Sea Base 2009 – Return to Civilization

One last high adventure episode awaited some of Troop 353’s “survivors” as our week’s stay on Big Munson Island came to an end. After both crews packed their gear, cleaned up the campsites – leaving no trace – and took a few last photos, we slogged out one last time to the war canoes and got underway for the long pull back to Brinson. In an hour or so, we’d be enjoying hot showers and bedding down in cool air-conditioned comfort.

But the ocean had other ideas.

Stirred by high winds, a series of waves just offshore kept one of the war canoes from making its turn to run before the wind – and sea spilled over the gunnels, swamping us a few hundred yards from shore. But seasoned after a week spend most wet – and often floating or swimming – the six-person crew and their island mate calmly assessed the situation. We were all wearing PFCs and treading water easily. We grabbed our gear bags, which were floating away, and lashed them together. Then we tried to refloat the war canoe. A couple hours later, with the help of a skiff and a Dusky dispatched from Brinson Center, we were paddling again – and another 90 minutes or so after that, we climbed wearily onto the dock on Summerland Key.

Freshly-scrubbed and turned out in Hawaiian shirts and other festive gear, Troop 353’s contingent celebrated our salty passage with a luau at Brinson Center, complete with BBQ, games, contests of skill, songs and skits. Everyone had a fantastic time – especially during the limbo contest – and we all slept well that night.

Next morning brought breakfast, last-minute shopping in the Sea Base shop, adding the troop’s numbers to the rafters, and farewells to the terrific Sea Base crew. All the adult leaders agreed: what an impressive group of young leaders.

Then we hit the road for Key West, where a festive dockside seafood lunch – after a little sightseeing – capped our week-long adventure. A couple of hours later, we sat back on our Jet Blue flight and watched the Florida coast disappear into the twilight.

Sea Base 2009 – Sharks, Barracuda…and Cobbler?

Troop 353’s last full day on Big Munson Island could hardly have packed more in, beginning in the water and ending amid the glow of a fire in a strange and mysterious forest clearing.

After breakfast, all four of the crews on the island (including some Scouts from Pennsylvania) walked over to the “backyard” section of the beach and waded out a few hundred yards to Sea Base’s 55-foot dive boat, for the trip out to Looe Key, a prime Florida Keys dive spot that is one of the most visited sites in the world. We spent hours floating above the coral, spotting a wide variety of sea life – including a couple of sinister-looking barracuda and at least one good-sized reef shark.

While the visibility wasn’t perfect – the winds from that pesky tropical storm were still stirring things up – the snorkeling was a lot of fun, and Looe Key offered a huge area of picturesque viewing. After lunch, the Scouts took part in several spirited aquatic contests, most of them featuring various leaps and jumps from the boat into the warm blue waters. The day was beautiful, with high clouds and light winds (that kept the bugs at bay during virtually all of our stay on the out island).

Back on Munson, it was time for a service project: general clean-up and litter removal on one end of the island, as well as servicing one of the high-tech (really!) latrines. The clean-up was pretty interesting, mainly  because of some of the debris we found washed ashore, some of it from Cuba and Jamaica. One find was particularly intriguing: Simon R. found a sealed bottle with a 20-dollar Cuban note, some coins and the photograph of a young man? A spiritual offering before a journey by sea? Or a memorial? We don’t know, but the bottle made its way into the museum shelves back at the Brinson Center.

During the week, the crews also used some of the stuff they found washed up along the shore to decorate the entrance to each campsite, which generally featured a kind of primitive “front porch” to greet visitors. And it was on one of those porches that the big pot-luck supper and cobbler contest unfolded. The premise was simple: cook pretty much everything you had left and bring it for a huge group meal for everyone on the island – and then compete in a dessert-oriented cook-off. And Troop 353’s young chefs didn’t let down the side – we finished first and second, wowing the judges and pleasing their sweet tooths.

Now, the night wasn’t over – but much of what transpired on that last evening is generally kept…well…confidential. Suffice to say, there’s a gathering with song and dance and incredible hilarity. No one will forget it. A conch shell was involved. Fiddler crabs took a leading role. A hand rose from the sand…but I’m afraid I’ve already gone too far. The details of that last night must be kept only for those who paddle those 5.5 nautical miles and float among sharks and jellyfish in the dark of night.

Next: Farewell to Munson

Sea Base 2009 – The Sea’s Bounty and Peril

In the dark, our crews of six bobbed like stray lobster pot markers in a five-foot swell a half mile off the shore of the barrier island where we camped. The waves were whipped up by a strong wind moving westward along the Straits of Florida, 90 miles north of the Cuban shoreline. We wore masks and fins, and carried diving lights but the wind and strong current stirred the sand along the reef and cut visibility underwater to about a foot. Nearby, the Polynesian-style war canoes we’d muscled out from its mooring rolled in the waves. To the east, a thunderstorm rumbled toward us and lightning lit the foaming horizon. No sharks…yet.

A more unlikely scenario for our intrepid group of 12 from Troop 353  would be difficult to concoct. Yet there we were, wave-tossed and in something approaching peril at sea – and by our own choice at that.

And it had already been a long, busy day.

We awoke at dawn, waded to the docks and caught 22-foot Dusky outboard sportfishing boats. One of our crews headed offshore and into the five- and six-foot-swells stilled churned up past the reefs by the remnants of that soaker tropical storm. The other crew took off for the channels and inlets closer in. Our goal: catch dinner.

Both boats accomplished the task during a long day of fishing – pulling in tuna, grouper, mackerel, and a couple of spiny rock lobsters we spent hours diving for in the “back country” up into the Gulf of Mexico. Back at the dock, the captains cleaned the fish and we waded our bounty ashore in time to begin dinner prep. Hot wood fires and the stove, and a combined chow line for the freshest fish you ever tasted. Even non-fish eaters ate heartily.

And as we sat back in post-postprandial bliss, watching the sky turn red just before sunset, we all settled in for a nice….hold it. Let’s go, boys. Gear up. Into the water. The day’s not done.

Nope – it was time for a little night snorkeling. Into the war canoes we piled, and paddled heartily away from shore. In what can kindly be termed windy conditions and well out past the immediate sight of land, we hurled ourselves into the wine-dark sea clutching underwater flashlights – and immediately began to drift rapidly toward Key West, or quite possibly Mexico. Visibility was something less than the Bronx River after a strong rain. So we struggled to stay in groups, using the buddy system, calling out and helping our mates when we could.

And finally, we pulled ourselves back into the canoes and rowed against the wind and current for Big Munson – having already worked off most of that huge fish dinner, and ready for a night under the stars.

Next: On the reef

Sea Base 2009 – Out Island Weather

Our first full day on Munson Island began with intermittent sun and warm temperatures – but it wouldn’t end that way. After breakfast, the crews walked over the the island’s northern side, facing the Keys, and small bay in the middle. We jumped into two-man ocean kayaks and set off on several miles of inland exploration among the mangroves. It was great fun to try and run the dense maze of tiny streams and low-lying growth, and make it back out in the ocean before paddling back – just in time, too, as the skies darkened, lightning flashed and thunder roared.

For the next few hours, we tried to lay low in camp as the first tropical storm of the season hit the Florida mainland, just swatting us with its tail – enough for a couple of inches of rain of three or four hours and some violent thunder cells that rolled through one right the other. Tents flooded. Scouts got wet. We cooked lunch anyway, and waited it out.

In the later afternoon, the weather dropped to a drizzle and led by our mates, we headed out to explore the island and learn a bit about the plant and animal life of Big Munson. During our stay, the time we spent outside of the water’s realm was passed in the thin shade of a tropical hardwood canopy – or “hammock” in the local parlance. The trees were low and scrubby, a bit like the coastal forests of south Jersey and eastern Maryland in scale, but with different species: gumbo limbo, mahogany, and the infamous poisonwood trees.

A relative of the poison oak, poisonwood, we were told many times, packs ten times the stinging wallop of poison ivy and can be inflicted not just on contact but by rain dripping from his five-leaved branches. Of course, there were several just outside our tents; yet we managed to avoid the scourge.

The hike around the island took us to an inland tidal pool, and through some of the low hammock forest, along with a good bit of the shoreline and a huge pile of conch shells. Some of the guys found some floats and debris to decorate the campsites. Then it was back to the soggy camps for dinner and clean-up.

But the day wasn’t done. After dinner, we grabbed fishing poles and handlines and waded out to the twin floating docks, bobbing in neck-deep water several hundred yards offshore. The activity? A little evening shark fishing. Yeah, we threw some “chum” – boxes of fish pieces and blood – into the water around the docks to attract the sharks, then set out some handlines to catch a little more bait. We baited the books on the big boat poles and waited. Meanwhile, thunderstorms just off the coast lit the sky and rolled past us, as we bobbed on the docks.

After about an hour with only hints at a bite – and with a couple of storms bearing down on us – we jumped into the chum-slick water (only a moment’s pause to consider we were now the bait), and slogged back, dragging ourselves to shore for the night. A long, tiring and very wet day – indeed, some of us had to bail our tents out before curling up to sleep.

Next: Bounty of the sea

Sea Base 2009 – Island-Bound

Day two for Troop 353’s intrepid adventures at the BSA’s Florida Sea Base started early, with flag-raising, breakfast and a last equipment inspection. For some of us, it meant that a lot of the stuff we’d carted to Summerland Key would not be making it out to Munson Island. Of the two crews, the one led by Blaine was particularly stringent in the gear department. A couple of t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a bathing suit, sunscreen, sandals, a broad hat, and a water bottle were the basics. No towels, no soap, no rain gear, and no electronics of any kind outside of a camera. I managed to get a small camp pillow, a novel, reading light, a lightweight hammock and my pocket journal into the dry bag before we shoved off. Heather’s crew had a slightly more liberal allowance, but we all packed down into a single mid-sized dry bag each, plus a netted bag for our fins and snorkels.

At mid-morning, we set off in the Polynesian-style war canoes – two simple fiberglass hulls tied together with three wooden planks. Each island mate did the steering, while each crew of six provided the muscle – and oh those muscles did ache 5.5 long nautical miles later, with one brief swimming break on a sandbar.

After what seemed like hours of paddling in the 90-degree heat, we pulled up on moorings off the shore of Big Munson Island, our home for the next five days. Big Munson has no running water and no electricity – just 100 acres of high hardwood hammock fringed in lush mangroves, beribboned on its south coast with thin strands of sand strewn with rotting sargassum. The crews were charged with getting their personal gear and drinking water for the week, along with a big plastic box of food supplies up on shore – a bit of labor that required wading through waste-high water. We quickly learned the “Munson shuffle” – dragging your feet (always covered with dive booties) across the sea floor as you walked to, er, alert and discourage the stinging and biting wildlife below. Over the next few days, we got quite used to wading long distances in water that varied from ankle to neck – and to staying wet most of the time.

Then we moved into campsites – tents on the ground, a picnic table and canvas rain fly, a fire pit, wooden “sink,” gray-water waste hole, and raised wooden “chuck box” to lock away the food from the varmints. Each campsite was only a few yards from the water’s edge, and the beach faced south into the Straits of Florida only 90 or so miles from Cuba. A quick word about the crews. Blaine’s was led by crew leader Tim D. and included newly-minted Eagle scout Conor M., along with Simon R. and his dad Ben, and Kelsey W. and his dad, Tom. Heather’s crew was captained by Nick O. and included his dad Mike, along with Brad M. and his dad Tom and Matt S. and his dad Ralph, who planned the trip for the troop and did a fantastic job.

The rest of day one was spent cooking dinner, getting settled, exploring the surroundings – including some Key Deer spotting – and attending an introductory session (featuring songs and skits!) with the island mates and Munson commissioners.

Next: Kayaks and the monsoon.

Sea Base 2009 – Heading for the Keys

This past August, Troop 353 sent a group of 12 adventurers to the legendary Out Island Adventure at the BSA’s Florida Sea Base in the Florida Keys – an amazing experience that we’ll cover in several posts here on the troop website.

The trip began with a flight to Fort Lauderdale, where we grabbed a great lunch on the beach and checked into the hotel for an overnight stay. Activities included a swim in the warm Atlantic, dinner on the dock, and some snorkeling practice and training in the hotel pool – oh, and a black-out at the hotel that had the Scouts scrambling for flashlights and generally making the best of things by swimming late into the night.

The next morning we crammed all out gear into the rented van and lit out for the Florida Keys, about fours on the road in the good hands of trip planner and expert driver Ralph S., our assistant Scoutmaster. After lunch at an authentic Keys seafood spot, we traveled to the well-equipped Brinton Environmental Center, located on Summerland Key, 23.8 miles north of Key West.

The Brinton Environmental Center is the home for the Out Island Adventures at Sea Base. This beautiful facility opened its doors in 2001 and was named after J. Porter Brinton, the project’s benefactor. We met our two island mates, Heather and Blaine, chose our two crew captains for the week – Nick O. and Tim D. – and checked into our air-conditioned dorm room.

The rest of the day was spent in completing the mandatory swim test and snorkeling shakedown, equipment check-out, dinner and flag ceremony, and an after-dinner skit session put on by the spirited island mates. And it was there we learned all about the “Munson!” cheer and how it must be returned by all who visit that fabled island.

Next: Munson!

Suds and Summer Fun: Fundraising Gets Soapy

With two groups heading off the wonderful camping adventure – a large contingent to Camp Read in the Adirondacks and a group of 12 to the BSA’s Sea Base in the Florida Keys – some extra fundraising was on the agenda to help pay for all that outdoor fun. Led by Assistant Scoutmaster Ralph S., more than two dozen Scouts and a bunch of Scout dads set up a car wash in Chester Heights by the firehouse one warm Saturday in July. The Scouts sold tickets for the week before the event, and held up signs on the main road to attract customers – and customers we got! Many cars later (the Scouts worked all day in two shifts), Troop 353 had raised an impressive $3,500-plus and set the stage for some excellent summer adventures. And the car wash also accomplished two other key goals: it exposed hundreds of local residents to the work of the Troop…and everyone had a blast getting soaked. The car wash seems certain to become a regular event on the Troop 353 calendar. For more great pics, click here.