Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hope on a Rope - Scouting out of a Tight Spot

Everything I need to know, I learned from Boy Scouts.

Many people mock the short sleeved, tan shirt with red epaulets. They scoff at olive shorts that land mid-thigh on pasty skin and smirk at knee-high wool socks and hiking boots. But when it comes down to it, the skills and life lessons I gained in the fifteen years as a scout have indelibly left their mark on who I am. The Boy Scouts of America has not only helped me learn to be brave, clean, and reverent, it's also started me on a road toward renaissance status.

Rope and a Tarp Can Solve Any Problem

Two things you become well acquainted with as a Boy scout are the versatile uses of a six foot cord of nylon rope and the endless utility of a blue tarpaulin.

At first, a young scout may sigh at the endless practice of looping, swooping, standing lines, and hitches that are required to advance the ranks of Tenderfoot, First Class, and Life Scout, but knot work has proven to be invaluable, both in outdoors situations and in more mundane activities. As a set designer, My first impulse when working with rigging and lines is to consider what knot would be ideal for the job. What is being held? Who is potentially walking underneath, depending on the knot I tie to keep them safe?

This may seem inconsequential, but a few years ago, my cousins and I took a canoe trip down the Des Moines River. Adam, Casey, Zach and I brought no tents, no air mattresses. With our tarps, paddles, and rope, we fashioned lean-to shelters to provide some cover from the elements. The tarps protected our gear while on the river, both from the water and the heat of the July sun. And when, on the last day of our trip, we came up against a ferocious headwind and a gaggle of angry pelicans, the rope and tarp saved the day.

We had floated by the light of a full moon the night before. With four of us in two canoes, we lashed our vessels together and took turns sleeping in the boat, two of us keeping on course at any given time. It was like Huck Finn and Jim, drifting by the glimmer of an overflowing lunar ambiance. With an extra eight hours on the river, we made excellent time, and ended up at the head of Lake Red Rock, a man-made reservoir that ends with a monstrous hydro-electric dam. It was perfect! We'd make it to the mouth of the dam, where we'd pull out that night and then call our rides to retrieve us.

Avian Bird -- Shoo!

What we did not anticipate was the egregious head wind that pummeled our small, fiberglass boats. Zach and I paddled with great muster, battling against frothy waves that threatened to overtake our canoes. As we got into the middle of the lake, we began drifting nearer to a cadre of huge white birds. We'd seen them from afar as we entered the reservoir, and, despite our intentions of circumnavigation, were pushed into the tempestuous flock with little consideration to the safety of our boats or bodies. We drifted closer, trying to inconspicuously paddle downstream. We could hear the cacophonous chatter of the giant white birds – at first a small din, then increasing to a deafening roar as they realized that there was a non-avian presence in their esoteric meeting.

In the Belly of the Beast
We hoped the birds might join us in our attempt to avoid collision. Instead, they looked at us as if we were barefoot hobo's at the Ritz Carlton. Finally, we could evade no longer. As we braced for what was sure to be an unpleasant confrontation, the pelicans opted for an aerial maneuver. They took to the heavens, revealing wings that dwarfed our vessel and shrouded our view of the baking sun. The ebony pin-feathers launched the beautiful birds over our heads, showering us with the water that adamantly clung to their underbellies. Terrified, yet in complete awe, my Zach and I covered our heads and peeked through our arms like children at the Circus. As quickly as they'd begun, the entire community had uprooted and found a new place on the lake several hundred yards away. With that, we decided that it was time to get to shore and reconsider our options for Red Rock dominance.

Zach and I met up with Casey and Adam on the north shore of the lake around noon. The shoreline of Lake Red Rock is not comprised of the supple sand that made up our previous landings. It is exactly as it sounds – small red shale rocks, like opaque shards of glass, dumped onto the earth, searing from prolonged exposure to the hot Iowa sun. There were no trees. There was nothing but some dead wood and scrub brush to huddle against. And it was hot.

We quickly scampered up the bank to a flat area, approximately ten feet square. We hoisted up a tarp with our paddles and a few pieces of driftwood, and glumly ate cold Ramen and Spaghetti-O's. Then we conferred.

“How the Hell do you get out of this shit-hole of a lake?”

We weighed the options. Finally, we decided that there was no way to go downstream. Not today. We'd passed a small makeshift boat drop at the head of the lake, but paddling upriver? This seemed equally folly. We sat in silence, the tarpaulin whipping in the gales that beat down on us.

Adam & I, Manning the Poop Deck
That was it! If the wind can exert that force on a tarp, surely it can push us upstream to the load-in! With Adam's basic nautical know-how, we lashed the canoes together and attached a tarp to the bows. Using long, forked poles we'd found, we hoisted the tarp high and caught the wind. Using the little rope we had left, we angled the tarp to and fro to catch the changing gusts. Sure enough, we were sailing!

In no time, we'd reached the ramp, pulled our canoes onto the shore, and dropped our dilapidated carcasses on the gravel.

Without our trusty ropes and tarps, we'd still be in that bog of a lake, eating pelican and skipping rocks.

1 comment:

  1. i have a lot of comments about that trip - many of which are probably not allowed to be posted in public. all four boy are lucky to be alive - not just surviving an asinine and poorly planned trip but also surviving the wrath of angry mothers, sisters, and girlfriends. idiots.