The Northern Tier National High Adventure Program is the oldest of the BSA’s national high-adventure programs. The details of what started 100 years ago with one ambitious volunteer and how it eventually evolved into the expansive program we know today are documented in an upcoming book that looks to be as informative as it is entertaining.
The Far Northland: A Century of Wilderness High Adventure at Northern Tier is being published by the Charles L. Sommers Alumni Association, a group of former and current seasonal and permanent staff members, long-time volunteers and supporters of Northern Tier working to preserve and promote wilderness camping, high adventure, and training opportunities at the high-adventure base.
I’ve seen a copy of the book, and I can tell you that it’s both an excellent piece of research and also full of top-notch photography. The cover photo, for example, was taken from a 1930 trip that Scouts are recreating right now. It includes Fred C. Mills, the aquatics safety pioneer who revolutionized lifesaving techniques, and Waldemar Van Brunt Claussen, one of the creators of the original Canoeing merit badge.
Today’s Scouts can earn a special 100th anniversary award for completing that same trek.
The book’s official launch event is scheduled for May 31, 2023, at Northern Star Scouting’s Leadership Center at Base Camp in Fort Snelling. Click here if you’re interested in attending.
Read below for a tantalizing excerpt from the book’s first chapter.
Exclusive excerpt from Chapter One: Vanguard
The summer of 1923 was a momentous season in the border lakes region around Ely, Minnesota — even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. An aspiring writer and naturalist named Sigurd Olson had begun hanging out at Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, hoping to land his first job as a part-time, professional canoe guide. As he would later recall in his book Open Horizons, he learned a lot that summer by watching the men who took the outfitters’ clients on adventures into the watery wilderness. He marveled at the way they prepared for each trip — how they could fit a tent, tarps, ax, reflector oven, cooking utensils, and “unwieldy mounds of food and equipment” into a single pack. From them he learned that “slabs of bacon made good back rests.” When he finally was assigned his first crew, he was ready. The two city slickers he led into the wilderness were thrilled with their experience. Olson was discovering the deep satisfaction that came with introducing others to the magic of the lakes bordering Minnesota and Canada.
And he was not the only one making that discovery. A few weeks later, one of Olson’s friends, a man named Carl Chase, set out from the nearby town of Winton on a similar canoe excursion. But Chase’s “clients” were not businessmen from the city. They were Boy Scouts. Chase was the commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America council in Virginia, Minnesota, and was, like Olson, an avid outdoorsman. His decision to take some local Scouts on a border lakes canoe trip may well have been inspired by Olson, who, by at least one account, had done something comparable the previous summer with a troop of Ely Boy Scouts.
Carl Chase’s first Boy Scout canoe trip in 1923 produced little in the way of written records. The names of the participants were lost to time. So, too, was the route they paddled. But that was not surprising. Chase and the Scouts he led into the border lakes had little reason to suspect they were doing anything of historical significance. But they were. They were the vanguard of a procession of Scouts — thousands of them — who would, over the years, come north to experience the same wilderness that Chase had grown to love after moving to the area two decades earlier. They were the ones who established what was to become an enduring connection between the Scouts and the boundary waters. And they, like all those who followed, understood the pride that came from starting and completing a grueling journey into the wilderness.
Chase shared that understanding. So did Sigurd Olson. “Young men today are little different from those who manned the wagon trains or struck off on treks into the unknown,” Olson would later write. “They still need to test themselves. To be tough in sinew and mind and scornful of discomfort and ease, no matter if times have changed, is a common asset of youth, and when inexhaustible energy can be spent in travel through relatively unknown country, the compensations are immeasurable.”
For three consecutive summers beginning in 1923, Carl Chase led similar Scout canoeing expeditions into the border lakes, and he did so in relative anonymity. He didn’t seek permission from anyone above him in the BSA hierarchy. He just assembled a group of Scouts and went. But that all changed in the winter of 1925–26, when a regional Scout Executive from St. Paul named Harold Pote came up to Virginia to meet with Chase. Chase told Pote about the canoe trip he had made the previous summer with six Scouts and two adults. Pote was intrigued. He asked Chase if he would be interested in expanding his annual excursions into a larger, more formal program under Region Ten, the umbrella organization overseeing Boy Scout councils in six northern states. Chase said he would — if the region would invest in enough new equipment to make the program viable. Pote promised to pursue the idea when he returned to the Twin Cities.
Back in St. Paul, Pote brought his proposal to two of the most active and influential Scouters in Minnesota and the surrounding area: Charles L. Sommers and Frank A. Bean. Both men were instrumental in establishing Region Ten, and both were canoeing enthusiasts. When Pote proposed to Sommers that Region Ten establish a canoeing program near the Canadian border, Sommers embraced the idea. When Pote told Bean, a wealthy flour milling executive, that the program would require a $1,000 initial investment (the equivalent of about $16,000 in 2022), Bean responded, “You’ll have a check in the morning.”
The new program, initially known as Region Ten Wilderness Trips, took a couple years to become a truly regional initiative. In 1926 and 1927, nearly all of the participants apparently came from nearby councils. But in 1928, Region Ten began making a concerted effort to attract Scouts from beyond the Iron Range.
Councils throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas encouraged all Eagle Scouts in their ranks to apply for the program’s 86 open slots. Local American Legion posts paid the way for many of them to attend. Five parties made the trip that summer — all of them led by Carl Chase. The excursions began and ended in Winton, just as Chase’s previous Scout trips had, and they lasted 10 days. The crews all followed a prescribed route into the wilderness: through Fall, Newton, and Basswood Lakes, into the Basswood River, and westward to Crooked Lake and Lac La Croix. Most returned by retracing the route they took in. Back home, some of the participants drummed up publicity for the program by writing accounts of their adventures for publication in local newspapers. Clinton Denison of Minneapolis was one of them.
Can you think of anything that would give a Scout a greater thrill than to camp for the night in such places as we did, where the tents for the entire party were erected on solid rock less than 25 feet from a roaring rapids; where four kinds of fish could be caught within 40 feet of the camp; where one could be hundreds of miles from towns and yet sup on fish, baking powder biscuits, baked potatoes, tea, and peaches; where one could swim from their own country to another and return; where the entire party could observe an experienced guide shoot a 100-foot rapids without shipping water; and where, last but not least, one could observe and feel the invisible force that drew each Scout to the other in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood that made the trip most delightful?
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