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A group of Boy Scouts representing Watauga County and the Old Hickory Council are pictured
with camp rangers at the height of their training at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M.
Photo Submitted

Originally published: 2014-07-14 11:52:00
Last modified: 2014-07-14 11:56:36

Local Boy Scouts survive and thrive in New Mexico wilderness

by Sherrie Norris

A group of 52 Boy Scouts and their leaders left Boone on June 16 en route to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. 

They returned 18 days later with new skills, strengthened friendships and memories to last a lifetime.

The group represented Boy Scout troops 100, 101 and 109, three of Watauga County's four troops, as well as others from within the Old Hickory Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which serves the High Country area.

According to trip coordinator and Troop 109 scoutmaster Arvil Sale, the trip went "smoothly, just like we had planned and hoped."

"It was a great growing experience for our scouts," he said. "It gave them an opportunity to do things that some of them have never been able to do before. It taught them to become more independent, while at the same time how to work as a team member, too."

Since 1939, more than 950,000 scouts, Boy Scouts and leaders have experienced Philmont, known as the BSA's "largest national high adventure base," with 34 staffed camps and 55 wilderness trail camps.

Philmont is a large, rugged mountainous ranch located near the town of Cimarron, covering approximately 137,500 acres of wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico.

Reaching for the peaks

"The base camp is at 6,500 feet in elevation and everything from there is up," Sale said. "The highest point is at 12,441 feet, which some of our group reached, and others made it to Mt. Phillips, the second highest peak at 11,711 feet."

The scouts enjoyed the climb, Sale said. 

"Seeing spectacular sunrises and sunsets -- while being away from cell phones and the Internet for 11 days -- can open your eyes to a lot of things," he said.

Known as a famous stop on the Santa Fe Trail, the home of Jicarilla Apache and Moache Ute Indians, a prospecting community and a working cattle ranch, Philmont re-creates some of the area's history in its program, Sale said.  

"Each camp has its own specialty area, and our scouts experienced a lot of different things," he said. "We did everything from blacksmithing and shooting -- including black powder rifles -- to burro racing, in which you have to pack the burro and get it to follow you down the course, which may or may not be an easy thing to get down. Burros have minds of their own." 

Backpacking, too, was an integral part of the training, Sale said, which required each scout to carry his own food and cooking supplies.

They also had to use maps and compasses to get from one place to another, he said. "Some rode horses and some did branding, like at the old cattle camps -- and they learned how to rope. Some worked in an old cantina, as well as that of the Rocky Mountain Fir Trading Company, resembling that of the 1700s, where trappers and Indians brought in their firs."

At the Mexican-themed camps, they prepared Mexican food, and at the cattle camps, they had chuck wagon dinners and cooked food in Dutch ovens, Sale said.

At the "more modern- type camp settings," he added, they conquered more innovative courses, such as rock climbing and rappelling from 11,000 feet, participated in search and rescue efforts and practiced conservation measures along the way.

The scouts worked in groups of nine to 12. "They had to depend on each other to get things done, which provided a real opportunity to develop team-building skills," said Sale.

The scouts were "pretty much self-sufficient" on the trail for 11 days, he added, "from the time we arrived at Philmont, until we were ready to return to Boone." 

Most trainees trekked between 65 - 100 miles on the trails, but not without incident. "They did see wildlife on the trail," Sale said, "and had encounters with bears along the way."

That kind of thing is expected in the wilderness, Sale said, with prior training given for preventative and safety measures. 

Lightening struck on the property, too, Sale said, which resulted in a fire, "but not close to us." Covering 214-square miles of property, he said, "Anything can happen at Philmont." 

Twenty-three trips and counting

The trip was nothing new for Sale, as it's an expedition that he leads "every two or three years," he said. This year's group was the 23rd that he has taken to the ranch, located in northeastern New Mexico, near the Colorado border.

"We took our first group in 1975 and have managed to go back about every two or three years since," he said. "There's a lot of work and fundraising to be done in between these trips; we no more than get back from one before we start planning the next." 

The Boone group will be counted among the 22,000-25,000 scouts that come to the camp this summer.

Rewarding and challenging 

Scott Smith of Boone served as a lead advisor for the crew that was led by his son, Eliot Smith. "The Philmont experience is one that can be both the most rewarding and most challenging thing many of the boys will ever do," he said. "Our crew covered approximately 95 miles and on most days, we carried 50 pounds or more each."

This was the second trip for Will Indicott, 17 of Boone, a Life Scout, with 10 years behind his badges. "During my first time, I was more shy and weaker," he said. "This year, I was a crew leader, in charge of about 12 other guys. I had to be strong and able to work through strategic planning to help figure things out.  I got it, this time. It helped me become a better leader, but it was still a pretty daunting task. Overall, it was a fantastic experience."

It was Andrew Thorpe's first trip to Philmont. The 18-year-old Eagle Scout from Boone, said, "It was incredible, really cool. Hearing stories from my older brother who had gone a couple years back helped prepare me, but there's nothing like experiencing it first hand. Hiking 80 miles through the woods made you realize that being out of touch with society was not a bad thing. It didn't hurt to have a break from all that." It was different, he said, being a leader rather than being the one "getting into shenanigans. "I think I figured it out," he said.

Joseph Petrof, 15, of Boone said his first trip to Philmont was "the best thing I've ever done." He loved being "completely out in the wilderness, he said, "with no cell phones or distractions of daily life."

Petrof's biggest challenge, he said, happened during the 12,000 feet upward climb. "One of our guys had a slow hiking pace, drowning in sweat and out of breath," he said. "As a crew, we had to motivate him, share our water and food. It was tricky. We took things out of his pack and carried them for him. It made our packs heavier, but it created a bond with us as we tried to make it easier for him."

It was "an awesome once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for Star Scout, John Norris, 14, of Boone, "with the most amazing views I have ever seen," he said. Among his trip highlights was the scenery. "It is a trip that I will never forget and I feel blessed to have been apart of it," he added.

Sale, a retired schoolteacher, has been a scoutmaster for 46 years. "I've been with troop 109 the entire time of my leadership career, but I've been in scouts for 54 years, total," he said. This year, while at Philmont, Sale completed the Order of the Arrow, more commonly known as Scouting's National Honor Society, opting for the training session, he said, "to become a better adult advisor."

Prior to reporting to Philmont, the scouts flew from Charlotte to the airport in Denver, Colo., chartered a bus and spent three days in the Colorado Springs area, visiting the U.S. Air Force Academy, Garden of the Gods, Pike's Peak, and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings.

"We also enjoyed a day-long rafting trip on the Arkansas River through Brown's Canyon," Sale said. 

Each scout and leader was responsible for raising $1,800 for his trip, Sale said, done individually or through group fundraisers. "It was all inclusive, except for extra spending money," he added.

Back home

Soon after returning to Boone, Sale and a few of his scouts reported to Camp Raven Knob near Mount Airy, where he has been on staff for 42 years. His full troop is expected to join him this week. 

Once summer camp is over, Sale said, the troop will refocus its efforts on its new scout building, currently under construction and about two-thirds complete.

Having already raised "about $160,00," Sale said, another $50,000 is needed to finish the building. 

"Basically, the outside is done," he said. "We are now down to the interior and desperately need help with electrical, plumbing and insulation. It seems like this last stretch is the hardest. "

Tax-deductible donations to help complete the scout building may be mailed to BSA Troop 109, PO Box 1764 Boone, NC 28607.