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By Bob Geier 

Non-Traditional Summer Camp Report

Some of you may remember last year that our PLC, following the second "mediocre" year in a row at traditional scout camps, opted to run their own camp this summer. For those who may be interested in such enthusiastic insanity, or for others who just like to rubberneck crash sites, here is the tale, and some general observations.

THE PLAN The plan was concocted by this past year's SPL and ASPL. It had been talked around at several levels for months, then solidified when the SPL found an attractive site during an "exploratory" to western PA. (Exploratories for us are small, senior scout only trips to check out and get information on potential new activities/new areas). The ASPL was designated Trip Leader, and we ran all the pre-camp drill "same as usual" for the most part, with a bit more emphasis on individual gear preparation.

The ASPL and the PLC set the goals and program for camp. One big goal was to build patrol identity and patrol method; another big goal was to make the summer camp experience "closer to what we really do" and better introduction/prep for troop outings the rest of the year. Advancement was not a goal, but skill development in some areas was.

The schedule the boys set involved patrol cooking (we'd previously used dining hall camps) and patrol-based morning and afternoon activities in an elaborate rotation. While one patrol was out backpacking for a couple of days (also hooking up with a rock climbing section), another patrol would be doing a low ropes course in the morning and a canoeing section in the afternoon, while a third patrol would be mountain biking and power boating... and then it would rotate. Informal activities dominated the late afternoon, with an inter-patrol competition each evening. Wednesday was an "off day" which included a slow morning, an afternoon whole-troop service project, and an evening on the town for pizza and a movie. The final Saturday featured a half day of inter-patrol "eco-challenge" and a week-end barbeque, party, and religious service in camp. A lot of T-2-1 and some more advanced instruction was incorporated into the individual activities, but no "sign-offs" were on the agenda for the week. We pushed a bit to have them consider some longer-term merit-badge type instruction for part of the day, but the boys pushed back and said "No." We dutifully saluted.

The effort was supported by a cast of 12-15 adults consisting primarily of troop leaders, emeritus leaders and college-aged alumni. One parent who runs a local burger establishment served as grubmaster for the week, helping the boys repackage food for patrols to prepare.

The site we used was a State Park with a large group site on the shore of a lake, with an adjacent park that offered whitewater paddling, backpacking, and rock climbing venues. The two were far enough apart, however, that car shuttles were required. Driving time was 5 hours one way from our home town (we've generally found that 'putting some distance' between us and home helps with the new parent interactions).

THE EXECUTION To paraphrase Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and Boy Scouts go oft awry. Some may recognize "More-rain Park" as the site of a soggy jamboree in the early 70's. Consistent with the tradition of many scout troops, our camping caused flood warnings across the state of Pennsylvania for the week. In fact, we're a bit concerned about the liability exposure... < VBG >

As a result of the weather, what was a very complex operation in terms of logistics became, well, even more fluid and dynamic. One backpack group opted for early extraction after an epic adventure, rock climbing got rained out, many ropes course elements became untenable, the first two days of evening inter-patrol activities were cancelled by the downpours, etc. etc. Psychological load on some of our new lads from the extremely wet weather was high, and that and the mix of kids this year led to more than our usual level of homesickness. (It was dealt with by friendly adults and patrol leaders, with no calls home and no early departures.)

The weather finally broke on Wednesday afternoon for the service project, and held through Thursday, only to go nasty again for Friday and Saturday. Still, it was enough to recover, regroup, and turn the rest of the week into a fair bit of fun. (We did use a park concession stand that was located about 2/3 mile away for ice cream once or twice, including a whole troop "binge" one day. Even so, it was far less than TP usage at traditional camp, and seemed far more social since it was always in a patrol group.)

One of the highlights of the week was a Hogwarts-style "patrol points" system, complete with points for "Quiddich Matches" between patrols, points awarded for good individual performances, deducted for a few not-so-good things and the like. This really spiced up the patrol identity bit while teaching a lot of good practice and behavior.

OBSERVATIONS Positives 1. The youth leadership had far more ownership and commitment than for a camp which is "done for them," and they learned an enormous amount. Watching 4 youth leaders sit for 4 straight hours mapping out logistics is a site to behold (OK, so two vehicles go to pick up the climbers and take them to whitewater... but wait, who is delivering the boats? And on Thursday, that's a bigger patrol, we need and extra car...) It was easily a project worthy of multiple Eagle scouts.

2. All of the participant adults had strong connections to the troop, knew the troop style and culture, and worked incredibly hard. We had zero "negative adult interactions" during the course of the week, which _never_ happens at "regular" scout camp. Adult comraderie was strong, as were "kid connections" to adults / adult relationship method.

3. The youth did a very good job of achieving the goals they had for camp. Patrol spirit is way up, the patrol leaders are much more empowered, basic skills in all kinds of "real campout" conditions improved quite a bit. A few patrol performances were simply incredible.

4. Related to #3, patrol method was strongly present throughout the week, where for regular summer camp it sometimes needs CPR just to maintain a heartbeat. We would have had a much harder time doing the "patrol points" bit at a traditional camp.

5. The site was large enough to allow us to establish separate camping and cooking areas for each patrol. This never seems to be possible at traditional camp.

6. Better, more reliable skills instruction.

7. Finances aren't completely done, but essentially we ran camp with a decrease in cost over last year, and used some of the camp $ for some capital equipment purchases which will benefit us beyond summer camp.

8. Service work was better integrated and felt more appreciated / more like service.

9. Though patrol cooking occasionally increased the variance, food was generally better than traditional camps.

Negatives 1. The logistics load was daunting, and the adults were always on the go. We needed to do a better job of separating "camp operations" adults from "youth support" adults. Too often, the same adults were in both roles (since, naturally, the core troop leaders both knew the kids well and had the technical skills needed for some activities). Particularly when homesickness issues demanded some attention or other emergent problems came up, we got pulled a bit thin.

2. We needed more robust plans for rain. It also would have been helpful to have a large pavilion, cabin, or some sort of sheltered gathering place for the whole group of 60 so that we could run alternate evening activities and the like. Such a shelter would have afforded us far more options and a bit of necessary "comfort space" for our new guys.

3. A part of me still wishes for some merit badges / opportunities by interest group rather than by patrol. Maybe if they do this again, they'll incorporate something like that. Then again, maybe I just need to grow up.

4. We had some role confusion between the former ASPL who had been working on camp for the previous 6 months, and the current SPL. The former ASPL is now a newly minted ASM, and took on the "camp director" role, but never quite gave up the trip leader role. Some of this was just caused by the "dynamic adjustments due to weather" which required him to be more involved in communication, but it is something to manage better.

5. Traditional Oscar de la Rentas were abandoned entirely in favor of Class B's designed by each patrol prior to camp. Actually, the kids felt this was a positive, and I have to say the adults present didn't really notice because so many other things were going on. But score a loss for the Uniform Method.

6. There won't be any patches coming directly out of camp, though there may be quite a few kids who move along the ranks because of camp... it will be interesting to see. We'll have to do something like a post-camp DVD for parents, though, in part to make up for the loss of other kinds of vicarious pleasures like advancement awards.

All in all, now that I'm catching my breath (and I wasn't even a core player!), I think that the kids did a better job of living the mission of Scouting than we ever have at traditional camp. I really think we'll see a lot of growth resulting from camp this year. On the downside, the workload was non-stop and fairly intense for the adult volunteers, and some of the conditions (patrol cooking, for example) may have led to more homesickness.

Will we do it again? Well, that's up to the boys. I think, should they consider it, we've learned a fair bit together so that we could do it better. Of course, I expect that future PLC's will customize camp to their individual needs, and it may become very different each year. There is already talk of "going longer" (we added one day to the traditional schedule, but we could add at least 2 more...) We'll see. No matter what, though, it opened up a whole new range of options.







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Last modified: October 15, 2016.