncomfortable to look down and see that you are going almost directly vertical.

After we got off the plane, we ran down the the gate where we met two of our crew: Ms. Gerry, who initiated the whole thing; and Ms. Linda. Sad to say, I can no longer talk about sneaking into Roy Williams office and getting foiled by pencil holders; Ms. Gerry had gotten my sign-up form into the bureaucracy herself and gave me an official-looking card. Alas, Mr. Williams is not even available to track me down for crossing him by finally getting my form in, because they changed Chief Scout Execs. We then got on the plane; it was much cooler than the other one with three seats on each side of the aisle and nice cushy upholstery; and, unlike the other plane, it didn’t smell funny. Unfortunately, the devious employee at the desk lied to us and instead of seeing “Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End,” they showed us “Next.” I like Pirates better. The least they could do would have been to turn subtitles on. Then we landed in Denver where it was two hours earlier and everyone was chipper and smiling (probably amusedly, I was in too much of a stupor to tell.) At the baggage claim we met the sixth of our group: Ms. Beverly. We left without trying to ride the baggage carousel for skis, much to Ms. Linda’s chagrin.

The next day we drove out to Cimarron NM. Our first sighting of mountains was very exciting. “Look, look, a mountain! That’s so cool! Just like a post card!” Three hours later, however, there was nothing but mountains. We side-tracked to see Capulin Volcano. Initially, I didn’t wantthe view from Capulin Volcano to waste the time, but I’m glad we went. Imagine seeing across an open field. That perspective multiplied by two hundred and seen from a helicopter is pretty much what I saw. Pictures don’t do justice.

The next day we met our guide and got ready. I got my first sense of foreboding when I was running back and forth getting stuff and I realized I couldn’t breath. Cimarron is several hundred feet higher than than where I’m from, and I planned to go even higher. Uh oh…… It turned out that the special food I’d brought for my allergies didn’t correspond to the meals they’d picked as I thought. Lesson 1: food is food. As Ben, the guide, went over our stuff, I received my second note of foreboding. I could carry little of the crew equipment aside from my own. No worries, I’m the youngest…..

They dropped us off a few miles into our itinerary because we got a late start. A note of reassurance came when the guide assured me I was setting too fast a pace; good thing too, not five minutes in and my shins hurt. Day 1 had a planned itinerary of up the mountain, down through the valley, and through the woods. Up the mountain was very bad. I could not, in fact, deal with the altitude and dragged myself up the slope trusting to the navigator and the guide’s assurances of “just a little further”. I’m going to have reservations about that phrase in the future, but more on that later. We ate lunch and started across Cathedral Rock, which is a tall cliff whose constituting rocks look like they could fall at any second. It slightly resembles organ pipes from below. Eventually, we reached HiddenHidden Valley Valley, the same as on the dressing and my granola bars–probably not; this was way cooler. The field of at the bottom grass was literally golden and the pines surrounding it resembled redwoods. I was amazing. When at last we reached camp, quite suddenly, it was in a grove of trees. Foreboding note 3: We were instructed by the guide to “not place the tents very far apart” due to bear attacks. We also discovered that Christina and I had a pup tent–the largest tent for the youngest people. Problematic note four: the water purifiers spat at you. You would be innocently pumping away when quiet suddenly “shkkkaaattt”; it squirted cold water over your front.

Day 2 I got to navigate and was quite conscientious as we gained and lost ground to see exactly where we were. However, they insisted on waiting until we reached camp to eat lunch. The terrain, where it was revealed, might have been rocky, but the plant life was like a jungle-forest with lots of Aspens and foliage. We reached camp at last in a grove of trees with interspersed fields of grass. As always, it was a pre-made campground: this time rather large to accommodate all the troops they got through there. We picked a campsite in which some rather zealous Boy Scouts had erected walls of logs, and, at one point, a shelter (now ruined.) The latrine sat open in a large field; and here we encounter the character of Philmont’s bathrooms. Is everyone too lazy to erect walls about them?!! Especially the ones with many campsites around? And here, I am sad to say, I got sick. I felt like throwing-up in the act of eating. Since I couldn’t eat, I did, as the guide predicted, spend a miserable cold night. One upside of this spot was the deer. Lots and lots of mule deer in the meadow. They let you get right up close. It was neat.

At breakfast, Day 3, the guide had the most brilliant idea, I think, of the entire trip. They made up the annoying, extra packets of Gatorade, in my canteen. By the time we hiked down to Hunting Lodge, I felt well enough to not be sick and make an itinerary decision. We could either hike the rest of the day, and the day after, (about 12 miles or so) or we could cut across a rough bit of only four miles to day 4’s camp. I was assured that if I relapsed we could go back. Thus, we decided to hike through what I mentally refer to as “the Chinese swamp forest” because there was lots of yellow bamboo-ish stuff because it was swampy on the path next to a stream. All this time, the amount of aspens around grew and grew until we trudged up a little wooded path and into the camp ground. Christina, Ms. Lisa, Ms. Gerry, and the guide shed their packs with new energy and charged off to find the best campsite. I sank to the ground and stared at the aspens. Here I will introduce you to the bear-muda triangle. You have the sump (where you drain dishwater), the bear line, and the campground. They form a bear-triangle. Do NOT put your tent inside the triangle. As always, the latrine was in full view of everyone, so we Rivendell at duskfound a little path that wound up a hill to another with a fantastic view. That was the other problem with the latrines. There were either no walls, they were in plain sight, or they were impossible to find at night. (Or as on Day 5, all of the above) The aspens were everywhere. I call the Lambert’s Mine camp Rivendell because it is so similar to it in the book. Unlike in the book, it wasn’t warm, but I spent a comfortable night because I was so tired and because I can sleep through a fire alarm. Lol, few others slept well (except maybe the guide; he lives out there pretty much non-stop).

Day 4 “The living mountain” Foreboding 5: Ms. Beverly twisted her ankle. I felt better and took some of her food. Normally, I would be afraid to hike on a two foot wide path around the edge of a cliff, but somehow having a pack on weighted me and made me feel better. Besides, trekking poles are the on of the greatest inventions for hikers. I have a wise father who made my mother bring them. Foreboding 6: the jerky made me feel slightly ill. Highest elevation reached, 10,000. And down. In Phoenix, Arizona, on the way back, we saw these shirts, “Got O²? (5,ooo ft.)” As my mother puts it, “Wimps.” In the valley at the bottom of the mountain, it started to rain; but it let up for lunch at a re-enactment site, deserted this time of year. It was neat. Once we finally go past the creek (which we did cross thirty times) we found our flat, muddy campsite just off the creek. My “rain jacket” wasn’t a rain jacket and it was shivery. The dining fly also ranks high on my list of hikers’ inventions. It was quite welcome as we sat there under it, and I ate one of the best meals of recently, scalding instant potatoes. Water tablets are also amazing. We slept. As a side note, the latrine was amusing. set high atop the hill, you could ski down the muddied slope.

The next day: 5. We hiked up the bare slopes in the sunshine. There were purple and red and yellow flowers everywhere. Today’s trek was 12 miles, but that wasn’t going to be a problem because we were going home to go shopping! We could getOn top of Ballllllddddyyyy! All covered in rock. I lost my poor miiinnddd! whille changing a sockk!!! there on time….right? We hiked over Mount Baldy and the Tooth of Time. These names won’t mean anything to you unless you’ve been there, but they have a great view. I got sick again on the last two miles. “We’re almost there.” “But I can see the stupid thing from here, and we’re miles away!” I would’ve quit it I could. We finally made it home and after five minutes with a canteen of water, I was fine. There was no water the last day.

The twist. A group of guides was setting up a betting pool about the time we’d be back; they wouldn’t even start betting until seven. After all, Ben’s last group had taken until 7 pm. This was girls! No way could they be back on time. Five-seventeen we come back, and encounter a group of guys looking at us rather strangely before they all troop away. Ha! So there.

The trip back was uneventful. We watched a slightly better movie, The Fantastic Four: the Rise of the Silver Surfer. The stewardess was swayed by my scout uniform and the fact we didn’t force her to make Bloody Marys; she gave us double the amount of pretzels as usual. Happy was I to see my family. Surprised was I when we got home and found they’d gone ahead of schedule and moved Christina’s room so that, that trip is the last time we will share close quarters for a while; and I now have only one room-mate


With less than 24 hours before departure, I have much to worry over. However, I am mostly packed, so I can put it off awhile. Instead, I have reflections. Some of the stuff that has put us on this trip is just providential.

Firstly, our Venturing crew wanted to go to a camp sponsored by the army Rangers last year. To tell the truth, I wasn’t physically wholly ready, but had eagerness to make up for it. The night before we paid, two people going broke or strained their ankles. We decided against going, much to my loudly voiced chagrin. This April, we are approached, months in advance, by someone asking if our all-female crew would like to go with them to this awesome high-adventure base.

Point two. We often have trouble finding female leaders to go on trips with us as required by regulations. This group already had four.

One requirement for this base is that at least two members of the group going are wilderness first aid certified. We got our invitation at first aid training and have double the amount of required people.

We got a good deal on plane tickets.

Even down to the last detail. Say, how many times can you go up to a scout and say, “Here’s your sleeping bag stuff sack. You left it on that camping trip. I hope you don’t mind; it went to Philmont without you.”?

Now that’s cool. Next week ~Joanna

First Aid

Hello, I just feel like rambling today.

I took the first half of a two-part wilderness first aid course today. There were several photos of wounds as examples to the text. Shall we say that I, even if I could survive such trauma, would not want others to have to see me with my vital organs hanging out or knife holes in the upper chest. I get grossed out thinking about it. I spent that half hour out of the approximately eight hours in class hiding behind a closed first aid manual (it also had gory photos) and not looking down at the pictures in the notes they handed out. See, I do not do well with such things–and I used to want to be a nurse, brrrrr. I could still do orthopedic stuff if I wanted; that’s not so bad. No, but covering my partners in gauze–now that was fun.

There were mostly scouts there. One of them being a female committee member who is organizing an all-girl trip to Philmont and has invited my girls-only crew to join her. huzzah, what fun!

Popcorn (or discount card) Sales

As an introduction and precursor to selling discount cards (reusable-for-a-year cards with coupons printed on them) next week with the Boy Scouts, and also as a comfort for me (who will be camping the opening and prime selling week), I give you a description of the average door-to-door customers.

1. The Hispanic person who does not understand you and probably would not buy from you if they could understand you. (Hola, mi llama es Joanna. ¿Tú tienen gusto de comprar un poco de palomitas?)

2. The old lady who, for some reason, lives with several large, loud dogs. (She is also diabetic, so she cannot buy what you’re selling anyway.)

3. The man who explains that the neighborhood to which you have been selling has already been canvased. (He has two sons who are Eagle Scouts.)

4. The sports fan who has a large window without a shade from the front porch into their living room. He makes no attempt to open the door, but openly glances at the door and turns the volume on the TV up. (I can see you in there! come out with your hands up holding a checkbook and pen!) [Seriously, I have been tempted to leave a note on similar peoples’ doors.]

5. The person who buys as soon as you switch neighborhoods (They do not even mind that your brother is talking to their dog as you give your sale speech 😀 )

So, can I interest you in a discount card? Only ten dollars……….