The Greatest Joy

Seems to me there’s not greater joy for the parent of a 5th grader than cub scouts. And by no greater joy, I mean no greater joy than dropping their 5th grader off and knowing they won’t have to see them again for at least 24 hours.

Moms and dads had ear to ear grins dropping off the five boys for their last camp out of their cub scout careers.  None of this hugging like they couldn’t let their little boys go as was the scene when they were 7 year old tiger cub scouts. These boys are almost 12 now and know just about everything. Although this was just an overnight camp out, hopeful moms and dads packed them with extra food and snacks, just in case they wanted to stay an extra week.

Last year, I bought my big hunting pack. Which can pack alot of gear. If you bring a pack that takes a lot of gear, then everyone sees you as the person to pack the food. And the cook stove. And the cookware. And a spare tent. This year, I bought the little pack.

One of the boys (Pyro) was about 20 minutes late for the drop off, which was no big deal. We weren’t in a hurry. We were driving out near the end of the road in Juneau to a trail head for a 2 mile walk into a cabin near the beach. Pyro  noted several times on the way out to the trail that we were going to get into the cabin an hour later than the schedule that was sent out, oblivious to the fact that we were late because we were waiting for him. His mom was extra cheery upon drop off.

After rain and more rain lately, the dark turned to gray when we got out the road, and the rain slacked off and – what do you know – here comes the sun. We hiked into the cabin, which was down hill for about a mile and a half through the rain forest, then a half mile more along boggy terrain alongside a creek and beaver slough.

When we arrived at the cabin, the boys got busy arguing over who was going to get which bunk in the cabin. There’s not much seniority or hierarchy in this bunch. All are in 5th grade, and have been together a good chunk of their lives. They soon agreed that 4 of them would have the ground level bunk, and the snorer (Chainsaw), was banished to the 2nd story loft. Myself and the den leader would sleep on the floor because this is 2018, where the children’s comfort comes first. I miss the old days. It could have been worse.  At first the den leader suggested we sleep outside in tents to give the boys lots of room. Luckily, a worried mother contacted us about a grizzly bear that was seen about a half mile from the cabin at the stream mouth, guarding a cow moose that either died there naturally or that the bear had killed. I contacted a friend at Fish and Game, who said the bear report was 2 weeks old and it would probably be fine, but that got us out of the tents and onto the floor, which was a solid victory for the grownups.

As usual, the first order of business for the boys was to get down to some serious eating. Chainsaw produced a bag of Doritos, and the five scouts made quick work of that. When the boys were rested up from the hike, Chainsaw and Joker went with the den leader to the creek mouth to try some fishing. They were hopeful there might be a few Dolly Varden nosing into the river. The other boys (Pyro, Honest and Pointer) were soon whittling sticks to roast marshmallows.

Pyro started a fire with some fire starter jell, green wet wood, and paper. As the jell burned off and the fire died, the other two lamented that there was no fire to cook their marshmallows. Not one of them headed to the nearby woods in search of dry wood.  It was a lot easier to grouse about the poor fire than work on actually building one. At this point, their moms and dads are channeling to the assistant den leader not to do the fire building that the boys are expecting some adult servant should do, like they expect at home.

It wasn’t that I was on a different channel and couldn’t hear the parents screaming at me telepathically not to do it. It’s just an innate part of my being that if a fire is dying, you gotta revive it. So I gather the dead spruce branches and take off first the little dead outer branches that held the needles, then start breaking the larger main stem branches into pieces, and place them by the fire pit. Then I start blowing at the few coals left in the fire, adding the little branches first, with more blowing to get them to light, and gradually adding larger and larger branches. The fire takes off, and the boys rush in to roast their white confections.

Of course, the fire doesn’t last long, and soon the lamentations of the fire dying start in again. But with my fire starting addiction satisfied, I retreat to my stove on the porch to heat some water for coffee. Sure, I could boil water over the campfire, which I’d have to get going again, but JetBoil is my new bff.

I then thought I better get down to the beach and see what was going on. As I was leaving, Pyro was teaching his Honest and Pointer how to make a rocket by putting heads of matches in tin foil, attaching the tin foil to a toothpick, and then heating up the tin foil. Real-life stuff you don’t learn in a video game.

The beach was about a 1/4 mile from the cabin, and is hidden from view by a bluff. As I crested the small hill and caught sight of Berners Bay, it was a wildlife symphony. Hundreds of sea gulls squawking. Some 50 bald eagles in the air and clustered on the beach. Animated sea lion heads bobbing near the shore. Then I saw not far from the sealions a puff of smoke. Whales. Two of them.  Humpbacks were working along the shore. The herring run was here.  I sat down and enjoyed the scene in the sun and light breeze. Nobody was in sight at the beach. The boys and den leader must be fishing out of sight at the stream mouth. I could have gone down to see how the fishing was going, but that was probably a 1/4 mile or more hike and, well, that WAS where the bear on the moose was last seen. I headed back to the cabin after about 30 minutes of watching the carnival.

When I got back, the three boys had bored of watching the fire fizzle out and were busy building secondary bridges across the small creek alongside the cabin. They found some 2 x 8 planks that – I assumed,  under the don’t ask don’t tell doctrine of non-parental supervision –  weren’t planks from the trail, and were laying them across the little creek next to the cabin, and then bouncing on the plank like a trampoline. Before long, everyone had gone in over their boots and now had wet feet. Pointer, who earns his name by blaming others for his tribulations, tried to blame his wet feet on Honest, who doesn’t have it in his being to break a rule or transgress his brother.  Honest has known Pointer for most of his life so was having none of it.

Before the trip, the den leader made a list of meals we’d need – lunch, dinner, breakfast – for the boys to bring and cook. No surprise that hot dogs were a fan favorite. An 11 year old might not know what is and isn’t healthy for him, but he does know what’s easy to cook. And what meals you can bring that someone else actually cooks. As any good cub scout knows, hot dogs are best cooked on a stick you whittle, over a fire. If only we had  fire. This time hunger compelled action by the 11 year olds, and they got a fire going to cook their hot dogs.  I brought a 1 lb sleeve of breakfast sausage I made a couple days before the trip from Bob’s Yukon River black bear hind quarter, and I cooked some silver dollars of that up 3 at a time in my mess kit frying pan and put them on a plate on the table. They disappeared about as soon as I could dish them out. Good to see a group of hot dog loving boys not afraid to try real food, too. I snuck a few on a bun for my meal before it was all gone so I didn’t have to eat a hot dog.

As darkness set it, you could feel and smell the rain coming. I got the kerosene stove going in the cabin, blew up my sleeping pad, threw a cover over me, made a pillow out of my jacket, and settled in for the night on the floor. The boys settled in for a night at the table next to their bunks. playing a game called something like mad libs. Joker, the class clown of the group, asked the group for a noun or adjective or verb, and  wrote the word called out into blanks that would complete a story. After the sheet was completed, Joker  would read the story.  You couldn’t understand him for much of the story because he was laughing so hard. The boys reused the same nouns over and over again. Balls and fart were popular. As was rectum and pee.  11 years old boys are 11 years old boys. Anywhere in America.

The den leader was on his pad on the floor, too. About an hour into the mad libs, we hear the boys blowing at the table, and see a flicker of light in their faces. The more they blew, the more their faces lit up. Pretty soon, Pyro’s face is really shining. They’d burned tea candles into all liquid, and blew the burning wax all over the table, and now the table was alight. Den leader took his water bottle and doused the fire. Den leader wasn’t thanked for his heroics.  Pointer chastised him for the next 30 minutes for getting water all over everything.

Not long after Pyro’s handiwork, Chainsaw joined us on the floor. He was having no part of sleeping alone up in the loft by himself, even though the other 4 boys told him all the little black specks on the floor up there was chocolate. Too hot up there and too lonely. Chainsaw put his sleeping bag between Den leader and me. Right next to my ear. He wasn’t happy to find out the next day that the chocolates he almost slept in were actually mouse turds.

I got up to pee about every 2 hours like clockwork. Just like at home. I was plenty warm sleeping on the floor with the fire going, even though the windows were open from Pyro’s earlier handiwork. The website for the cabin reservation indicates that a gallon of kerosene per day is sufficient unless it’s really cold out, which it wasn’t. And, we were only heating the cabin overnight. The website lied. The gallon of kerosene I brought in only lasted about 2/3 of the night. Anticipating we’d have heat, I’d just packed a fleece blanket instead of a full sleeping bag. Rookie move. After toughing it out for an hour or two, I started layering up with clothes, and as Den leader and Chainsaw were getting up and dressed for the morning, I caught my second wind and napped on.

The next day was more of the same, but with lots of intermittent rain. Chainsaw and Joker went to the beach with den leader to fish and I stayed with Pointer, Joker and Honest, who continued the marathon of  trampoline bridge. Pointer lost his $65 multi-tool and couldn’t find it anywhere. When den leader returned, Pointer asked him to help look for it. When it still wasn’t found, Pointer blamed den leader for not looking hard enough. As den leader had known Pointer since birth and shared half of Pointer’s DNA, he’d heard this broken record before and soon pulled the needle.

We planned to leave about noon as that’s checkout time. Den leader asked the boys at least five times to sweep up the cabin and pick up any garbage around the cabin to leave the place cleaner than when we arrived. All five boys would sweep or pick up for about 2 minutes, then back to creek bridge trampoline. Den leader laid into them and they came back up from the creek to do another 3 minutes on task. I said “are all 5th graders deaf, or just you five”. Joker said “what?”, and I started to repeat ” Are all 5th graders deaf” when Joker looked up at me with a grin. He got me.

The boys finally got the place cleaned up and all their belongings packed. Pointer never found his knife. We headed back to up the trail to the road. It was a pretty rainy cold day, and I was surprised at all the people hiking out the trail to the beach or wherever they were going. This hiking for fun must be a thing.

We stopped in Auke Bay to get the boys some hot chocolate. Den leader was reminiscent as this was the last meeting of the boys for their den. Next year they’ll be in Boy Scouts. Den leader was kind of misty eyed. The boys were more interested in finding out if they could have a big cookie to go with their hot chocolate.

I left Auke Bay with Chainsaw and Honest. I asked Chainsaw if he felt an ice cream cone coming on at McDonalds, and he didn’t understand. I asked Honest if he felt an ice cream cone coming on, and he surely did. When we pulled into McDonalds, Chainsaw asked what we were doing there.  Honest clued him in about the whole ice cream situation.

I dropped Honest off at his house, and his dad was there with a forced smile, consigned to have him home. Then I dropped Chainsaw off, and he left without saying thank you. His usual goodbye. I headed home contented that all 5 of these boys will remember this when they’re in their 50’s and remember when they had such good friends and life was fun and simple and happy and uncomplicated. Maybe they’ll even miss their parents and their hometown.