The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 10, 2013

No child left indoors: The thrill of a Klondike derby


Daily Item

---- — By Bob Garrett

For The Daily Item

Camping in tents in sub-freezing temperatures; preparing breakfast over a fire while trying to shake off the morning chill; mushing through the snow with a patrol of scouts made up of your best friends; practicing scouting skills; solving problems by working together; racing to the summit at the end of day with your tired and half-frozen buddies while clutching onto your handful of "gold" nuggets and memories that will last for a lifetime ...

These are the types of Scouting experiences that would cause Lord Robert Baden-Powell to say, "Now that's what I'm talking about."

Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouting, and his colleague Juliette Gordon Lowe, the founder of Girl Scouting in the United States, described Scouting as a game with a purpose.

Klondike derbies are exactly the types of outings that Baden-Powell and Lowe were advocating for young people more than a century ago to make sure that no child was left indoors. However, it's unlikely that either of these Scouting pioneers ever actually attended a Klondike derby.

Baden-Powell was an Englishmen who assembled the first gathering of scouts on Brownsea Island and was a decorated veteran of African battles. Lowe organized Girl Scouts in Savannah, Ga. These aren't locations known for snowfall or winter games.

The annual winter derby at Garret Mountain Reservation in New Jersey is known as the oldest, continuous event of its kind. First held in 1949, the Klondike derby, as it is now known, is a test of scouting skills and endurance.

At these derbies, patrols of Scouts push sleds that are sometimes called "sledges" over rugged courses that are hopefully covered by a blanket of snow on a cold winter's day. The Boy Scout's local Seven Bridges District held their annual derby yesterday at the Buffalo Valley Sportsmen's Association grounds, north of Mifflinburg. The members of this sportsmen's club have graciously hosted this derby for the past few decades.

My first exposure to a Klondike derby was more than 30 years ago when I was recruited to be a volunteer judge at a derby that was being organized by the "mayors" of imaginary gold rush era towns. Frank Dombroski was to be the governor of the Yukon Territory for this mythical game that he had come up with for the Klondike derby.

Each volunteer was given a cache of gold nuggets (actually pebbles Dombroski had spray painted) in a real rawhide satchel that we were to give to high-scoring patrols or to Scouts who demonstrated particularly good Scouting skills or sportsmanship.

I was the Mayor of Skagway. In this role, I coordinated the station called "hot isotope." Dombroski had erected gateways at each town, and, with the fresh snow, it didn't take too much imagination to feel like we were actually in the Klondike.

The hot isotope game tested knot tying and lashing abilities while challenging the scouts' problem-solving skills. At each station, the object was to use only the materials that the Scouts were instructed to bring along on their sleds.

The Scouts had to figure out for themselves that by lashing the poles together with the rope and spars that were on the sleds that they could lift up the "hot isotope" and move it to safety without any of the boys actually touching it.

The isotope was actually an old tennis ball that Dombroski had painted a pulsating hot pink and the containment vessel was a brightly painted coffee can. Most of the patrols were successful in moving the isotope but none of them used exactly the same method to get the job done.

Scoutmasters and other leaders could "mush" along with the boys but they were expected to stay clear of assisting in any way at the stations. Dombroski had explained to the leaders during the orientation that his Scouting philosophy, which he wanted them to adopt for the derby, was "train 'em, trust 'em, let 'em lead."

Every 20 minutes or so, a horn would sound and the patrols would pack up their sleds and run off to another "town" for another skill test. Some of the other towns and the skills tested were: Dalton Post, where the challenge was fire-building and cooking; Chilkoot Pass, where the Scouts drew a simple map showing a trail winding down a mountain with distances and degree readings using only a compass (GPS units weren't around then); and Porcupine Hill, where the mayor had each patrol member correctly tie a square knot.

The mayor wanted to see how the well the older Scouts did in teaching the younger boys how to tie this simple knot. Once they all knew how to tie the knot, they joined their short ropes together with perfectly-tied square knots and used their now much-longer rope to yank their sleds up a 15-foot rock cliff.

Klondike derbies are just one more example that winter is a great time to head outdoors.

As a reminder, neither you nor anyone in your family needs to stay indoors today. The Valley offers numerous fun family-oriented activities that will keep your children active and learning.

n Email comments to garrettoutdoors@gmail.com