Kevin Schnepf, Published August 26 2007
“You realized how good you have things back home,” said Brock Cigelske, one of the six members of Troop 229, who from July 25 through Aug. 6 experienced the Boy Scouts of America’s premier hiking adventure that boasts more than 200 square miles of rugged New Mexico wilderness.
Not allowed to carry soap or deodorant – scented items that could attract bears – the Scouts showered only once during those 12 days.
Conserving space in each of their backpacks jammed with nearly 40 pounds of supplies and equipment, the scouts ate dehydrated meals such as black beans and rice or canned tuna and chicken.
They filled their canteens with water from streams, purified each time with pills they carried. That’s why, near the end of their journey, ice cold root beer “never tasted so good.”
They had no communication with the outside world. No cell phones. They didn’t hear about the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis until three days after it happened.
“There were times you wanted to give up,” said Scout Travis Stadum. “But you knew you couldn’t if you wanted to reach the next destination.”
But perhaps the biggest discovery Cigelske, Stadum, Tom Jorgenson, Dustin Sampson, Scott Alverson and Nate Valenti made was their appreciation for each other – 16 to 17-year-olds who have been in the Boy Scouts together since second grade.
Valenti, who passed up a trip to Europe to rough it in New Mexico, said everybody seemed to mature during their venture.
“Everybody looked different,” Valenti said. “You gained more respect for the guys after going through this together.”
“We were really lucky that these guys all get along so well,” said scoutmaster Norm Otheim, who had heard numerous other troops hiking the same trail were fighting amongst themselves. “It’s a tough, physical and mental challenge that can wear on you. Our boys have been in Scouts together for a long time.”
Long enough for Alverson and Valenti to already earn Eagle Scout honors. Stadum and Jorgenson are just waiting for the paper work before they become Eagle Scouts. Sampson and Cigelske are a project or two away from becoming Eagle Scouts.
The experience was crucial for the New Mexico trail, where more than 820,000 scouts have hiked since 1939.
The area is known as the Philmont Scout Ranch, an area once inhabited by Jicarilla Apache and Moache Ute Indians. Gold was discovered in this area in the late 1800s, with its mountains and streams swarmed with prospectors and miners.
Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips developed the ranch in 1922, eventually amassing more than 300,000 acres of mountains and plains. Phillips offered 35,857 acres of his ranch to the Boy Scouts of American in 1938 to serve as a national wilderness camping area.
The Philmont Scout Ranch now totals 127,395 acres.
“Everywhere you look, there is a mountain in the horizon,” Jorgenson said.
Climbing those mountain ranges had Otheim concerned. The boys trained by walking in the Silver Leaf development of south Fargo, carrying their 40-pound backups.
But Otheim didn’t think that would be enough.
“I was scared,” said Otheim, who eventually realized that his six scouts could handle the conditions – especially with many of them in shape from participating in either high school baseball, cross country or track.
“It was a workout,” said Stadum, a cross country runner at West Fargo High School. “You pushed yourself to the limit.”
Especially on Day Seven and Day Eight, when the scouts worked their way up to Baldy Mountain – elevation 12,400 feet. In perspective, the well-known Pikes Peak of Colorado is 14,115 feet.
The boys had heard that two days before a scout was hit by lightening on top of Baldy Mountain, but was not seriously hurt.
Day Seven was a 12-mile hike, climbing 4,000 feet on rocky terrain. When they neared the top of Baldy Mountain on Day Eight, the scouts walked into clouds – able to see only 10 to 20 feet in front of them.
It was there the temperature dropped to near freezing. Alverson’s hair froze from the precipitation.
The hike back down was even more challenging.
“It literally seemed vertical at times,” Stadum said.
“It felt like I was ready to fall and kiss the ground,” Valenti said. “It felt like you were kind of falling and not really walking. It hurt the knees.”
But the pain, chills, sacrifices and blistered feet was all worth it for these scouts. They experienced the beauty of the New Mexico wilderness. They saw huge mule deer and spotted the tracks of bear and mountain lions.
At the same time, they fullfilled their duties of washing dishes, finding water, reading compasses, handling disputes, securing the campsite for each night and waking the crew early in the morning.
“It was a blast,” Stadum said. “It’s hard to tell people the full experience because they were not there.”
The six scouts are already planning for a hiking trip in Montana next summer.
“We’ll bring better rain gear next time,” said Stadum, whose group endured rainshowers 11 of the 12 days.
“And more socks and better food,” Cigelske added.
Ahh, life’s unappreciated pleasures.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549