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by Bob Geier 

Some of you may recall a few years back when our troop opted to run their own summer camp in-house.  We've spent the intervening few years doing "hybrid" camps, where we use BSA camp facilities as a base of operations, but also run our own patrol activities as out-trips. I think there's a report on one of those in the archives as well.

This year, the boys once again opted to "roll their own" summer camp. I present it here for your amusement, and in the hope that others may glean an idea or inspiration or two, in much the way our program has benefitted from the many ideas shared on Scouts-L.

LOCATION AND SETUP This year, we went to an outdoor-activity type town (a known whitewater/hiking/biking location in western PA called Ohiopyle) and set up shop at a private campground run by the Scarletts, a dedicated scouting family we've come to know and really enjoy. You can find some of Will Scarlett's hand-carved necker slides featured in Boys Life from time to time. The location allowed us to set up patrols in a large field separated from each other, and put adults off in the woods a good ways out of the way. One of the challenges at summer camp is always how to keep patrol method intact. Simple separation is often the best solution. Each patrol had their own tent circle, rain fly(s), cook gear etc., and all PLs were allowed to put ice for coolers on a tab we set up with the camp. The boys' camp had a beautiful view, while ours had shade < g > .


Patrols got to set their own calendar of activities for the week, with the SPL and adult camp director coordinating logistics. So while one patrol might be out mountain biking, another would be doing kayak instruction and yet another would be hiking a local river valley. The next day one patrol might be rock climbing, another doing ropes course/challenge elements as a patrol, and another whitewater rafting. We supported many of the activities "in house" and contracted with Wilderness Voyageurs, our favorite local outfitter (owner Eric Martin is a long-time friend and scouting supporter).

Two of the goals for the boys were to develop strong patrol dynamic (patrol method) and to really push "core skills." That led to some creative routines each day.

First, all food was patrol cooking, but with a twist. We had some capital money to spend this year so we bought some new cook gear while keeping some near-retirement gear in place. This allowed each patrol to have three two-person cook teams with full gear. PLs and APLs were not allowed to touch cooking implements; instead they had to coach and supervise younger boys in their patrol through cooking every meal. Meals were selected to require a range of cooking techniques, from baking to deep-frying and everything in between. The result was that every boy got more hands-on cooking time during the week than they typically get during a year, and the improvement was palpable. By the last day patrol contests, adults were acknowledging that even in a cooking race the boys' cooking was "restaurant quality."

The PLC group pre-packaged all dry ingredients for cooking in advance, then we adults delivered those each day along with whatever fresh ingredients the meal called for. We "delivered" them by plopping the patrol's cooler at the end of a compass/orienteering course each afternoon, which they had to negotiate in order to find their dinner. Each day, we made it a little bit longer/harder.

For First Aid core skills, two of our young ASMs made up "scenario cards" which made a deck of cards that was given to adults accompanying patrols on activities. Randomly during the day, often with full moulage, the adults would play a scenario card and confront the patrol with a first aid challenge in the middle of their climbing trip, etc. The "rules" were that the Patrol Leader had to delegate the first aid response to the lowest-level person who knew what they were doing, assisted by someone who was learning. PLs who just led all first aid responses themselves therefore lost points for their patrol, but not as bad as if they "delegated down to oblivion" by assigning someone who didn't do first aid properly.

As we have done in the past, summer camp featured "Patrol Points," an ongoing competition between patrols similar to House Points in the Harry Potter novels. Each day, patrols were evaluated on meals, camp LNT/"bombproofness" and camp skills, communication/preparedness, how they did as a group at their activities, first aid, etc. Individuals could gain or lose points for their patrol by personal actions.

A final feature of camp was an ongoing "assassins" competition, which folks who've been to college in the last few decades will recognize. Each boy was armed with a suction cup dart gun and assigned a target to eliminate, in a big-circle type layout that gradually tightens until only one person is left. The PLs came up with this as a form of "name game" to help make guys learn the names of other people in the troop (by hunting them down and shooting them < g > ). Each evening at the boys' flag ceremony, assassins victims for each patrol were "buried" with full military honors and flag-draped coffins, giving all the boys lots of practice with flag ceremonies, flag folding, etc. While filled with a touch of humor (including a hysterical "My fellow Americans..." speech by one GWB impersonator), the boys took the ceremonies quite seriously and were really much sharper than in a typical camp flag ceremony. One patrol leader played taps on his trumpet each evening, just as he had done for his grandfather's burial (a WW2 B-17 pilot) two months ago.

At the end of week one of camp, we did debriefs with the patrol leaders on various aspects of camp and running our own vs. BSA camp. Here are some of their reflections, followed by some of my own:

"This was the coolest summer camp I've been to in 5 years. It puts scout camp to shame." "It was great because it's tailored to what we really do and what our goals are. Regular summer camp feels like a week wasted." "Do it yourself is always more fun, and it's worth the planning. But it's a LOT of planning."

"The point system was great because as a PL I could look at the day's report and see the things I didn't catch. Then I could follow up with the guys in my patrol without having to get adults involved." "The guys in my patrol paid attention to the points, and worked harder as a result." "Should hype the points a bit more - announce, post more prominently, etc." "Be careful, though, that we don't start doing things for points instead of because its the right thing to do."

"It was GREAT to have separation from the adult campsite. We didn't have adults hanging over us to tell us what we were doing wrong each time, and could learn on our own." "The younger scouts couldn't go hang out in the awesome super cool adult tent site with all its amenities, and had to work to be good patrol members."

"The way we did food was great, and really succeeded in teaching younger guys. We saw real progress in their cooking skills." "First Aid 3x daily scenarios were good. Moulage helped a lot, too. We saw real progress during the week." "Especially helped when similar scenarios repeated if we didn't do that well."

One interesting comment from all the PLs is that running our own camp did _not_ create the usual sleep deprivation experiment that regular camp seems to. All the PLs reported their guys getting a good 8-9 hours of sleep each night. I think this is largely because we didn't have a lot of external fixed-time events, so individual patrols were able to keep control of their own schedule. Rather than have to show up for dinner at a set time, they could do dinner early, or late. They could set their own departure time in the morning, and even when they had a fixed departure to meet with an outfitter they could set their own schedule for wakeup, cooking breakfast, etc. It's hard to really lead when someone else is setting your schedule.

Generally, I agree with the boys' observations. Rolling our own camp really does a far better job of growing a strong patrol method troop than regular camp does, because we really can allow them to function as full, independent patrols for an entire week - choosing their own activities as a group, setting their own schedule, dealing with their own personality issues, etc. Not to mention some healthy competition with other patrols for points and bragging rights at various activities! We tried to do PL debriefs every other night, just so those boys could share their trials and tribulations and get suggestions from fellow PLs on how to handle a problem, and that worked pretty well.

In addition to patrol method, one of the boys' goals was developing core skills, and I was really pleased with how those pieces played out. The setup really allowed for a lot of hands-on activity and a lot of repetition, whether it was the small two-person cook teams or the evening flag ceremony "burials" or compass quest for dinner. It was lively, energetic, active... and they cared about doing it well.

The "we got enough sleep comment" was a surprise to me, because the days felt more full and active than a regular scout camp. Our couple of guys who were homesickness candidates were pretty much kept busy full-time, and they weren't able to "drop off" out of classes and such to hang out at the camp site during the day the way that can be common at regular camp. So even where there was a lot of potential for homesickness, it was less pronounced.

One of the things that I think really helped this year was that we tied JLT in to camp pretty tightly. So JLT focused on things like building cooking skills in PLs, then they in turn felt comfortable and confident coaching their patrol members in those same skills. JLT also introduced the boys to the area and activities, so they were "in the know" when it came to Q's from their patrol. Where we had weaknesses, it was in areas where the PLs had some personal weakness.

Another thing that really helped was being in an area where the campsite owner and a major local outfitter were well known and strong scouting supporters. Both Scarlett Knob and WV went well out of their way to support our program as the boys had designed it.

I think one of the biggest challenges of this kind of approach is the level of adult resource required. We brought 14 adults and two JASMs to camp to support the activities, and there was enough to keep us hopping. We had the benefit this year of a lot of young alumni college students to draw on. Still, that's a lot of logistics. It also raised a few issues, if an adult wasn't as familiar with the local area or activity possibilities. I wish we had the time to do a local "adult only" familiarization/training beforehand. Though the adult load was high, we did have room to contract out more activities, though, rather than running them in-house.

I think for us the camp was truly excellent, best I've seen in years. It seems to work better than the "hybrid" approach because it's so hard to break out of the one-size-fits-all setup of BSA camps with their fixed schedules and stock activities. Even where we used outfitters we could tailor the request to meet the specific needs of the patrol and our program, and they were happy to oblige. There was much less of a sense that we were imposing on their fixed schedule than at a regular camp.

That leads us to a "week 2 of camp" report coming soon...

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Summer Camp - Bob Geier ] Summer Camps ] Summer Camp 01 ] Non-Trad Camp ] Summer Camp 02 ] Danish ] Troop-Run Summer Camp ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.