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.

Our leadership cadre took scouts hiking, backpacking, winter, spring, summer, and fall camping, canoeing, whitewater rafting, caving, rock climbing, rappelling, you name it. The boys built fires and bridges, chopped firewood and whittled all manner of sticks into all manner of things. They ran through the woods during the day and during the night. Sometimes they even used flashlights! The stories could go on for a long time.

Did we have rules? Absolutely. Anarchy serves no one. The rules were designed for safety but not to squelch. And now the most important question: What is my safety record?

I'll be perfectly honest. It's not perfect. How could it be? I know of one twisted (not sprained) ankle in a cave. A face plant in a mountain river that required 2 or 3 duct tape butterfly bandages over one eye. I remember one pair of wet underwear (ok, that only hurt the pride). But let's be serious. I've taken to the hospital only 3 or 4 scouts out of the hundreds that have participated in adventures that I had a part of. And nothing was more serious than a few stitches.

(I really need to make a post, so guess what? You have to stay tuned for Part II!)

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