Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sundays with Steve - The Last Camp-out

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The Last Camp-Out

Eight of us were huddled in the old and small Army tent, trying to find warmth against the building snow on the other side of the thick canvass, the snow then at two feet, and falling heavily. We sent one of the boys outside every 10 or 15 minutes to sweep it from the side of the tent so that it would not collapse, although it did later that night.

The snow had buried the camp-fire hours ago, snuffing out its failing warmth for good, but not before we were able to cobble together enough mid-afternoon dinner to get us through the building blizzard, a dinner of frozen hash browns cooked in a skillet over the fire, a can or two of unidentifiable goop, maybe corned beef hash; a couple of thin, tough steaks cooked on the open grill, only to be found to be inedible due to the pine smoke that had penetrated the meat from fire below, smoke that tasted suspiciously like turpentine and taught a life-long lesson about cooking over an open wood fire (use only hardwood for open grilling).

There were maybe 16 of us in the camp that day, the monthly weekend “camp out” of our local Boy Scout troop, a tradition in the 1950's and 1960's for my brothers and I. That troop and others like it in our town, was typically made up of boys 11 years old through about 15 or 16, and functioned for years as a focal point for both the boys and their families.

That November weekend had a rudimentary forecast of rain in the valley where our town was sited, and snow at higher elevations. The Scout leaders were joking on the drive up the mountain that the U.S. weather service had just started giving forecasts for precipitation in percentages. Prior to that the forecast would be that 'there is a chance of rain today.' Then the weather service changed to say somthing like 'there is a 50% chance of rain today.' It was a noted event in the United States at the time, but most didn't take it too seriously. The Scout leaders were wondering if that meant that it was going to rain 50% of the time.

“Camp Christy”, our destination, was a 30-acre patch of meadow and pines surrounded for miles by similar terrain on the top of Craig Mountain, 40 miles south of home at Lewiston, Idaho, and high above the breaks of Snake River. It was a more of an old homestead gone bad, inherited by our Scout Master Roger Christy and consisting of a small two-room house, a fresh water spring, an out-building or two, an out-house, and a deteriorating wood rail fence around the perimeter. Night-time lighting was by oil lamp. Cows once ran grazed at the camp, and there may have been a garden to offer up produce for lunch to the occasional passing stagecoach traveling between Lewiston and Winchester, but that was all in the distant past. Now it hosted the Boy Scouts once a month, maybe seven or eight times a year, and maybe a few deer and elk hunters in the fall.

The weekend camp-outs were a highlight for the boys, who spent the month leading up to it working on various merit badges and attending the weekly Monday night Scout meetings in the basement of the old stone Methodist Church on top of the 7th Street grade, just above downtown.

We spent our weekends at Camp Christy learning the joys of being out-of-doors in a mountain environment, learning and then teaching skills to the rest of the boys. We hiked for hours, following topographic maps that we learned to read, and then read well, to navigate the terrain. We learned to identify trees and other flora, we learned rope skills, first aid, camp cooking, and some survival techniques. We spent more hours doing maintenance at the camp, cutting weeds and grass, trying to repair fencing, laying in wood supplies for the camp fires. As we grew older, we learned the fine art of driving pick-up trucks over the back-woods roads, borrowed from Scout leaders who would ask, ‘Son, do you know how to drive this thing?” We would lie, even though a Scout never lies according to the code, and say “Yes sir!” They would turn over the keys, not reluctantly which was always a surprise, and tell us to be careful, have fun, and don’t worry about hurting the pick-ups because they were ‘build like the big ones,’ a well-know line from popular Ford Motor TV commercials of the time. In retrospect, those Scout leaders must have been out of their minds, as we just beat the living day lights out of those pick-up trucks.

We usually left for Camp Christy on a Friday afternoon after school, returning on Sunday mid-day. Saturday nights were the pinnacle of the weekend, with a large bonfire, long talks about the foundation and principals of scouting, and then ghost stories late into the night. Sometimes there were induction ceremonies for new Scouts, serious affairs to welcome the youngsters into our order.

That early November weekend was miserable. It rained all Friday night. The Scouts typically brought a small pup tent to sleep in, that would hold one or two kids, while we would erect larger “Army surplus” tents to store the equipment, food, etc. For those Scouts who hadn’t known before, they quickly learned how to build drainage trenches around their tents that night so that the rain water would not flow inside.

The cooking fires the next morning did not burn hot, and gave off thick grey smoke from the wet wood. The morning hike up the mountain was cancelled, with the Scouts concentrated instead on staying dry in the unending rain. The rain turned to snow about noon as we were eating sandwiches brought from home the previous day.

We had “winter camp-outs” in January and or February each year that typically consisted of a weekend at distant logging camps high in the Clearwater forests, where the snow was 10-feet deep or more, and the air frigid. Those camps were joys, staying in warm bunk houses, riding the large logging company snow cats through the steep mountains, and learning to us snow shoes and cross country skis.

Camp Christy, on the other hand, was not designed for deep winter. It was 25 miles or more to the nearest paved road, with the last two miles or so into the Camp described as “primitive”. If the Scout leaders had understood the severity of the winter weather coming at us that weekend, I suspect they would have broken camp that Saturday morning and headed back to town. With no communications with the outside world at the Camp, no cellular phones, no television, no radio, nothing at all, we had no way to learn that the season’s first major winter storm was bearing down upon us.

At first the snow was a welcome relief from the rain that had been dumping on us since we arrived the day before. We built up the fires in the center of each area where three or four tents would be erected around a campfire, and we hunkered down to watch and wait out the storm. By mid-afternoon the snow was building when someone suggested we should probably cook an early dinner, as it appeared the snow was falling harder and accumulating faster. There would not be a chance to cook later on.

We were all in our individual tents by late afternoon, as the winter light was fading and the snow continuing to build. The pup tents began to collapse, and before long, we had all gathered in the larger Army tents. The fires were nearly out, and the chopped wood we piled earlier in the day was buried under the snow. It was getting colder, and many of the Scouts who had gotten wet earlier in the day where starting to shiver while changing into dry socks.

The small house on the property was just that: It had a one bedroom and a small loft, a sitting area and tiny kitchen with a wood burning stove for warmth. The adult scout leaders stayed in the house on the weekend camp outs.

The first Army tent collapsed under the weight of the building snow around 6 p.m., the next two within a few minutes. The warm glow of the oil lamps from the sole building at Camp Christy was the beacon we were looking for, and within minutes the house that usually had four occupants (and slightly crowded at that) now had 20. It was a bit cozy, but no one, including the leaders, seemed to care. The house was warm and tight against the building storm, there was plenty of hot chocolate for all, the path to the outhouse was kept sort-of-cleared through the night, and the stories kept coming.

The next morning it appeared that maybe four feet of snow had fallen. The landscape, of course, was beautiful under that deep white blanket. The sun was out, and so were the boys, exploring where they could. We couldn’t go far, though, the snow was far too deep. And the leaders were concerned that there was no way to transport out of the camp for the next several days, assuming the weather would warm up some and melt the snow enough to get some of the four wheel drive rigs off the mountain. We had two or three pair of snow shoes and we speculated that several of us could hike out to call for help. The leaders crushed that idea, and rightly so. The leaders inventoried our supplies, and figured we were fine for a few days with wood the fires, water, and some food. We were going to sit tight.

In early afternoon we heard the roar of a distant truck engine, straining. The truck engine was distinct and piercing, with no other sound in that winter wonderland to compete with it. Within 30 minutes a county snow plow worked its way into the camp, with the father of one of the Scouts at the wheel. He explained that he had received permission from the county commissioners that morning to run a “rescue” mission up into the mountains to retrieve the Boy Scouts who were undoubtedly snowed in. The roads, he said, were clear just a thousand feet elevation lower down the mountain, and that once we got out a couple of miles, we would be fine. He was right, and that journey out of Camp Christy ended that season’s weekend camps.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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Judie said...

Steve, this is kind of scary. I am glad you all got rescued. I hate being set and cold!!!
When you mention the Snake River breaks, are you referring to the rapids? I never knew what that expression meant.
Great story, Steve.

Anonymous said...

I bet you remember that camp out very well. Sure glad you all were rescued and all of you were okay.

Camping out is so much fun and I bet most of the time you all had tons of fun. I bet too over the years you have used many of the skills you learned on those camp outs.

I enjoyed reading this Steve. Hugs

Ames said...

I know it was an adventure but you were lucky. It could have been worse. Thank goodness that boyscout's father had the good sense to come up and rescue everyone!

Susan Anderson said...

I would guess that many of my son's favorite memories are derived from boy scout experiences. This is the kind of adventure that is well worth remembering.

Thanks for sharing it.