Camping in the middle of nowhere

Tom Wanamaker 07/12/07More articles

The first thing you hear, after the sun sets and the woods get so dark that you cannot see your own hand six inches in front of your face, is the pure sound of quiet. Punctuated, of course, by the occasional cry of a loon or the rustling of bears and deer foraging for food. It’s the same at dawn, with birds singing and a few small critters silently scurrying through the underbrush to start their days. The smell of the forest is pervasively encompassing; the breeze off the water is cool; the mountain air is crisp.

Central New York may have a few such places, minus perhaps the bear and loon, but the particular spot described above lies about 170 miles northeast of Syracuse.

Thirty-seven Boy Scouts from Troop 61 in Skaneateles joined several other area scout troops in the Adirondack backcountry during the first week of July at the Sabattis Scout Reservation. Established in 1958 and situated on the shores of Lows Lake at the border of St. Lawrence and Hamilton counties, Sabattis lies roughly 18 miles west of the nearest accessible paved road, Route 30 north of Long Lake.

To put this in perspective, if you were to hike due west from Sabattis, you’d have to bushwhack through about 50 miles of woods and mountains before you’d get to a paved road – Route 812 between Indian River and Route 3. Hike due north, and you’d find no trails taking you the roughly 15-20 miles to Childwold on Route 3. Southbound? Try a pathless 20-mile trek through the woods to Raquette Lake.

Roughing it
In short, Sabattis lies smack-dab in the proverbial middle of nowhere. It’s the perfect place for a scout camp since few modern inconveniences, like TV, cell phones and video games, can intrude and distract. There’s no electricity at the troops’ campsites – most everything runs on wood or batteries, with a little help from an occasional propane tank. There is running water for showers and trough-like sinks, but the outhouses remain comfortably primitive.
Sabattis has neither cabins nor dining halls. Scouts sleep on cots in canvas tents mounted on wooden platforms, two per tent. The campers don’t have to hunt or fish for their own food – ample supplies are provided. But they do have to prepare it themselves, using open fires or propane stoves, and must thoroughly clean up any waste so as not to attract bears.

That’s not to say that the black bears don’t come anyway – they do, regularly. But the scouts learn early on to respect these critters and give them a wide berth.

Classes are held every day in the various scouting skills needed to earn merit badges and achieve rank. Other activities at Sabattis include mountain biking, rock climbing, riflery, archery, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and orienteering.

But you don’t have to stay at Sabattis: A group of older Troop 61 scouts, led by Scoutmaster Bob Sheppard, spent the week hiking and paddling to and from more primitive campsites throughout the 5,200-acre property. Day hikes and one-night canoe trips are also frequent diversions from camp life.

One of the most import things scouts learn at Sabattis is teamwork, via the “patrol method.” Patrols consist of six to 10 scouts, each of whom is assigned daily tasks like gathering and cutting firewood, cooking, cleaning up and maintaining the patrol’s supply of utensils and gear.
The scouts rapidly realize that if they want to eat, they must work together. Likewise, if they desire good scores in daily cleanliness and safety inspections, the same holds true. By the end of their week at Sabattis, Troop 61’s various patrols may not have developed into well-oiled machines, but no one left camp malnourished and the troop garnered a perfect score on its final inspection. In this case, the wholes really were greater than the sums of their parts.

Anybody can drive a “recreational vehicle” to a roadside “campground,” connect their water and sewer hook-ups, unfold some lounge chairs, and pretend that they’re actually “camping.” Granted, there are “different strokes for different folks,” as the cliché goes. But if you look up “camping” in the dictionary, you won’t read about motorized behemoths with flush toilets, ovens, refrigerators, air conditioners, screened platforms and awnings. The words “camping” and “RV” don’t really belong in the same sentence.

The Boy Scouts of Troop 61, along with hundreds of fellow scouts from Liverpool, Chili, New Jersey and elsewhere, just spent a week experiencing the real deal out in the wilderness. Hopefully, they had fun and learned something about themselves, about working together for the common good, and about duty, honor and country.
Equally hopeful is the prospect that they will develop a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and a genuine respect for the skills needed to survive out in the middle of nowhere.

Tom Wanamaker, managing editor at Eagle Newspapers, is a former member of Troop 61. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout in 1978 and recently spent 24 hours camping with his old troop at Sabattis.

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