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Posted with the kind permission of the Ottawa Citizen

Annual derby puts youngsters' scouting skills to the test


David Reevely
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday 18 February 2001

Brigitte Bouvier, The Ottawa Citizen / The Jackals from 1st Chelsea troop were the first team to achieve a perfect score by lowering their sled down a steep hill yesterday without falling. The team's performance is evaluated by James Whittall, right.

"We should use the rope like a pulley," suggests 12-year-old Boy Scout Chris Majka to his three companions standing at the top of a long, snowy hill in the southeast corner of Gatineau Park, trying to figure out how to get their sled to the bottom safely.

Chris, Alex Moon, Michael Inglis and Scott Goodman, from the 1st Chelsea troop, were vying with over 100 other 11- to 14-year-old boys and girls for a trophy yesterday in the 37th annual Klondike Derby for Scouts in the capital region.

The derby is a six-kilometre hike through the woods, in a big loop south from D'Arcy McGee school in Hull. Each "patrol" must haul a sled made of scrap wood and old skis with their gear tied into it, and the trip is punctuated by 21 stations where their scouting skills get tested. They are required to tie knots, climb ropes, simulate first-aid and identify trees.

But right now, they have to get themselves, and their sled, down the hill.

Brigitte Bouvier, The Ottawa Citizen / The Jackals from 1st Chelsea troop were the first team to achieve a perfect score by lowering their sled down a steep hill yesterday without falling. The team's performance is evaluated by James Whittall, right.
They get 10 points if the descent is flawless, but none of the four- to seven-person patrols before them have made it down the slope without either losing control of the sled that holds their gear or falling down themselves.

There's even a long trench carved in the snow off the side of the path, where an adult troop-leader lost his footing and went sliding.

"Okay, tie it on the end of the sled," says Alex, waving one end of the yellow rope they've been given by station supervisor James Whittal. Mr. Whittal watches the boys start to pick their way down the slope, a fresh evaluation sheet in his clipboard, and denies that he's freezing.

Chris wraps the rope around a tree and holds on grimly while the other three carefully manoeuvre the sled as far down as the slack in the rope allows. Then they keep it in place while Chris moves down to another tree.

"It's a way of testing the skills they get taught year-round," explains Adrian Camfield, a soft-spoken former geophysicist and 20-year scouting leader, taking a break for lunch. "This is more real life, not just book-learning. They get to meet scouts from outside their own troops, and they certainly get to learn things outside what they get taught in a regular school curriculum."

He says he and other leaders started planning this year's derby in November, and "it's worth every second of work."

"What happened to the last patrol?" Scott calls up to Mr. Whittal from halfway down the slope. "Did they fall at the falling stop?"

He's talking about a sharp curve near the end of the roughly 20-metre descent. Mr. Whittal has been watching patrols at hisstation for over two hours. He vigorously denies being cold.

"Everybody falls at the falling stop!" he calls back. "But if you do it gracefully, you get points!" he adds, grinning.

The boys hesitate just before the curve. They spend a long time talking it over. Alex starts to move into position and slips, but catches his balance.

Chris, still in charge of the rope, picks his tree carefully. They're going to leave the sled very little rope, but he's going to play out more as it's needed. The patrol's been using the rope as an emergency stop, but they've figured out the trick just in time -- they're going to use it as a brake.

The work is painstaking. Step by careful step, while Chris braces his legs against the tree and lies almost horizontal in the snow beside the slope, the other three lower the sled.

"I think ..." Mr. Whittal says slowly, watching intently, "I think they're going to ..."

They do.

"Way to go!" he shouts after them. "First patrol to get a perfect score today!"

The boys at the bottom whoop. The next patrol, waiting at the top, groans.

"Now," Mr. Whittal calls down, "which one of you is going to bring me my rope back?"