29 September 2009

28 September 2009

Let them roam!

Several years ago, the scout troop was camping in a beautiful spot in Virginia: Sherando Recreation Area (look it up, it's beautiful). The only problem was that the recent rain would prevent us from rappelling, so we needed an activity to keep about 12 boys ranging in age from 11 to 16 busy for an entire day! Or, at least get through the morning; we could worry about the afternoon later. Included in this group were several younger boys who had joined the troop only a month or so earlier, and several of the youth leaders in the troop. Some of the younger boys' fathers had accompanied us to provide transportation and watch the fun on the rocks (and I'm positive they were certain I was about to kill off all the boys from either falling kids or falling rocks). But that was out - allowing kids to have adventures does not include deliberately endangering their lives.

I had a brainstorm. Scouting requires hiking for advancement, and these new Tenderfoot Scouts needed at least a 5 mile hike using a map and compass. I grabbed the trip leader (an older youth) and gave him a map of the park. There was a nice trail up on the ridgeline that circled the huge bowl that Sherando sits in. I pointed it out, noted that they should not cross any asphalt once they left the campground (paved roads also ringed the area), and turned them loose with their compasses and the maps. A couple of the dads got up to go, too, but I stopped them. They looked shocked. In a rather loud voice, I said "I trust the leaders, they'll be fine." The boys all heard me.

And off they went. We adults sat around and talked and played cards. I noticed a few glances at watches a couple of hours in. At three hours, more glances at the watches. At nearly four hours, I thought they were going to go nuts wanting to go searching for the kids. Four hours and about 15 minutes into the morning, here they came. The younger boys were practically strutting with confidence. The older boys were seething! What could have gone wrong?! "You told us it was a five mile hike! It was closer to TEN!!!" I reminded them that my comment was the boys needed "at least" a 5 mile hike. And that they had fulfilled the challenge of taking a group of newbies on a 10 miler with no adults, and gotten back. The attitude instantly changed as that dawned on them.

The afternoon was spent playing Ultimate and football, with the older boys completely including the younger ones. They had bonded during that four hours on the trail that morning. The fathers were astounded, and after that, knew we trained our youth leaders to handle things.

Three different groups learned some very important things that day. The youth leaders gained a huge measure of confidence, and learned that their scoutmaster trusted them to get the job done. The younger boys learned that their scoutmaster trusted the older boys to be able to take care of them, and that they were capable of doing a lot more than they thought. The new fathers in the troop learned that the older boys were capable young leaders, and that although the scoutmaster was a bit crazy, he knew what he was talking about when it came to letting the boys run the show.

The older boys moved on to run trips to the Albemarle Sound sailing catamarans they rebuilt themselves, trips to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine, and many other adventures. The younger boys are now the leaders taking the newest scouts out on adventures they can grow from.

26 September 2009

Rules, rules, and more rules, Part III

Rules are designed for safety. But what happens when the rules get in the way of the activity itself? In some cases, stupid rules make things more dangerous.

Over nearly 30 years of scouting, the rules got nuttier and nuttier. I'm an expert in vertical rope work: rappelling, ascending rope, high angle and vertical rescue. So the scouts decide, against the recommendations of the cavers and climbers they asked to help write BSA rappelling rules, to require a second rope to be attached to each boy who is rappelling. There is no doubt in our collective minds that the insurance companies and lawyers insisted on this. The second rope is handled by a "belayer", a person who is supposed to stop the rappeller from falling. There's only a few problems with this. One, you can't see the kid that's on rope. Two, one of the most common issues with beginners is feet slipping out from under them. When that happens, the person on rope can twirl a bit. Guess what? Now the two ropes are twisted. This guy isn't going anywhere like down. You sure can't haul them back up. And of course, the kid is scared, and generally not able to help themselves. The second rope just compounded a very minor problem. The only solution is to have another rope rigged for rappel beside the main rope, and you send an experienced person down on this rope to unwind the mess.

OK, you say, but a second rope seems like a good idea! What if the rope breaks? What if (and if you know rappelling, you know this is another common mistake) the rappeller lets go of the rope - now they have no control. First issue I have is this. I've been doing vertical work since I was 14 years old. I've climbed and rappelled thousands of feet with many, many different people. We use 7/16" (11mm) kernmantle rope (special rope designed for climbing and rappelling). I've read every issue of American Caving Accidents. This is an annual publication detailing every accident in the caving world that can be documented, even if only through news or anecdotal reports. Guess how many times a broken rope has figured in an on-rope accident? None that I can find. Zero. The ropes are very strong. People take care of them. Regular inspection reveals flaws that cause ropes to be retired and turned into short pieces used to teach knot tying. Here's the answer to the second issue. Bottom belay. A person on the bottom of the drop who has the rope wrapped behind their thighs. Rappeler lets go of the rope, belayer puts some downward tension on the rope. A hundred and ten pounder can stop an adult. It's that simple.They don't stand directly under the rappeller. They wear protective gear. And they pay attention to the person on rope. It works.

There is no foolproof way to totally protect someone rappelling, but when you go 35 years doing it and teaching it, and no one in your charge has done anything worse than a pair of wet pants and a slightly sprained ankle, that's not chance, that's adherence to the rules that matter, not the artificial ones. Anyone who doesn't will pay the price, and even useless rules won't be useful!

(Rappelling at the Manchester Wall on the south bank of the James. Yes, there is a double rope - this is a dynamic climbing rope that stretches and is used in a double configuration when rappelling on it. There IS a bottom belay on Andy.)

(and there is the belay!)

22 September 2009

A Great Quote

"Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right use of strength. "
- Henry Ward Beecher  

19 September 2009

A Great Quote

A regular feature of "A Self-Proclaimed Expert..." will be EXCELLENT quotes that relate to the general topic of ADVENTURING! Here is a wonderful way to start:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry*

*I will use not use Wikipedia.org as an authoritative source, but rather as a quick reference for further information about the quote's originator, where appropriate.

14 September 2009

Rules, rules, and more rules, Part I

We live in a society governed by rules. Laws, statutes, ordinances, regulations, whatever you choose to call them, they're rules. They are necessary for an orderly and civilized society, and to deal with those who can't seem to just get along. But when it comes to kids and play, there should be a lot fewer rules. People make rules for youth to protect them from harm. So let me explain why I am qualified to talk about this subject.

My adventuring started at 14 years old. I started caving. I didn't know there were "rules" about how to do it safely, I just brought along a friend, a couple of flashlights, and crawled through the caves of Carters Caves State Park in eastern Kentucky, about an hour from my home in Huntington, WV. We crawled through body-sized tubes, running streams, some of the stickiest mud this side of the Mississippi, and huge walking passages. For hours on end. No one knew where we were. My dad, who'd driven us there, knew we were "out there crawling though the caves somewhere", but no idea exactly where we might be, because we didn't know ourselves. We wandered the woods and headed underground at every available opening, with no idea what lay ahead, and of course, no safety gear, no backup of any sort, but a keen sense of "where we were" while underground, so we had confidence we would find our way back out. One day, crawling out of what I'm sure is the absolute muddiest yuck hole I'd ever been in, clad in a cotton sweatshirt and jeans, a $5 hardhat, and carrying one flashlight each, the two of us were greeted by several pairs of worn, muddy boots. They were worn by real CAVERS! Thus began my association with "organized caving". I learned that carrying basic safety gear helped (but in no way guaranteed) your survival in these alien worlds. With caving comes vertical caving - using ropes and climbing hardware and "software" to enter and navigate caves - drops of hundreds of feet in pitch darkness. But again, basic rules in safety, taught by experts, kept your survival chances extremely high. I was safer "on rope" than driving to and from the cave.  Then really long rappels (875 feet is my longest), and rock climbing...I carried this spirit of adventure over into scouting, and for nearly 30 years spent a huge amount of time teaching scouts to be adventuresome.

11 September 2009

Who Runs the Show?

One of my favorite blogs is Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids. Today she said, "I want the kids to learn the basics then run the show." This is exactly my philosophy of raising kids (and I use the term "kids" to refer to anyone between old enough to play and adulthood). If you take the time to read some of the blogs I follow, you'll see that one of the central themes is "kids" running their own show. 

I was a Boy Scout leader for nearly 30 years. I'd be interested in hearing from all of
you that are/were Boy Scouts or leaders...did you let the boys "learn the basics and run the show"? Or run it all yourself? What were the results...

Feel free to comment. Talk amongst yourselves.

09 September 2009

Ponder this:

"Be grateful for each new day. A new day that you have never lived before. Twenty-four new, fresh, unexplored hours to use usefully and profitably. We can squander, neglect or use it. Life will be richer or poorer by the way we use it today. 

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities crept in; forget them as soon as your can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

07 September 2009

What's it all about anyhow?

If you want more of a hint about what this blog will be all about, check out the blogs I follow. Notice a theme? I spent a lot of my life trying to encourage young people to "be all they could be" (to swipe a rather excellent advertising slogan from the US Army). I've been on a few adventures - though not of the scope of Zac, Mike, Johnny, et al. My adventures started way back as a kid, where I spent afternoons after school, and all day during holidays and summers playing in the woods behind our house. Acres of woods, completely out of sight and sound of the house. But dinner was at 6, so you were expected to be home by then, even when I was in the third grade. My parents asked me to let them know if I went somewhere else (like a friend's house) so I'd call as soon as we got there. I walked to school - it seemed like LONG walk, especially in the rain. Typically I would meet up with several friends on the way, but only a few intersections near the school were guarded. I've lived through it so far!

So why aren't more kids out there playing in the woods? And what can we do to encourage adventures again? I have a tremendous amount of respect for the parents of the teenage adventurers I've been following and am happy to see that there are those out there who believe in their kids. There are also others who feel the way I do. Sir Evan's Dispatch is a good example. Probably my favorite, Free-Range Kids while not directly related to adventuring, certainly helps make the case for raising kids like the ones I mentioned above. 

Let's see what we collectively can do to help raise a new generation of kids! Ones who CRAVE adventure that isn't being presented video LCD screens!


06 September 2009

Life is about LIVING!

Life is all about LIVING! And I don't just mean the everyday "get up, go to job, come home, do housework, eat dinner, watch TV, do it all again tomorrow" kind of living. One of the things I want to point out is that there really is more to life than the rat race.
Click to see a Frazz comic strip that pretty much sums it all up.
Who knows, with luck maybe I can help you find the right road.

05 September 2009

I Broke a Solemn Vow

I did it. Finally. I broke a solemn vow. I swore I would never start blogging. I don't think anyone cares too much about what I have to say about much of anything. But some things have come to light that sort of stick in my craw, and I want to rant. Or rave. Or just speak out.

I've got some things to say. Mostly positive, but I reserve the right to be somewhat negative occasionally. Hey, it's a free country. I do have my opinions, and I am an EXPERT ON THE WORLD!

I hope you'll find this commentary relevant, perhaps irreverent, and at least entertaining. Please feel free to comment, add in, and have a good time. This blog will ramble, poke, examine, and hopefully entertain you enough that you will keep on coming back!

Thanks for reading on.