“This has pretty much been the best week of my life,” my son said as we sat around the campfire one night late last week. We had left in the dark early on Monday morning to drive to Camp Loll, a Boy Scout camp sandwiched in the wilderness between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. My son’s comment made me realize that taking a week of precious vacation time to live in the dirt and sleep on the ground at scout camp was definitely worth the sacrifice.
I have a deep fondness for Camp Loll. It was the first scout camp that I attended as a 12-year-old boy. As an older teen, I worked on staff at the camp for a couple of years. As an adult, I have frequently returned to the place with scout troops, to volunteer my labor, or just to visit. No matter when I visit, I always encounter old friends and find opportunities to make new friends.
Since I sometimes haul family members with me on my visits to Camp Loll, last week was not my son’s first adventure there. But it was the first time he had spent an entire week at the camp with his peers in his scout troop. And that makes all the difference.
It would have been difficult to get better weather conditions than we had at camp last week. Monday and Tuesday were spectacularly beautiful days. The sunny and cloudless sky was such a deep blue hue that it seemed stunning every time I looked up through the towering spruce trees. Friday and Saturday shared these same characteristics.
It was overcast and just a little rainy on Wednesday when we trekked 16 miles through the Yellowstone back country to visit Union Falls, a spectacular phenomenon that is viewed by only a minute fraction of those that visit the park. But temperatures were great for hiking, and the trails never got muddy. Thursday was filled with variable periods of clouds and sun, but it was never unpleasant. It was almost a perfect weather week.
We started our week at Camp Loll by setting up our campsite and then undertaking the BSA swim check in the infamously icy cold waters of Lake of the Woods. My son is a pretty good swimmer and recently completed a junior lifeguarding course. Showing off for his friends, he swam 200 yards instead of the required 100 yards.
During our battles with the notoriously fierce mosquitoes of the region, my son sustained over 120 bites. I had my share of bites, but I did better at protecting myself with repellant and thicker clothing. I was fortunate enough to avoid bites from the nasty horseflies, which were just starting to proliferate last week. We did, however, succeed in killing a number of those relatively slow and bulky insects.
I was proud of my son as I watched him complete the challenging Climbing merit badge in record time. He also completed one of the four historical merit badges that have been brought back for this year to celebrate the BSA’s centennial, as well as a couple of other challenging badges. (He already has all of the badges he needs to achieve the Eagle rank.)
One of the main facets of spending a week at scout camp is for a boy to interface with his peers in a shared camping experience. It is difficult to place a value on the development of camaraderie afforded by this environment.
Of additional value is interacting with hundreds of boys from other troops. The boys at camp last week spanned various social and economic classes. One troop was from Texas. Another was from Las Vegas. But all these distinctions largely fell away when the boys were participating in merit badge classes and activities together.
Yet another value taught through this kind of experience is appreciation for our wilderness and back country resources. I will be among the first to admit that Boy Scout units have a well earned reputation for careless use of these resources. But we’ve been steadily improving since my early camping days, as we purposefully work to train and educate leaders and youth in proper care of our precious wilderness.
Nothing helps this education process more than spending a week camping in bear country, where mistakes can threaten life and limb. Doing this helps young Americans learn to respect rather than fear the wilderness. While it may take a generation to root out retrograde practices, actual wilderness experience is an unsurpassed teaching tool.
One BSA value that was on full display last week was the proud and unabashed belief in American exceptionalism. Patriotism was purposefully encouraged and love of country was decisively evoked. Youth and adults came away with an enhanced appreciation for the blessings derived from being Americans.
I also like to think that part of my son’s enjoyment of his week at camp was the fact that his Dad was there to share it with him. I viscerally sense the pros and cons of having a parent at camp with his adolescent child. After all, the kid needs to be learning to operate on his own outside of the parent’s direct influence.
On the other hand, what a wonderful thing for a child to know that a parent cares enough to share this kind of experience with him. There’s no perfect answer to this dilemma. I chose to share this experience with my son, as I have done with his older brothers. It was the right choice for us.
As a side note, I wore an old pair of cheap Wal-Mart hiking boots throughout the week. I think I paid $16 for them five or six years ago. I stopped wearing them a couple of years ago when I got a much nicer and more rugged pair of waterproof boots. At an event a couple of months ago, I sensed my feet getting tired in the better boots, so I mostly used the old boots last week. The cheap old boots along with good hiking socks wore well, but I can tell that they will soon need to be permanently retired.
We returned home on Saturday a little sunburned, a little mosquito-bitten, a little sore, a little weary, and a little dirty. But for my son, the week had been a little bit of heaven. I’m glad I was part of it.