Monday, September 21, 2015

The long and winding road...

      Yellow jacket stings, time constraints, a dog bite, an overheated clutch, and several long, winding, mountain roads lent a slightly surreal quality to this weekend's trip to North Carolina. However, the weather was perfect and the rafting was quite enjoyable, which gave us an overall positive experience for the trip. While there are lessons to be learning in planning for future trips, the youth leadership gave the trip a thumbs up for the hiking, whitewater experience, and the food.

      The trip began with an early Saturday morning departure from Auburn, which was delayed slightly due to an adult leader inexplicably suffering a dog bite. Fortunately, the wound wasn't too bad and we were soon on the road heading for Highlands, North Carolina. After a lunch stop at the overlook for Tallulah Gorge in north Georgia, we began to climb into the mountains across the state line in North Carolina. The climb proved arduous for Mr. Wikle's truck, which was towing the troop trailer. His clutch began to overheat and limited his ability to downshift on the steep grade. After stopping for a cool-down break, the truck and trailer were finally able to successfully reach our destination. Our campsite was the vacation home of a troop parent and we were able to camp next to a pond on the property.

The intrepid hikers pose at the Jones' Gap trailhead for the Bartram Trail.

       Leaving the truck and trailer at our campsite, we loaded into the other vehicles and traversed across Highlands in search of the Bartram Trail. The Jones' Gap trailhead turned out to be several miles past an ominous road sign reading "pavement ends." The climb to the trailhead was a chore, especially for vehicles accustomed to the "Plains" of Auburn. The hike up to Jones' Bald was pleasant and included a nice view from the top. We continued on the trail towards Whiterock Mountain but ran across a nest of yellow jackets that stung several of the boys. Although we circumvented the nest in order to continue the hike, we soon ran into another nest, which resulted in other Scouts getting stung. At that point we decided it was best to turn back. Our late start also contributed to the decision and we returned to the trailhead having covered 2.6 miles of the trail.

Louie, Josh, and Michael take in the view from Jones' Bald.

      After setting up our campsite and cooking areas, the patrols began preparations for dinner. With encouragement to branch out on their menus, the Carnivorous Pandas prepared a dish of chicken alfredo while the Outdoorsmen opted for spaghetti with meatballs. The scoutmaster prepared his infamous Lithuanian goulash for the adult leaders, a dish so notorious it pushed his wife into labor with their first child. Dinner was topped off with a dessert of peach cobbler and a campfire program, minus the campfire. Josh hosted the program as part of the requirements for his communications merit badge, which included (humorous?) skits by both patrols. Unfortunately, the scoutmaster inadvertently ended the program before Josh was done by sending everyone scurrying to clean up the campsite before bedtime. Since we were in bear country, all of the food and personal gear needed to be locked in the trailer overnight. The Scouts were soon sacked out in our new tents that were purchased with a grant we received this summer from the Auburn Rotary Club.

      The morning wake-up came early (before the sun even thought about making an appearance!) and everyone was busily making breakfast and preparing for our rafting adventure. The adults pointed to several mysterious scratches on the side of the trailer as proof of the need to lock up the gear overnight. The scratches have been on the trailer since we inherited it almost three years ago. However, that didn't stop the spread of a sensational rumor that the trailer had been attacked by a bear in the night.

      Even though we had awakened in the pre-dawn hours, it was still a chore to get everyone ready and on the road to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in order to meet our scheduled rafting time of 10:00 AM. The long, winding mountain roads between Highlands and the Nantahala tested not only the drivers' attention but also the fortitude of the Scouts. We made it to the NOC with minutes to spare and were soon gearing up for the river.

Creighton gears up with his splash jacket, life vest, and brain bucket
in preparation to attack the river.

      After suiting up against the cold water of the Nantahala and viewing the mandatory safety video, we loaded up on the bus to travel to the put-in point. Several of the older scouts, who had previously earned Kayaking or Whitewater merit badges, were able to use individual, inflatable kayaks (duckies) for their trip down the river. They accompanied the rest of the troop who were in inflatable rafts with NOC guides.

The duckies prepare to follow the rafts down the river. 

The Senior Patrol Leader "chills" along a quiet section of the river.

      The Scouts navigated down the 9.4 miles of river with ease. Many took the opportunity to "ride the bull" on the front of the raft as it went through the various rapids. This can cause some exciting moments and is also fully exposed to the cold water of the Nantahala. Since the river water along this stretch is released from Duke Energy's hydroelectric dam, the water comes from the bottom of the lake and averages only 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The end point for the trip is the Class III rapid at Nantahala Falls. All of the rafts and duckies made it safely through the falls with the exception of the senior patrol leader. He flipped his ducky and had to be hauled in on a safety line. We might need to consider revoking his merit badges.

Mr. Williams, Joey, Hunter, and Everett do not seem apprehensive about
facing the upcoming Nantahala Falls.

      Once the river was run, it was into dry clothing and back into the vehicles for a return trip across the same winding mountain roads to Highlands. A late lunch and clean-up/take-down of our camping area delayed us late into the afternoon, pushing our return time to Auburn late into the evening. The trip home was anticlimactic in comparison, marked only by the smell of hot brakes as we came out of the North Carolina mountains.

      At the PLC meeting on Monday night, the youth leaders praised the hiking, rafting, and how well the food turned out. They also lauded the new tents as easier to set up and take down. There was an additional discussion about how to deal with some of the downsides to the trip. There are lessons that we can share with the troop and others that will inform our planning for future trips. Useful learning experiences are part of the growth process as our Scouts mature.

      More photos from the trip are available in the online photo gallery.