So last month 5 Venture Patrol Scouts and 3 adults from our troop went on a 50 miler. It was our first time trying our own long-term canoe / kayak trip and from the outset we were cautious not to be overly ambitious. We figured that we could use the experience to build upon for future years and maybe put together something really exciting.
Living in Florida, seems like all of our scouts have the canoeing or kayaking merit badge from Summer Camp and all of our older scouts usually earn the Lifesaving Merit Badge, so it isn’t like we had complete novices, but none of the older scouts that we’d brought had been on anything longer than a day trip on one of the local springs or rivers, usually launching from a base camp.
Two of us adults had been camping on rivers in our youth, but not a lot of recent experience, and one of our adults, while a Navy veteran, had very little experience canoeing or camping.
A friend of mine at Council suggested going with an Outfitter on the Suwannee River and allow them to haul all of the meals, equipment, etc. as that was how her troop did it a few years ago. While this seemed like cheating to me, I broached this to the Scouts and they got excited. We ended up compromising on how much the Outfitter would provide.
After months of planning, coordination and changes the trip was set with American Canoe Adventures out of White Plains, Florida to travel down the Northern Florida section of the Suwannee River.
If you follow the map, we traveled from White Plains to Dowling Park, 56 miles. Our shortest day was only 8 miles and our longest day was close to 15.
During our first two days on the river, the scouts thought it was a float trip as it was all down stream, so they meandered their way along and while there was no great effort put forth, the Florida sun was very hot, so by the end of the day, everyone was over it. Something happened the third day, though. They found another gear and really got after it. We got to our next campsite so early, the campers from the night before hadn’t left yet. From then on, we made really good time and was off the river early, good thing too as afternoon showers are pretty regular this time of year in Florida.
Let me tell you about the campsites. The Suwannee River has regularly spaced “River Camps” that are managed by the State Park system. These River Camps need to be reserved prior to the trip, but they are free to use. Each camp site has a host that takes care of the place, a shelter with tables and grills to cook on, running water in the bathrooms and electricity at the sites. At each site is a shelter for camping. These are large wooden cabins with screens for walls and a ceiling fan for comfort. They even had hooks inside for us to hang our hammocks so that we didn’t have to sleep on the wooden floor. Also, I had clear service for my Verizon phone almost the entire trip.
While we didn’t get to sleep in the shelters every night, we did get them for 3 nights. The other two nights were spent in primitive group camping sites.
We brought 2 canoes and 4 kayaks for the trip. There was some rotating around, but for the most part everyone finished in the same boat they started in. The two canoes held the food and crew gear while the kayaks kept their personal gear stowed on their kayaks. We used Kitty Litter boxes to hold our Breakfast and Lunch (Thanks for the idea Clarke Green!) as they were more convenient and more stackable than the round 5 gallon buckets we had been using. Our dinners were the compromise. Every night our outfitter would show up in camp between 5 and 6pm with hot dinners and cold iced tea. Morale was off the chart with the scouts eating hot spaghetti bake, hamburgers and french fries or whatever every night in the middle of their adventure.
Without the cooking and dishes, the scouts had a lot of free time to explore, hang out and play games. But they also used their time to help others. There was a church group following the same general trip as us and we camped at a lot of the same sites. They had a number of middle school aged boys and girls that had never been on the water before. They had seven canoes with every inch over packed with gear and they got in late every night. The first night we met them, their outfitter had stashed their canoes out of the way under, wedged in under the boardwalk because all of the racks were taken up by our boats. Before we left that morning, the scouts un-wedged all of their canoes and brought them down to the river and prepared them for launch for them. A few nights later, they caught up with us at another camp and were very appreciative as they were fretting, trying to figure out how they’d get all of those boats down to the river with those young kids and were pleasantly surprised by the good turn. We met up with them another night as they were coming in late during a deluge, wet and tired. We were able to help them unload in record time, boosting morale for both them and us.
We met up with another group on our short day. This youth group was led by a couple of Special Forces guys from SOCOM. They bring kids from all across the country who have parents that are deployed out every year to the Suwannee for 10 days of Team Building and Leadership training. They run them through obstacles and give them a taste of military training, trying to give them a sense of how special their parents are. We got to watch them setup for their daily mission and as they were falling behind on time, we got to help them setup. Their kids had to go on a GPS scavenger hunt for a couple mile hike and then return to the river, where all of their empty boats were tied up on the far bank of this swiftly moving river. With all of their gear and paddles on the near side, they had to traverse the river, retrieve their boats, get loaded and make it to the next check point in this timed event. Luckily a Ranger Bridge had been setup for their use.
A couple of kids were swept away and had to be retrieved by the rescue team, but eventually their whole group made it across the river and launched for the finish line and their next adventure. As they were cleaning up they asked us to retrieve their bridge, so we raced across the river to see who could be the first to untie it from the far bank. The tricky part was the swim back with the current, but we all made it without help from their rescue team!
Our final night on the river we were able to reflect. We’d had a great time, but we learned some lessons. One lesson is that 40 year old scoutmasters should stay off rope swings (broke my finger!). We also were able to scout out the camp locations for future trips. From the Special Forces experience we’ve talked about adding challenges to our next trip. I’d like to see us use the Kodiak curriculum, but also obstacles at every location to build a sense of competition and pride. We were all in agreement that we’ll probably use the River Camps again and we’ll definitely have dinners catered.
We had a great time. Three of us had been to Philmont, and while it wasn’t that… it was still a mountain top experience for the scouts. I’d recommend it to anyone. I’d also highly recommend and thank John at American Canoe Adventures. He’s very “Scout Friendly”, gave us the best prices on the river and exceptional customer service (good food, too!)