Newts on Buttes!

Joe joined the Boy Scouts this year. I was a Scout back in New Hampshire in the 1980s (Troop 202, Gorham, NH!) just like my father before me in the 1950s (Troop 404, Wadsworth, OH!) and Joe is very much into the idea of continuing lineages. So, based on the completely unbiased opinion of a good friend of mine, we joined Troop 78, the most awesome of the several local troops available.

Yucca and buttes

Troop 78 is much bigger than my tiny hometown troop, is well organized with a strong cadre of older boys and adult leaders, and is quite active with one or more scheduled outings each month and a near-mandatory week at scout camp in the summer. For those unfamiliar with the structure, Scout troops are organized around the Patrol method in which one or two older boys lead a group of five or six younger scouts as subsets of the larger troop. Troop 78 has four permanent patrols of 6-8 scouts each (Beaver, Dragon, Moose, Eagle).  Furthermore, the troop has a really good induction process for new scouts with a couple of assistant scoutmasters who specialize in getting new boys (most of whom are about 11 years old) up to speed. All together, these new scouts form the (temporary) Newt Patrol.

A young moon sets in the west

Our first outing with Troop 78 was a simple, one-night camping trip to the Pawnee National Grasslands. I’ve lived and adventured in Colorado for fifteen years now and have become quite a connoisseur of her various natural splendors (i.e., lakes, mountains, canyons, and combinations of the same) so as far as I was concerned, anything east of I-25 is essentially Kansas or Nebraska or something equally boring.  But to my surprise, the eastern plains hold a certain stark charm in their sweeping emptiness.

After driving an hour east from I-25, we set up camp at the Crow Valley Recreation Area (at least two other Scout troops were already established there), then drove an additional 45 minutes east on a series of smaller and smaller dirt roads past fracking sites, lonely windmills, and the occasional town (three or more houses around a dusty intersection). Wind turbines loomed on the horizon, but there didn’t appear to be any indication that any one spot was much different than any other. Just when I was beginning to wonder if my minivan would make it much farther, we crested a hill and the majestic Pawnee Buttes were laid out in front of us like a postcard of the pioneer west.

Pawnee Buttes!

Under the leadership of Patrol Leader Oliver, the troop formed up and hiked the well-worn trail around a mesa, down a canyon. Yucca, juniper, and sagebrush abounded amongst the cliffs and abayments of soft white material which hung somewhere in the grey area between dirt and rock. Shortgrass prairie in the upper reaches seemed to be missing both bison and jackalopes, but frequent cow pies spoke of at least some non-human presence. This area is famous for rattlesnakes, but it was cold enough we weren’t too concerned. Two miles of trail brought us to the western of the two big buttes towering perhaps a hundred feet overhead. This lead to a good bit of scrambling about on the lower slopes and exploring.

The weather to the west looked a bit ominous (there’s not much to hide under out here!), so Oliver turned the trip around. We had some wind and a few fat rain drops, but the threatened storm never really amounted to much. Rather than stick to the been-there-done-that trail, the scouts wound their way up the dry creek wash for half a mile of mini-canyoneering amidst 10 foot high walls of soft white dirt/rock.

Back at camp, the patrols cooked dinner and set about playing cards and capture-the-flag. By the time everyone was finished, the sun was setting and we were preparing for the stargazing portion of the trip. Far from city lights, the skies of eastern Colorado are spectacularly dark and promised good star watching. While the boys were mostly occupied with an impromptu (spicy) campfire, the Dinosaur Patrol (the adults) had a good time spotting constellations, a thin crescent moon, and a spectacular passage of the International Space Station directly overhead. We dragged off to sleep to the hooting of great horned owls and the sighing of the prairie winds.

Sunday breakfast

In the morning, Mr. Hanlon directed the Newts in one of their Tenderfoot requirements as each boy built a small fire and cooked his own breakfast. Some boys, despite being seasoned campers, commented that this was the best part of the whole trip and that campfire bacon tasted much better than regular bacon. The Dinosaurs enjoyed Mr. Bacus’ hand-roasted cowboy coffee and commented on how sleeping on the ground didn’t used to require quite so much coffee to recover from.

After striking camp, Mr. Ogle lead a nature walk along the nearby creek bottom. Scouts explored closely both underfoot and overhead noting differences between different trees. We learned about Feruginous hawks, Siberian elms, Russian thistles, how bison and short grass prairie exist symbiotically, how wild animals don’t get cavities, and how cottonwood twigs have a tiny brown star pattern in them if you break them in the right place. It was a very peaceful way to finish off an eye-opening trip to an under-appreciated part of our great state. The Newts enjoyed the Buttes.

So, welcome to Troop 78. I think we’re going to have fun here.

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