With temperatures hovering in the teens and lower, even seasoned veterans of New England winters were hunkering down this week, trying to minimize time spent outdoors.
But for several hundred area Boy Scouts, the bitter cold and snow on the ground was not an excuse to stay inside; it was an opportunity to practice their winter camping and survival skills.
The Yankee Clipper Council, a collection of Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups from northeastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire communities, held its annual Klondike Derby at Endicott Park in Danvers this weekend.
For three days, about 350 youths camp out and compete against other troops in survival challenges, pulling a homemade sled of supplies to and from stations where they build fires, administer first aid, and erect emergency shelters.
“The other kids at my school are probably getting ready for the semiformal next weekend,” laughed Michael Tedesco, a 17-year-old scout from Rockport’s Troop 20, as he helped pack away cooking gear. “You probably do have to be a little bit crazy, but it’s the perseverance of it. You feel a sense of satisfaction.”
Despite a relative thaw that saw temperatures creep a bit above freezing, whipping winds and cloudy skies made for uncomfortable conditions Saturday morning.
Several larger tents in the campsite acted as sails, ripping up their stakes, collapsing, and flopping across the park’s open field like tumbleweeds as scouts shouted warnings and ran off in pursuit.
But even after chasing down runaway tents and spending the night outdoors, Tedesco and six other members of the small Troop 20 were in high spirits.
The scouts, who said they consider each other brothers, bantered freely as they tried to describe the unapparent benefits of winter camping and scouting.
“Colleges love to see you’re an Eagle Scout,” Tedesco began to explain.
“But if you’re only going to do it for that, you’re not going to succeed,” 16-year-old Tim Chambers injected. “You have to want it.”
The youths ticked off a number of practical skills they have mastered in Boy Scouts, ranging from classics like cooking and camping to new-age badges like video game design. They laughed over Troop 20’s reputation for preparing overly extravagant meals in the field — Hawaiian chicken barbecue, anyone? — a practice they argued is justified because it gives them a psychological edge.
But when talk turned to how scouting will help them after they age out of the group, the youths became serious.
“It’s not just survival skills, it’s skills you can use in everyday life,” Chambers explained. “We learn about camaraderie, about how to run a group of people. It teaches you how to handle chaotic situations. It even teaches you how to handle everyday social stuff you might not get if you just stay at home.”
The Klondike Derby is the biggest event the Yankee Clipper Council puts on. It doubles as a kind of recruitment retreat for Webelos, 11-year-old Cub Scouts who must decide whether they will continue their advancement by joining the Boy Scouts.
“This is when we lose so many scouts,” said event organizer Jeff Hildonen, 59. “So we bring them in to show scouting at its best.”
Hildonen teared up as he reminisced about watching young boys become confident Eagle Scouts.
“The whole thing is about building leadership and strength,” he said. “They get nothing but encouragement from the older boys.”
The older scouts in tight-knit Troop 20 will soon have to part, as they graduate high school and move on to work or college. But they insist the will keep their bonds alive.
“I know so many people I never would have known if I hadn’t joined scouts,” Tedesco said. “And these are some of the best guys I’ll ever meet.”