Philmont Morale Boosters

Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2006 12:13:28 -0400
From: tom fitzpatrick
Subject: Morale Boosters
I feel this is an item that the advisors need to carry or arrange. Its amazing how something as simple as a letter (birthday cards) from home or a piece of candy can add energy to the youth when things are falling apart.

I had the misfortune to activate our morale boosters on two treks, 2002 and 2004. There were different circumstances leading up to each incident, where the kids were seriously questioning why they were out at Philmont, 1000s of miles from home. Jolly Ranchers and M&Ms certainly turned the days around.

In 2002, I was the lead advisor for a young crew (oldest was 15) and we had a day that went from bad to worse in about an hour. Our 4th day found us rushing off to program at 8 am, about a mile plus away from our campsite. The crew leader and the navi-guesser of the day determined that we should put the smellables in the bear bag and leave our packs at the site. They thought that this would be the most efficient way for us to hike for the day. After program we were on the trail by 10:00. The distance to travel wasn't as long as our previous day, but the terrain would be the steepest of any day on our trek.

Sometime after our lunch break, there was a miscalculation of where we were on the map. The youth consulted with me and I didn't give them any more than "yes we can get to our destination with the direction you're suggesting". One of the things that the Philmont List had been preaching was to let the youth lead. I can still remember how tough it was to not be a little more direct and suggest the better trail. The crews selection caused us to travel about an extra mile. A little later there was navigational error that caused us to miss a turn off. This is where I first noticed that things were beginning to slip backwards. The youth didn't have the mental energy that they did earlier in the trek and back-tracking for the correction only caused morale to sink lower.

I was bringing up the rear trying to move people along and from the front of the line I heard a scream and a scout shout "Mr. Fitz, X just snapped his Achilles tendon!". Going to the aid of the scout, I found that our crew leader was lying on the ground next to the victim, totally exhausted due to lack of nutrition and proper hydration (its tough to monitor those platypus bags tucked into backpacks and all the breakfast bars that he was eating weren't supplementing his meals, but were actually his meals). Looking around I found another youth member who was exhausted and approaching a dehydrated state. My back up (the other adult advisor) had been popping Advil like they were candy for the whole day. (I suspected it was due to the 150 mile bike ride he did 4 days before our Philmont arrival) A wave of panic washed over me as I looked at the map to calculate an evacuation/rescue strategy and looked over the youth to see who I could send for aid.

Taking a deep breath I looked around at the crew and realized it wasn't as bad as I initially thought. The most serious was the other advisor. The Achilles tendon injury wasn't. It wasn't even a bad sprain. Suddenly I remembered a special package that I had packed for an occasion just like this. Tucked away in one of the youth packs was a newspaper wrapped package marked Bear Bag. I knew who had the package and asked him for it. As he handed it to me, he questioned what it was: "Signal flares" was my response (I still don't know why I said that to this day)

"Cool! Mr. Fitz brought signal flares"

If you remember 2002 was a year with major re-routing of treks due to early season fires. Pealing off the newspaper, I revealed a package of Jolly Ranchers hard candy. Declaring a packs-off break, I started tossing the candies to all the youth and in a matter of minutes they had a change of heart and regained much of the needed energy we would need to tackle the remainder of the day. After about 20-25 minutes we were ready to get back on the trail.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The Morale Boosters worked well - it was worth the extra weight.
  2. A review of the maps the night before by the crew is very important and continue to do so frequently throughout the day
  3. We're in this as a team and we're all responsible for the health of the crew. If someone is not eating/drinking right, alert the crew leader/advisor right away. Small problems can become big problems quickly.
  4. Monitoring of food and drink consumed is necessary for at risk youth.
  5. An early start on the trail avoids the hot mid-day sun.

Footnote: I had a heart to heart with the crew leader and let him know he was putting his crew at risk by not taking care of himself. I remember telling him that I would be closely monitoring his food and water intake until he was back on track. I shared with him my general dislike with the Philmont meals and that I was forcing myself to eat some of the items so that I would have the necessary energy for the next day. I strongly suggested he take the same approach.

I also had a conversation with the other adult, in which we discussed that we had 2 easy days ahead, but if he continued to have the problems that he had that day, he should strongly consider pulling himself off of the trail (Our sister crew had a spare adult).

During thorns and roses that night, there were plenty of thorns, almost too many. I chose that opportunity to pass along to the crew that a careful review of the map is necessary. I pointed out that the most obvious trail selection isn't necessarily the best way to travel. When questioned on my reasoning, I let them know that they would have saved 3 to 4 miles if we had started the days hike from the program camp. A lesson learned that was put into practice for the remainder of the trek.

2004 found us in an entirely different situation: rain & hail caught us as we were heading toward our campsite. We were in a narrow valley with dense vegetation and the clouds were on us before we knew it. Most of the crew was soaked to the skin by the time we could get out our rain gear. To compound the rain, the temperature dropped about 35 degrees in about 10 minutes. Within a few minutes of arriving at our site we had two people who were exhibiting the early signs of hypothermia.

We were fortunate that this time the crew was older and more experienced. We worked well together as a team during all the shakedown hikes and this day wasn't any different. This is one time where I stepped in and activated my advisors role and took charge: Dinning fly went up first. Two crew members were assigned to start boiling water and prepare an early dinner. Other crew members set up the tents, and the 1st one up was assigned to the two ailing trekkers. Into the tent they went with instructions to peel off their wet clothes and climb into their bags.

About this time the water came to a boil and we topped off a couple of nalgene bottles with the hotter water and handed them to the youth in the tent: "put these in your bag to help warm you up". Two more youth members were now starting to ail and they were also instructed to get into their tent. Additional water bottles were prepared. About 30 minutes later, the rain started letting up and we settled in for dinner.

The warm meal was just what we needed and I chose that time to pull out a care package that a parent had supplied – it was for one of the crew members who would be having a birthday the next day. He had been carrying it for 6 days and the only thing he knew about it was that it was marked "bear bag". I was advised about the contents and knew it contained cards and treats from home. Because of the generous nature of the scout, I also knew that he would share the contents. He read off the Birthday cards and shared his M&Ms. Our spirits were lifting and the crews health was improving. (And I still had the package of jolly ranchers in reserve)

Our sister crew wasn't so lucky. They were about 2 hours behind us on the trail and 11 out of the 12 were not doing so well. Four of us went over to our sister crew and repeated the process. When we arrived at their site, 11 members were huddled in their tents trying to get warm. The more seriously ill youth got hot water bottles in their sleeping bags and our crew cooked dinner for them. At that time their crew advisor pulled out packages of hot chocolate & candy. These were distributed it to the crew. About 9 pm, on the way back to our site, we were alerted that something large and loud was circling the perimeter of our site and was presumably a bear and we should make a lot of noise.

Lessons Learned:

  1. an early start on the trail avoids the mid afternoon monsoons
  2. keep the dinning fly handy (we used it as a giant umbrella the next day when we got caught in another nasty storm)
  3. be resourceful and adapt to the situation at hand
  4. having experienced youth mixed in with newbies is better than a whole crew of newbies
  5. Moral boosters work
  6. A birthday celebrated on the trail is more memorable if you have the youth in question carry his own care package ;)

Footnote: I took a lesson learned from 2002 and twisted it around a little. The first time the crew asked about the choice in trail selections, I told them the 2002 navigational story. I also shared that trail selection was up to them, but they needed to weigh several factors with their decision. They could take the most direct route which usually had the most elevation gain/loss. They could also take the easier trail, letting them know that sometimes going around the mountain is faster than going up and over it. I told them that the most important thing for me when I hike are the opportunities to see and visit the interesting sites. I can't think of any bad navigational decisions that were made in 2004

Yours in Scouting,

Tom Fitzpatrick
Troop 12, (Framingham, MA)

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