Snakes, floods and fun: camping with the scouts

Quehanna Wild Area, with a total of 50,000 acres, is home to elk, deer, coyotes and other wildlife.

What do you get when you mix 40-pound backpacks, rattlesnakes, a flooded campsite, a 70-mile trail, and a dozen teenage boys?

“Some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”

“Really cool.”

“We made a lot of great memories.”

Those were some of the reactions from members of Troop 284, Scouts BSA, who went on weeklong hikes in the Pennsylvania wilderness during the past two summers. The troop, which is sponsored by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was accompanied by several parents, including the Rev. Noah Evans of St. Paul’s, who is an experienced camper. His son Isaiah, 11th grade, is a troop member and one of the hikers.

“It was an amazing experience to see these young people push their limits,” Rev. Evans said, “and realize that they can do things that they didn’t think was possible.”

In spring 2022, the troop spent a weekend camping in the Laurel Highlands. Then that summer, they hiked the entire 70-mile Laurel Highlands Trail, starting near Johnstown and ending at Ohiopyle, accompanied by two of their dads. Although they camped at designated campsites, they had to carry all their food and treat the water there with iodine tablets. In addition to provisions, each Scout carried a tent, sleeping bag, change of clothes, and some of the troop’s gear (first-aid kit, camp stove, etc.)

During the day the group moved in two sections, each led by one of the Scouts. The leadership rotated each day, so each camper got a chance to set the pace, read the maps, plan for breaks and mealtimes, and deal with the unexpected, according to Pete Goslin, a former Eagle Scout who accompanied the group. His son Peter was on the trip.

“We were giving everyone different jobs and we would rotate,” said Pete Goslin, Elm Spring Road. “It was Noah’s idea for keeping group dynamics strong—everyone got a chance. It wasn’t always the oldest or strongest scout.

“The other thing we would do is at the end of the day was we would chat about what went right, what went wrong, and what are you looking forward to tomorrow. It really brought the group together.”

Despite some of the hardships of the trip, the boys described it in positive terms.

“I definitely overpacked, not thinking that I was going to have to carry all of it,” said Eddie Ercegovic, Mission Drive. “Once you get into the groove of it, you just put your head down and walk 10 to 15 miles, and then sit down for the night and relax. It definitely teaches you to have discipline. But I loved doing it—I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The Laurel Highlands Trail trip was such a success the first summer that this past July the troop tackled the 57-mile Quehanna trail in central Pennsylvania, along with Evans, Goslin, and scoutmaster Steve Byrne. Quehanna posed an even greater challenge, because it has no designated campsites, so the group had to make their own site each night. Along the way, they saw black bears, rattlesnakes, salamanders, and a beaver dam, and had a memorable first night in a rain storm.

Pete Goslin described the difference between the two trails. “The Laurel Highlands trail is a very defined trail, you know where you’re going to camp, you know where you’ll get your water. Now we do this Quehanna Trail and it’s much more primitive, so we had much more map work to do and we really had to be prepared for the unknowns. What they loved most were the points where we were challenged, when things got hard, and they got through it.”

One of those challenges was a flash flood. “Probably my favorite memory, although it wasn’t at the time, is the first night when we camped beside a stream,” reported Isaiah Irwin Evans, Woodhaven Drive. “It starts to rain. In the night, I hear my dad screaming, ‘Get up! Our campsite’s flooding!’ Now there’s a river right where our dining area had been. So in the middle of the night we’ve got to grab everything, pack up our tent, and move it to dry land. In the moment, it was stressful, but I learned a lot of teamwork there.”

The group at mile zero, before a long, long hike.

Ercegovic reported that he managed to collapse his tent during the incident, dumping all the water pooled on top down on his head. “That’s the memory that’s the clearest!” he said.

Ercegovic felt that the discipline was sometimes uncomfortable, but the teamwork made up for it. “I made some of my closest friends on these hikes. If you go with a group, even if you don’t know them at all, you learn about each other, because you have nothing to do but walk. You talk a lot and you learn a lot from each other.”

Peter Goslin agreed. “We were definitely interconnected and dependent on one another. Everybody was carrying one another’s food and water. There was a lot of teamwork. It was really unique seeing how everybody worked together and became like one big family almost.”

Peter named the stopping at the scenic lookouts to see the view and how far they’d come as some of his favorite moments.

His least favorite? “Pushing through towards the end of the day, when everybody was exhausted and hot. It was definitely the hardest part for me.”

Peter’s mother, Jackie Goslin, thinks that scouting is a great way to get young people outside and participating in physical activity.

“This is right in our state; you don’t have to go far to experience nature,” she said. “I want other parents and other boys to know about this. I truly feel like these experiences can reinforce some very good feelings, like confidence and connection.”

Both the adults and the teenagers had remarkably similar views about the value of these trips. Rev. Evans was surprised at the maturity the campers showed in shouldering the hardships and stepping up to help one another.

“It surprised me, the maturity that they showed in understanding what it meant to tackle a challenge in front of them, not just to whine and complain,” he said. “I think they learned that they can do some difficult things, I think they learned about perseverance. They supported one another as a group and as a team, and learned how they could achieve some really amazing things.”

As for the boys, they recognized they had met a challenge successfully.

“It’s honestly one of the hardest things that I’ve done so far. Mentally, not being around home and all the amenities,” Peter Goslin said. “But I learned how important it is to help other people. Towards the end of the hike when everybody’s sore and hurting, be the person to stand up and reach out a hand to help.”

Isaiah Irwin Evans learned a lot about leadership. “We’d be on the trail and we’ve got to get 10 miles ahead. And by mile six sometimes, people were dead. ‘We need to take a break.’ We just took a break. At this pace we’re going to get there at 10 o’clock at night. So you have to find ways to motivate them. That’s always a really big challenge and learning experience for me, trying to get a group of boys who don’t want to be hiking to go further and further.”

He also appreciated the chance to be out in nature. “It’s so worth it. Just getting outside Mt. Lebanon and getting away from tech for a week, that was amazing. And then you backpack, you camp, you learn how to hike.”

Peter Goslin is looking forward to the next hike. “It’s such a good morale booster, because at the end of the week, you’re like, wow, I just carried my entire food and shelter for an entire week. I just went 70 miles. It’s such a good feeling. It gives you so much confidence to do so much more in life.”

Exhausted, the scouts made it to mile 70.