Scouts Explore Department Lands
I watched 12 Boy Scouts with packs and uniforms slip into the woods and disappear from sight. Their assignment was to walk due south two miles using a compass and topographic map to guide them over terrain they had never seen before. Halfway through their hike, the Scouts would encounter a lake, turn east and then resume their southern bearing to the campsite. Adult leaders observed but offered no advice; the Scouts were on their own. I was confident this was a place where Scouts would do just fine because we had practiced orienteering skills many times at our weekly Monday night Scout meetings. Now was their chance to prove that they could use a compass and map to find their way.
Two hours later, at dusk, the first group of Scouts arrived at the campsite. They were excited about completing the hike and ready to start dinner. As the sun went down, there was no sign of the second group. I made my way along their route and found the six boys a short distance from the campsite. They were on course but had flushed a flock of roosting turkeys as they entered the woods. The Scouts had never heard the racket of startled wild turkeys leaving the roost tree. The clatter and noise of turkeys taking flight and crashing through the trees was so startling that the boys decided to stay put and wait for help.
Hiking with compass and map cross country without using trails or roads is a Second Class rank requirement. The Manito Lake Conservation Area, Moniteau County, was the perfect spot for an orienteering hike. This public area was nearby, had no roads, and the boundaries were well marked. It would be difficult to get lost.
As a Scout leader, I was confident the Scouts could practice their hiking and compass skills safely. There was a designated group camping spot where the adult leaders could meet the hikers. Later in the day, we worked on canoeing and rowing skills on the area's 90-acre lake. The next morning we all got up early to listen for turkeys gobbling and for a short nature hike around the perimeter of the lake to identify plants and animals.
On this one trip, the Boy Scouts worked on requirements for the orienteering, hiking, canoeing, rowing, backpacking and fishing merit badges, plus requirements for Second Class and First Class ranks. All of this occurred less than 15 miles from home.
The Boy Scout program emphasizes outdoor skills of all kinds to help build self-esteem and confidence in boys. Conservation Department lands offer a wide range of opportunities for Scouts. The Conservation Department owns or administers about 850,000 acres of land in the state, with most counties having several conservation areas.
Conservation area maps show trails, ponds, rivers and other features. Scouts can camp on conservation areas if they obtain a free special use permit from local Conservation Department offices.
Cooking is always a special event on our camping trips to conservation areas. The Scouts must cook for themselves over an open fire. I will always remember the first time several Scouts prepared corn on the cob. I assumed that everyone knew how to fix corn on the cob so I didn't bother with any instructions.
When I finally checked on the pot with the boiling corn, I noticed green, slimy looking masses floating in the water. The Scouts didn't know to peel the husks before boiling the corn. Boiling the corn with the husks on works and it tasted fine, but the corn turned an unappetizing green color.
Hiking is a traditional Boy Scout activity. Hiking opportunities on conservation areas range from short interpretive trails with signs explaining ecological concepts to trails long enough to complete the hiking merit badge. The Osage Bluff Scenic Trail on the Painted Rock Conservation Area, Osage County, is a 1.6-mile self-guided interpretive trail with a brochure describing geology, forest management and archaeological features.
The Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area in Howard County includes a challenging 19-mile trail. Boy Scouts constructed the 7-mile Buckhorn Trail on the Prairie Home Conservation Area, Moniteau County. Wheelchair accessible trails are located throughout the state and include Bluffwoods Conservation Area, Buchanan County; Danville Conservation Area, Montgomery County and Hinkson Woods Conservation Area, Boone County.
Conservation Department areas are good locations to observe and identify wildlife. Several ecology merit badges require wildlife identification. Many conservation areas have wildlife observation towers and trails overlooking wetlands where Scouts can see unique species of birds. The Fountain Grove Conservation Area in Linn County and Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County are excellent spots for seeing waterfowl and other marsh birds. Often, the simplest method for observing wildlife involves pitching tents as blinds. Scouts can move into blinds before sunrise to observe prairie chickens on the Taberville Prairie Conservation Area in St. Clair County and Osage Prairie Conservation Area in Vernon County. Choice locations for observing deer and turkey from tent blinds are the Lamine River Conservation Area in Cooper County, Woodson K. Woods Conservation Area in Crawford County and Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Shannon County. Scout leaders may purchase the Missouri Nature Viewing Guide, describing conservation areas with possibilities for seeing plants, birds and mammals at many Conservation Department offices.
Scouts can plan canoeing and fishing trips between Conservation Department river accesses. Locust Creek, Gasconade, Meramec and Lamine rivers have Conservation Department access sites spaced for day-long or overnight floats. Camping on gravel bars or river banks on conservation areas requires a free special use permit from the local Conservation Department office. We try to take one canoe trip per year to trotline fish for big flathead catfish. The Scouts learn how to tie a trotline and proper placement based on habitat conditions in the river. We caught a 45-pound flathead on our first attempt on the Lamine River Conservation Area.
The fish was too heavy for any of the Scouts to lift into the canoe. So I reached over, grabbed it by the mouth, cut the line and hook off and threw the fish into the center of the canoe. All three Scouts started to climb out of the canoe into the water, where they felt safer. I had to hold the fish down in the bottom of the canoe to keep the Scouts from getting out.
Cave exploration is an unusual and exciting outdoor experience for Scouts on Conservation Department lands. Smittle Cave on the Fuson Conservation Area, Wright County, is the fifth largest cave in the state. It is an easy cave for novices to explore. The cave is open from April 15th to May 7th and the month of September when federally endangered Indiana and gray bats are not using the cave.
Caving offers the opportunity to learn about Missouri's geology and the unique species found only in caves, such as the pipistrelle bat, cave salamander, cave cricket and grotto salamander. Other easily accessible caves include Watkins Cave on the Bois D'Arc Conservation Area in Greene County and Lonehill Onyx Cave on the Meramec Conservation Area in Franklin County.
Our last trip to Smittle Cave was unforgettable and a tribute to the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared." While we were in the cave a hard rain produced a flash flood in the creek between the cave, entrance and our campsite. Our way back to dry clothes and lunch was blocked by the creek that went from ankle deep water to chest deep water in three hours.
The Scouts plotted a course west with map and compass, and we took a 2-mile hike overland to a county road on the opposite end of the conservation area. Local residents gave us a ride back to our campsite. We had missed lunch, but the Scouts were resourceful and skipped to the next meal, dinner. The Conservation Department operates nature centers in St. Louis, Blue Springs, Springfield and Jefferson City. The nature center staff will help with merit badge requirements for most of the ecology badges, such as mammal study, environmental science, forestry, and soil and water conservation. Scout leaders can call nature center naturalists for assistance with merit badge requirements.
Scout troops can borrow Conservation Department videos and films on a variety of nature related topics from nature centers, regional service center offices or many public libraries, or order videos by mail, telephone or fax. These materials are useful in completing ecology merit badges during weekly Scout meetings.
Boy Scouts can develop skills for the rifle shooting and shotgun shooting merit badges at Conservation Department facilities. There are shooting ranges with staff on duty during the day and evenings in the St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield vicinities. These ranges have a limited number of firearms that Scout groups can use. In addition, there are other shooting ranges throughout the state without permanent staff that are available to Scout groups.
To earn Scouting's highest rank, the Eagle, boys must complete a service project with a long-lasting benefit to the community. Eagle Scout candidates must plan and begin the project with help from their troop. Scouts can develop Eagle projects on Conservation Department lands and facilities in cooperation with local management staff.
Boy Scout Eagle candidates constructed bird viewing blinds, a hiking trail, benches along trails and around lakes, bat houses and disabled accessible picnic tables on the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles County. Another Eagle project was a leaf and twig collection and display cases to help Busch area naturalist teach tree identification to other Scouts and school groups.
An Eagle Scout completed a giant Canada goose restoration project on the Fountain Grove Conservation Area, Linn County. This project involved capturing flightless geese, constructing nesting structures at a new site and transporting captured geese. Eagle Scout candidates and conservation area personnel can explore options together to develop a project that will benefit fish and wildlife plus provide an exciting learning experience for the Scout. Our Boy Scout troop makes five to six trips annually to Conservation Department areas. Every year one of the most memorable to Scouts and leaders alike is a sailing excursion to Thomas Hill Conservation Area near Moberly. Most Boy Scouts in the Midwest do not have the opportunity to learn to sail. The 4,950-acre Thomas Hill Reservoir is well suited for sailing because the topography allows the wind to blow across the lake's entire length.
Our first sailing trip to Thomas Hill Conservation Area was an event neither I nor the Scouts will ever forget. After a few short sailing lessons, the boys felt that they had learned everything about sailing and were ready to try it alone. Four Scouts and myself were out on the lake learning to sail the boat parallel to the wind when I noticed a storm front moving across the lake. As the wind began to increase, I gave the command to turn the boat into the wind to reduce the pressure on the sails. Unfortunately, the Scout at the helm turned in the opposite direction. The boat heeled up on its side and I was flipped out. I can remember thinking, as I bobbed around in the lake, that they finally got their wish to sail alone.
For the next ten minutes, those four boys had a memorable sailboat ride as the wind doubled in strength. Finally, the wind blew the boat up on the shore. The Scouts and other spectators assembled on the shore to watch me swim back. It took the entire troop of Scouts plus several other volunteers to lift the sailboat up and set it back in the water. Nobody has ever asked me to sail alone again.
The Thomas Hill Conservation Area and other conservation areas offer a wide range of unique experiences for Scouts throughout Missouri. Scout leaders should contact the nearest Conservation Department office for more information on outdoor recreational opportunities.