We spent a good part of this weekend camping with my son's Cub Scout pack at Camp Drake in Oakwood, Ilinois. Since joining the pack more than two years ago, the fall camping trip is my favorite activity of the scouting calendar. The October weather is usually perfect for hiking (and sleeping in a tent) and the color in the oak and hickory forest creates a beautiful canvas for the weekend's activities. When we arrived Saturday at our Hickory Haven campsite, a thick carpet of fallen leaves shuffled and crunched as we set up camp.
A short wooden bridge that leads from Hickory Haven is the traditional trailhead for our afternoon nature hike. My enthusiasm for plants and nature and the lack of a more skilled naturalist makes me the de facto leader for our pack hikes, so I briefed the scouts and their parents on the basics of hiking safety and responsibility before leading the group across the bridge. Taking the first steps on any hike is an exhilarating moment for me. When I have the opportunity to help the scouts understand the natural world in new ways, I'm completely in my element.
Although I've hiked this trail several times in the past, there's always a newness about it when I'm using all my senses to scan the woods for teachable moments. As we walked, I collected leaves from the trail in a variety of colors. When I had enough, I stopped to asked the scouts if they knew why many leaves changed color in the fall. I smiled broadly when the scouts answered with most of the correct answers, a testament to past exposure to these basic concepts of plant science either through school or scouting.
One of the more exciting moments on our Camp Drake hikes is crossing the wooden suspension bridge over the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. When the bridge takes on the weight of our entire pack, it shimmies and sways quite a bit, leading to exclamations and giggles from all the scouts (and even some of the parents).
Even if the bridge invokes your fear of heights, you have to admit the view from the middle of the span is breathtaking on a still day. The way the rusty gold of the oak and hickory forest shimmers off the blue-black water rivals some of the autumn scenes I witnessed growing up in New England.
Due north and downstream of the bridge, the Salt Fork bends nearly 180 degrees and begins to head south back through Camp Drake. This sudden change in direction results in the deposition of a large amount of river sediment (a "point bar") on the inside of the turn. To Camp Drake regulars, this area is known as Pebble Beach. We always bring the scouts down to Pebble Beach for them to skip stones, search for fossils and just have a little unstructured fun at the halfway point of the hike. Three of the scouts, including my son, started their own mining operation at the water's edge.
Pebble Beach is also home to a symbol of nature's resiliency -- a sycamore tree that is growing from a crack in one of the large boulders along the shore. A towering sycamore stands about a hundred feet away from this spot. I asked the scouts to imagine how a seed could have traveled over, landed in a small amount of soil in the crack, and grown into its current form. It may never be a full-grown sycamore, but the scouts were impressed that the roots of the tree were actually splitting the rock down the middle.
When you're hiking through the woods with a bunch of elementary school boys, wildlife rarely makes an appearance. The animals, birds and insects can hear us coming from a hundred yards away and follow their instinct to find safety in shelter or camouflage. When we came across a freshly-cut log with a spider the size of a silver dollar, I called the nearby scouts to come take a look.
We found the spider because we had decided to hike back along one of the valleys rather than double back along the river bluffs. The trail was more densely covered in leaves and some areas even had vegetation growing, a sure sign that this was a path less traveled. For me, that's really what being a scout leader is all about -- helping these boys experience the wonder of the world one tree, one stone and, yes, one spider at a time.