This weekend was the sixth time I have been in charge of our Boy Scout district's annual winter campout, which we have dubbed the Klondike Derby. We had about 410 people this year, which is down by about 40 from last year. We had wonderful weather and good snow conditions. The roads to the venue were dry. Almost everything about this year's event was good.
Our biggest challenge every year is parking. Where can you find a venue to hold a winter camping event for 400+ people that has adequate parking, sufficient winter camping range, pretty good snow, a good area to run games and activities, and that is fairly close — all at a reasonable cost? That's actually a pretty tall order.
This brings up the question of whether it makes sense to hold an event of this nature at all. For more than two decades the BSA has been trying to push Leave No Trace (LNT) outdoor ethics principles. The general idea is to make good use of outdoor resources while leaving them in the best possible condition. Although it may not always be possible to leave absolutely no trace of one's presence in wilderness areas, there is a lot that can be done to minimize impact and even to improve existing conditions.
LNT principles require serious changes in the way people have been used to thinking about and using the wilderness and outdoor recreation areas. Where it was once common to build big bonfires, it is now understood that fire should be used sparingly. When fire is necessary, campers should leave no trace of a campfire. All trash needs to be carried out. Hiking and camping groups need to be small and need to be separated to minimize impact.
It is acceptable to make use of well established campgrounds and trails so as to avoid creating new impact. But does it really square with LNT principles to jam 400+ winter campers into a few acres? The area we use is a public camping park with established campgrounds, but we have to put campers all over the place; not just in the official campground areas.
On the other hand, we do work hard to minimize the impact of our campers. We run a project every spring after the snow has melted to clean up and to fix any problems that might have been created by our usage of the park. We also do a lot of cleanup of impacts caused by other users of the park. In addition, there is an argument for having camping events where scouts and leaders get to see lots of other examples of scout camping. Boys get to see their friends from school doing what they're doing. They see that the program is bigger than their troop. There is value in coming together and learning from each other.
Anyway, back to parking. The gravel parking lot at the park can hold about 35 vehicles properly parked. But we end up with 130-140 vehicles that have to park somewhere. All of them are loaded with gear and/or campers. The process we arrived at years ago before the county expanded the lot size was to have vehicles pull in, dump their gear and passengers, and then drive back out onto the road, where they are to park on one side of the road only. The driver may end up walking a third of a mile or so to get back to camp.
Frankly, we've got some people that simply aren't willing to cooperate. They say that they are leaving their vehicles only briefly. Then they disappear into the darkness and you don't see them again for hours, or even until the following morning. One of my staff members that is a retired fire responder said that he has realized that there are some people in this world that simply think they are far more important than everyone else.
Somehow we manage this nightmare-ish unloading scene one Friday evening every winter. We have hundreds of campers spend the night in self-constructed snow shelters in chilly temperatures. Then the following Saturday morning after our Klondike games, we turn around and reverse the process. The parking lot again becomes a serious challenge. We try to keep parking spots open for other patrons of the park, who are usually cross-country skiers. But the parking lot is still a problematic place. To top it off, the lot is usually covered with a good packing of ice. Even 4WD vehicles with good tires can slip around in some spots.
One of the factors that makes this event work as well as it does is that the scout troops do most of the work and handle most of the leadership. Every year we end up with a ratio of almost one adult for every two boys in attendance. That means that there are far more adults than just the scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster sleeping overnight in the snow. It never ceases to amaze me that we get a higher ratio of adults-to-boys at this event than at any other scouting event throughout the year. I'm sure that some of these men don't sleep that well in outdoor winter conditions. But they're out there helping boys anyway. What a wonderful service.
I don't detest winter camping. But I don't love it either. I would never go winter camping for my own enjoyment. I only do it to serve others. I tell my wife every year that it takes as much work to take a troop on one winter overnighter as it does to take the troop to a week of scout camp. There is a horrendous amount of preparation and cleanup required to ensure a safe and enjoyable campout in the snow. Frankly, I'd rather be sleeping in my own bed at home. I'd rather not haul camping gear and do all of the work such camping entails. But if it will help others learn how to survive in the winter, I'll do it anyway.