Ronnie Meeks got the call nine days before he and his Scouts were scheduled to begin driving to Philmont from North Carolina.
It was bad news: Because of the extremely dry conditions and ongoing fire risk, Philmont’s backcountry would be closed for the rest of the summer.
Their trek was canceled.
As a veteran of two Philmont treks myself, I know their disappointment must have been deep. I can’t imagine going through months of training and anticipation only to be told I wasn’t going to Philmont after all.
I’m told at least one of the adult leaders in Troop 3 cried. Hard to blame them.
Those Scouts and leaders pored over every detail of their packing lists. They studied the day-by-day itinerary, imagining what it would be like to conquer those legendary trails. They hiked around their neighborhoods with full backpacks to simulate the rigors of Philmont.
Some of these guys had been planning and training for two years. Meeks, who always regretted missing out on Philmont as a Scout, was looking forward to his first visit.
At this point in the story, you’d forgive the guys of Troop 3 if they wanted to call it quits. You’d understand if this group of teenagers said, “this just wasn’t our year” and stayed home.
But that’s not really the Scouting way. Scouting teaches you to deal with setbacks and overcome them. The guys of Troop 3 saw their canceled Philmont trek not as a dead end but as a detour.
Life gave them some pretty sour citrus, and, as Meeks told me, “it was time to make some lemonade.”
Finding a Plan B
After the letdown let up, Meeks and his Scouts decided to formulate a Plan B. Knowing they had all the necessary gear and were in “Philmont shape,” they chose a difficult stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina.
“It is possible to plan a trek in a short period of time,” Meeks says. “The trek we took cannot be done by everyone, but it’s is just an example of what is possible.”
Their story is representative of a nationwide trend. All across the country, Scouts and Scout leaders who weren’t able to go on their Philmont treks didn’t stay home. They acted quickly to plan other adventures.
Some hiked at state or national parks. Others went to local council camps. Many pivoted to another of the BSA’s three national high-adventure bases, enjoying one-of-a-kind experiences at the Florida Sea Base, Northern Tier or Summit Bechtel Reserve.
We know Philmont will bounce back after its closure for the summer of 2018. And we know these Scouts will get another shot at Philmont down the road — either as Scouts or leaders. Until then, these Scouts did what Scouts do: they made the most of a difficult situation.
Making a plan — and fast
Meeks, his fellow adults and the Scouts had just one requirement for their replacement trip. Because of the crew members’ other summer plans and work schedules, the trip dates would need to match those of the original trek.
But with less than two weeks before the departure date, they had to act fast.
Over a stretch of five days, the group met face-to-face and communicated through group texts and conference calls. They narrowed it down to three ideas: hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, taking a trip to Colorado or backpacking a segment of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
They picked Segment 4 of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. They found a guide who could design an itinerary, figure out resupply points and identify sources of potable water. The guide, Curt Teague of Hikemore Adventures, shuttled the Scouts to the starting point and met the group every couple of days to resupply their food and check on their status.
“He really was able to answer any questions we had and tailor our trip,” Meeks says. “He helped lay to rest any uncertainty.”
The group hiked more than 60 miles over 10 days. They endured 20 water crossings. They tried rock climbing, whitewater rafting and fishing. They completed a service project.
“At the end of it all, we could not have been more pleased,” Meeks says. “Everything went well.”
From Philmont to the Summit
Greg Repasy and the Scouts of Troop 56 of the Tecumseh Council in Ohio had been planning for Philmont for two years as well.
They learned their trek was called off just five days before they were to begin the train trip west.
After the shock subsided, the Scouts “got together and decided on a Plan B,” Repasy says.
Actually, they came up with seven Plan B’s. (Or would that be Plans B through H?) After looking at all the options, they selected a New River Trek at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia.
Instead of hiking, they paddled 50 miles in inflatable kayaks called “duckies.” They got to test their mettle against one of the world’s natural wonders in a true backcountry experience.
“Listening to the river, watching the fireflies and just being tired from paddling made for great sleeping,” Repasy says. “The weather couldn’t be better: hot but not too humid, short rainstorms and few bugs to worry about.”
They enjoyed paddling, camping and fishing, and they built lifelong bonds through stories they’ll repeat to their grandkids some day.
Five other stories of crews being flexible
Tim Schneider’s crew diverted to the Rocky Mountain High Adventure Base in Colorado.
“Seeing our group’s faces as they summited their first 14er was priceless,” he writes on Facebook. “The West is full of places like this. Organize your own adventure in the Sierras, the Rockies, the Sawtooths — and get out there. Your youth will thank you for it and remember it for the rest of their lives.”
Susan Hollowell’s crew from Ohio created its own Colorado adventure.
They spent five days in the Lost Creek Wilderness followed by five days hiking the Four Pass Loop around the beautiful Maroon Bells.
“Ours boys made their own trip and had a blast,” she writes on Facebook.
Shawn Carroll’s crew from Virginia took a trek out of Camp Buffalo Bill in Wyoming.
“We reached out and rapidly planned a trek in Yellowstone National Park and Shoshone National Forest with absolutely tremendous support from the staff at the Yellowstone High Adventure Outpost working out of Camp Buffalo Bill in the Central Wyoming Council,” he writes in an email to me. “The camp staff absolutely bent over backwards to save the high adventure summer plans for quite a few troops — definitely ours.”
Darin Jensen’s crew from Minnesota hiked at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.
“What a great alternate we were able to put together,” he writes on Facebook. “It was definitely a challenge, and we definitely were up for it.”
The troop in Cimarron, N.M., with Philmont basically in its back yard, had a trek canceled this summer.
The Scouts chose to take a canoeing trek at Northern Tier instead.
Share your ‘Plan B’ trip
Was your Philmont trek called off? Share the story of your Plan B trip and how you and your Scouts pulled it together so quickly.
I welcome your comments below.