When I was somewhere around ten or twelve years old the Boy Scout Troop I belonged to – Troop 1 of Queens, N.Y. and purportedly the first and original Boy Scout Troop in the United States founded by Dan Beard himself – took the troop on a trip to the Delaware River somewhere between New Jersey and Pennsylvania to do some whitewater kayaking and wilderness survival merit badge tasks.
The first night along the river we spent sleeping out lean-tos we were required to fashion from natural features, tree limbs and other foraged materials. The forest was dense and the leaves on the trees were green at the time and it was not cold but it was also not summer because otherwise I would have been at our summer rental house on Long Island which we went to every year from Memorial Day until Labor Day when my mother wasn’t teaching. So I think it was spring time. Anyway, it did not rain that night and no animals menaced us and so it was rather uneventful, but also a little scary since we were young and in pretty deep woods without adult supervision a long way from any established campground or where the rest of the scouts and adults had parked the cars and were spending the night. I imagine they knew where we were and probably kept an eye on us which went unnoticed, but at the time we didn’t suspect that at all because it was ‘wilderness survival’ after all, not wilderness camping with mommy and daddy.
My brother and I tried fishing in the river for the pan fish that were visible in pools by the banks. The fish were mostly blue gills and sunfish as I recall, and maybe we saw or heard some bass jump too. Having been a fisherman for several years already in various salt and fresh water environments on Long Island, mostly Shelter Island, where there is a fresh water pond as well as a lot of salt water fishing, I was well aware that the problem was our inability to find any suitable worms or insects to use as bait, and that the tin foil and hook we were permitted in the overnight kit was just not sufficient to trick any of the fish to strike at or even take any interest in the crude lures we were able to fashion. I often wonder who decided what that overnight kit should include and how likely someone stranded in the woods by accident would actually wind up with a small fish hook and some line, tin foil, etcetera. It did not seem very realistic.
It was too bad we could not catch any fish though, because we did have a knife and means to build a fire, and my brother and I would have enjoyed frying up a fish, even if very little of it was edible and it didn’t exactly taste very good. In retrospect it seems strange we could not find worms, crickets or other bait if it was a time of year when the fish were visible, but we were young and probably were fooling around and having fun so did not bother trying hard enough.
We didn’t go swimming that night or at that spot and there were no real tasks that needed to be completed for this part of the wilderness survival merit badge, just basically survive a night out in the woods. There probably should have been more testing of lean-tos and efforts at foraging food, and maybe there were, but I don’t remember any.
When it came to the kayaking the next day, we were much more focused and excited. There was a lot of talk among the scouts and adults about the different classes of rapids and what they meant and whether and where they could be found. It was either the class 5 or 6 rapids that we would not be allowed to attempt because they were too dangerous. The prohibition of course only made us more eager to find those class 5 or class 6 rapids and we were ready to either be challenged and plead with the adults to let us try them, or to be scared and admit defeat but pretend we would do it if only they let us.
The adults who were both parents of scouts, like my dad, or scoutmasters or assistant scoutmasters, had very strong opinions that the season wasn’t right, and that even in the places where you could usually find strong rapids of those classes, the water flow was likely to be too low, and so that they would be downrated to either class 2 or 3 and in some cases maybe not even passable. Perhaps it was too late in the spring to catch all the force of the melting water from winter snows. We scouts all held out hope that they were wrong, and didn’t think it could be such a scientific thing that could be estimated from the season, although surely it was.
We drove from place to place with kayaks on top of cars and in trucks and there were different put in places and take out places for younger and older scouts. The water was mostly dark and moving pretty quickly even in the broader stretches that couldn’t be considered rapids, but the actual rapids themselves were anything but life threatening and I remember being both relieved and disappointed. Relieved because it wasn’t too scary, and disappointed because I thought it would be fun to see them and knew we could always take out above them and walk around them. I also figured I would one day in any event be coming back when I was older to take on some Class 6 rapids, and so it would be nice to get a look at them now to know what I would be up against in the future.
- Things to do with kids in and around South Jersey: the Great Outdoors (nj.com)
- When Did You First Find Your Love of Water? (waterwired.org)
- Using the Delaware River as a Classroom (edmortimer.wordpress.com)