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High-adventure camping takes Scouts to New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch

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TOWNSEND — Attaining the exalted rank of Eagle Scout is considered a milestone in the career of any member of the Boy Scouts but often of equal importance is that of visiting any of a number of “high adventure” camps operated by the BSA around the U.S.

One of the most well known (at least among Boy Scouts themselves) is the legendary Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M.

Donated to the Boy Scouts by oil baron and rancher Waite Phillips in 1935, the ranch grew rapidly from Phillips’ first donation of 36,000 acres to its final size of more than 137,000 acres.

Nestled among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where Apache Indians once lived, the ranch now hosts an estimated 22,800 Boy Scouts and Scoutmasters from around the country and the world every summer.

Most of those come to the ranch, like a hardy handful of Townsend’s own Troop 81, to make what is known among Scouts as “the trek;” a 105-mile hike into the mountains comprising 10 to 12 days of uninterrupted wilderness living and learning.

Different treks cover different parts of the vast ranch with base camps along the way dedicated to different skill sets from rock climbing to blacksmithing. A group of Scouts on a trek is called a crew with most crews assemble by troop as was the case with Townsend’s Troop 81. Such crews usually consist of eight to 12 people, with two to four adult leaders, a chaplain’s aide, Wilderness Pledge Guide, and a crew leader.

“Going to one of the Scouts’ High Adventure bases is kind of a once in a lifetime thing to do,” said 15-year-old Mark Puglia, one of the Scouts from Townsend’s Troop 81 which recently returned from Philmont. “It’s not as common a thing to do so not as many people go.”

Along with Puglia, other members of Troop 81 included Dan Silva, 17; Dennis Murphy, 17; Andrew Shepherd, 17; Ben Weaver. 14; Aaron Biondi, 15; and Chris Puglia, 17.

The boys were accompanied by four adult leaders as well.

“The Boy Scouts have four high adventure bases and the kids in my troop showed a lot of interest in going to the New Mexico one,” explained Puglia who has been involved in scouting since he was a Tiger Cub. “The Philmont Scout Ranch is pretty well known among Scouts. There were other kids in the council that knew about it and there was one other group in our own troop that went there about four or five years ago. So about two years ago, we decided to go there ourselves and spent the time training and hiking in preparation for it.”

Scouts who were interested in going had to raise the cost of the trip themselves, had to be at least 14 years old, achieved first class ranking, be willing to prepare over a couple years of hiking and camping, and after all that, still retain the enthusiasm to go.

Once all those criteria were met, the Townsend Troop found themselves entering the high desert of New Mexico and over the course of July 19 to 31, ended up hiking over hither and yon, through country inhabited by bears and mountain lions, and climbing mountains as high as 12,441 feet. Along the way, they learned rock climbing, spar pole climbing (climbing trees using telephone lineman shoe spikes), blacksmithing, and even panning for gold (they found nothing).

“We had eleven kids in our own crew with a crew from Illinois that shadowed us and seemed to end up at every single place we did,” said Puglia. “We got to know them well.”

Puglia said that his crew also encountered a troop from Japan and confirmed that Scouts from all over the world were present at the ranch.

“We all enjoyed it very much,” concluded Puglia of the trip. “It was the kind of thing we never experienced before. In the past, we got to hike around New England but to do it in a part of the country like New Mexico was something new.

“The landscape for one was really different from what we have here,” he said. “For that reason, we were able to learn a lot more than we would have if we stayed close to home. None of us ever did 10 consecutive days of backpacking. Before New Mexico, we’d only done a few days at a time.

“By the time we finished the course, we had a better appreciation of the larger world,” said Puglia.

“Besides the usual outdoor skills, we also learned a lot about the importance of teamwork and developed our leadership skills. And because we were forced to spend so much time together away other distractions, there was some good bonding going on between us that I think will stay with us the rest of our lives.”

But the big question is, would they do it again?

“Right now we’re still pretty beat to think about doing something like that again any time soon,” admitted Puglia. “But maybe after we’re finished with Scouting, I’m sure we’ll stay friends, we’d like to do something like that again.”