Pamlico Sea Base — Sea Kayaking the Outer Banks

For the second consecutive summer, Troop 353 offered a high adventure trip option to its older scouts.  The August 2010 trip was to Pamlico Sea Base in the East Carolina Scout District.  The trip entailed a week of beach camping and kayaking along Cape Lookout National Seashore, culminating in the earning of the BSA 50-Miler Award.

The trip started with a flight to Raleigh, NC and a couple of hour van ride to reach the remote Pamlico Sea Base location on the east coast of North Carolina.  On the way, the scouts sampled genuine East Carolina BBQ at Parker’s Restaurant, a local favorite for decades.  Little did we know that this was to be the last quality meal the group would have for 6 days.

Our group was met at base camp by swarms of mosquitoes, along with the wonderful Pamlico Sea Base staff and our incredible trek guides Tony (hard to miss with his 12+ years of dreadlock growth and his unique ear décor) and Steve (who would come to be known as “the guide who doesn’t lie”).  

The next morning, after gathering equipment and provisions, including a weeks worth of no-fuss foods (including Cliff bars, canned tuna, trail mix, granola bars, easy prep canned/boxed dinners and the ever popular summer sausage) the group was off on their adventure to the barrier islands that make up the lower part of the Outer Banks.

Day 1 proved to be easy, departing Harkers Island for the quick paddle over to the beautifully remote beach of the Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.  Scouts enjoyed swimming in crystal clear waters (with the only inhabitants of the island – wild horses), hunting for conch shells and one of many beautiful sunsets.

Day 2 is when the group found out that sea kayaking differs from being pushed down a river.  Nine hours of paddling against rolling currents was enough to exhaust everyone.

Though a few hours of playing in the surf rejuvenated everyone a bit, dinner at Great Island that night was relatively quiet (and not very tasty).  One or two adult leaders consumed (more) Advil for dinner.

During the rest of the week, our group of toughened paddlers hugged the coastline, and followed dozens of duck blinds through the shallow waters of the Pamlico Sound.

Everyone got very much acquainted with their kayaks and mastered setting up tents in the wind and sand.  Each night we camped at a new destination beach, with each being more scenic than the last.  

All got accustomed to the diet of trail mix, cliff bars, oatmeal to go and, of course, summer sausage.

It rained on a few nights, and we had an especially treacherous crossing of the Sound on Day 4 as we departed the beach at Long Point for Cedar Island just after a night of thunderstorms came to an end.   In order not to tip in the high swells, we paddled our kayaks non-stop for one and a half hours.      

The trip across the Sound was well worth it as we were greeted by a rainbow and a group of dolphins (Did someone yell “Sharks!”?) on the far side.

We finished up our adventure with a 4-hour ferry ride and a well deserved night on Ocracoke Island, a popular tourist destination where Blackbeard the Pirate was reportedly killed in 1718.

Although Teeter’s campground was not 5-Star, it had showers and provided a great base camp for exploring the island and its great restaurants.  We got to sit down on chairs and relax.

It was a challenging, beautiful, awesome and memorable trip.  All participants were challenged both physically and mentally, and came away with a great sense of accomplishment and self-confidence.  We can’t wait for the next high adventure trip.

Tony, how much further?!!

For more great photos, click here!

National Park Service Cape Lookout National Seashores map

Special Court of Honor

Court of Honor

According to the Scoutmaster’s Handbook, the four stages of advancement in Scouting are learning, testing, review & recognition.  The last step, “recognition”, is regarded as being extremely important to every scout and this is represented by a special awards ceremony called a Court of Honor.  While all Courts of Honor are special events the Fall Court of Honor for Troop 353 is the most distinguished.  Not only is it a night for fellowship and to enjoy a family-style pot luck dinner (thanks to Mrs. Poletti and several other moms), but it is also a night of very special recognition.  This special evening occurs relatively soon after summer camp, where the scouts have frequently earned many merit badges (65 total) and /or advanced in rank.  The annual Scout of the Year Award is given to a deserved Scout that has exhibited the best traits of Scouting throughout the past year (advancement, training, & participation in all troop activities).  The annual Good Turn Service Award recognizes a scout’s community service efforts often go beyond scouting to related activities for school & through their church or synagogue.  In 2009, if all of the advancement and annual awards were not enough, a surprise Lifetime Achievement Award was given to one of the more devoted adult scouters in Troop 353’s history.

The court of honor took a special turn and a healthy dose of Scouting Spirit was introduced to court of honor with an opening of a few very funny skits representing comical scenes from the high adventure Sea Base camp earlier that summer as well as the senior scout’s favorite spirit song (this is a a do-as-I do song) from Sea Base during the dessert hour.  How wonderful it was to see the older boys having fun time and spreading their infectious enthusiasm!

The annual Scout of the Year Award in 2010 was won by D. Appia.  D. Appia had superior results in all categories that mattered:  he advanced, he took advantage of most troop activities (including summer camp), he took on meaningful roles of leadership and did so in a cheerful manner.  From the Scout of the Year Committee’s perspective D. Appia was the undisputed leader across these categories and was particularly well-deserved to earn this prestigious once-in-a-lifetime Scouting award.

When the number of submitted service hours that one particular scout had accumulated were examined, I thought “this cannot be possible”.  Yet, the Good Turn Service Award committee had dutifully accumulated and verified the data.  After a few phone calls, it was abundantly clear that J. Gonzalez had indeed accumulated approximately 175 hours of total community service work hours during the chosen measurement period!  In fact his hourly totals were over 100% higher than the second place finisher.  Again, the winner of this award was particularly clear cut.

The last award was one that was particularly important to keep “quiet”, as the recipient was also heavily involved in Scout of the Year committee and had intimate knowledge of the Court of Honor program details.  The adult leadership committee was unanimous in its decision that the one individual that had devoted most of his adult life to Scouting in some fashion and, even long after his youngest son had made Eagle Scout, graduated from college and entered the workforce, this dad still spent considerable energy contributing substantially to a number of key scouting activities throughout the year for Troop 353, giving special consideration to first year scouts.  Moreover, this senior scout leader over the years had deliberately chosen to expend his scouting time and energies toward the scouts of Troop 353 and not toward larger Council-type events was thus ineligible for any of the Council recognition awards.  Given this criteria, the obvious Lifetime Achievement Award winner was senior committee member Mr. Michael D. William!  For the perfect trifecta of award winners and other great pictures, click here.

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.