It started, as great ideas sometimes do, as a joke.
Back in March, Chris Mahn was sitting at a troop committee meeting with fellow volunteers from Troop 26 of Wilmington, N.C., part of the BSA’s Cape Fear Council.
The leaders started to discuss the troop’s epic summer calendar, where two separate groups of Troop 26 Scouts planned to take treks at two of the BSA’s four national high-adventure bases.
The first group would hike through the rugged Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. As that trip was ending, the second group would begin a canoe trek at Northern Tier, the pristine paddling paradise in Minnesota and Canada.
At the March meeting, someone joked that it would be possible, theoretically, for someone to finish the Philmont trek, hop on a plane, and meet the Minnesota group as they began their Northern Tier trek.
“While everyone sort of laughed it off as a cool yet too-hard-to-pull-off idea, I thought that it might be neat to see if I could actually make it happen,” Mahn says. “Knowing it would be a pretty significant accomplishment, I decided to go for it.”
And so that’s how this Eagle Scout, Scouting volunteer and U.S. Navy veteran set out on a seemingly impossible 23-day journey by foot, train, car, plane and canoe to see just how far Scouting can take people.
“Hopefully, it will inspire Scouts to be adventurous and to go out and take advantage of the opportunities Scouting has to offer,” Mahn says. “It was worth all of the sweat and soreness to see the things I saw, including the Scouts and other leaders accomplishing things they might’ve thought they couldn’t.”
Ready to roam
Mahn grew up in Troop 26 and earned the Eagle Scout award. He then left to serve in the U.S. Navy for four years.
“When he got back, he jumped right in as a leader,” says Troop 26 Assistant Scoutmaster Chris Woolard. “We’re very proud of him.”
Serving in the Navy meant Mahn was “cooped up on a ship for months on end,” he says. Hence his eagerness to roam through the wide-open spaces of Philmont and Northern Tier.
His time in the Navy also meant Mahn had no debt and enough savings to pay for both trips and the required transportation costs.
“Growing up, I was never a very adventurous person,” Mahn says. “But after I got out of the Navy, I wanted to do something big.”
Back-to-back high-adventure treks certainly qualifies as “something big.” But as the departure date neared, Mahn came up with another apt phrase for his trip: “a logistical nightmare.”
Thankfully, he had the right attitude — and plenty of help from staffers at both high-adventure bases.
Mahn’s time in the Navy also meant he had the right physical condition to complete two strenuous adventures in a row. That’s a good reminder that proper training and preparation is a must for one high-adventue trek — let alone two.
The Philmont leg
Mahn left home on July 20, flying on a three-leg journey from Wilmington, N.C., to Charlotte, N.C., to Dallas and then to Albuquerque, N.M.
He stayed the night in Albuquerque and boarded a train the next day to Raton, N.M. At last, he took the shuttle to Cimarron, N.M., home to Philmont.
“I had never seen anything like it,” he says. “The base camp lies in a valley of sorts where you can spot the Tooth of Time — a large rock formation atop a ridge. The sounds of the closing campfire for homebound crews were echoing throughout the camp, which was a nice thing to relax to after two days of traveling.”
The Scouts and other adult leaders from Troop 26 arrived the next day, and they all set out on their Philmont adventure.
Over the course of the trek, Mahn and the Scouts hiked through valleys, over ridges and to the tops of majestic mountains.
“The terrain was rugged but beautiful,” he says. “It was very different from what I’m used to on the East Coast.”
But it wasn’t just the hiking and the views that made Philmont memorable for Mahn and the Troop 26 Scouts.
“The manned backcountry camps, where you could partake in activities such as tomahawk throwing and blacksmithing, just added to the experience,” he says. “Not to mention the enthusiasm and professionalism of the staff who worked the camps.”
The Northern Tier leg
Tired and sore from his Philmont adventure — but ready to push himself further — Mahn traveled back to Albuquerque for part two of his journey.
After a series of flight delays, he landed in Minneapolis where he met his crew at the airport. They drove to Ely, Minn., where they’d stay overnight at the International Wolf Center (a must-do stop for any troops headed to Northern Tier!).
The next morning, they arrived at Northern Tier and met their Interpreter — the staff guide who would join them for their 75-mile trek through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
They learned how to pack their canoes, navigate the lakes and waterways, and prepare their gear to portage from lake to lake.
Mahn says the days were the right kind of tough — making “sitting around at camp at the end of the day so much better.“
One day, the Scouts fashioned a sail out of a tarp tied to a canoe paddle, harnessing the power of the wind to give their arms a rest.
“I sat in the rear using my paddle as a rudder,” Mahn says.
Looking back on that leg of his journey, Mahn says he was struck by how peaceful our country can be — if you know where to find it.
“There’s really nothing quite like it — being separated from the noise and stress of civilization for a while, living primitively, just like the frontiersmen and voyageurs of old,” he says. “It was a trip that I’ll tell my children and grandchildren about.“
A rare feat indeed
This is the first time I’ve heard of someone completing two high-adventure experiences with virtually no time between them.
Woolard, the Troop 26 assistant Scoutmaster, agrees.
“Several of our leaders are blown away by the next-level coolness of this opportunity and thought that it would be great to have Chris’ story highlighted in a bigger way,” he tells me. “We’re thinking that, surely it hasn’t happened many times, if ever before.”
If you or someone you know indeed has completed something like this, share your story in the comments. This is a case of “the more the merrier.”
Indeed Mahn hopes his story will encourage other Scouters to follow in his footsteps and paddle tracks.
“If I had the chance, I would absolutely do it again,” he says. “And I encourage everyone who reads this to do the same, should they ever have the opportunity.”