Growing up in Central, Alaska, a remote town with a population of less than a hundred year round residents, you can imagine that we didn’t have a very big school age population. In fact, most of the time our school had about a dozen students between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my family making up about a quarter of the school population.
This also meant that we didn’t have organizations like the Boy or Girl Scouts, though we did have a 4-H club for many years. This did not mean we weren’t aware of such groups as troops from the Fairbanks area would travel up to our neck of the woods to float Birch Creek which was really more of a river.
One summer, when I was 14, I was on a break from mining and word spread that they local guide for the trip had injured himself and wouldn’t be able to take the Boy Scout troop and they were looking for another guide. I stepped up and volunteered, but the Troop leader was a little hesitant since I was about the same age as many of the kids in his troop.
But after hours of no one else showing up to volunteer, he agreed to let me guide them on a three day trip down the creek. So late in the afternoon, we set off for a three day float that we could realistically make in one day. This took the pressure off of making camps as we could pull in early to set up.
My canoe was packed lightly as I carried a small backpack, a shotgun and my sleeping bag. I was in the water and waiting for nearly a half an hour before the troop finally waddled down to the boat launch and we set off.
The first day was short and we set up camp a few hours later along a wide gravel bar on the north side of the creek. It was fun to banter with the other boys, even if they were a bit standoffish. I didn’t have many kids my own age around, especially at the mine site.
As the kids started setting up their camp, the troop leader asked me to set up downstream as he didn’t want his troop distracted by my shotgun. I got the message and quickly set up camp before walking back up to see what was going on.
Half the troop hadn’t finished setting up their tents yet and I overheard the troop leader talking to two boys who didn’t appear to have a tent. One of the boys who was almost in tears, shrugged and said, “I forgot.”
“How do you forget your tent on a camping trip!” the leader exclaimed. “It was at the top of the list!”
“I packed it,” the boy tried to explain, “but I left it in the van.”
The leader separated the boys and assigned them to other tents making them a bit more crowded.
It took the troop nearly an hour to get all their tents set up, well, at least all set up at the same time.
The mosquitos were thick, but thankfully, as it got later, a breeze picked up and cleared the gravel bar and knocked down a couple of tents.
The leader set about having them practice their fire building skills which lead to a bunch more of “I forgots.”
“Where is your knife?” “I forgot it.”
“Where is your hatchet?” “I forgot it.”
“Where are your matches?” “I forgot.”
“Where is your change of clothes?” “I forgot.”
“Where is your handbook?” “I forgot.”
Each time this was met with sarcasm from their troop leader who reminded them that their motto was “Be prepared.”
After a half an hour of watching fires go up and die out or kids going through a small box of matches, I began to be embarrassed that these kids identified as Alaskan.
Luckily, the leader built the main fire for the troop to cook their hot dogs around. I hadn’t been sure if I would be invited to join them, so I’d caught a couple of grayling for dinner that I had cooking near my own fire. But the leader invited me over and we sat around the fire telling spooky stories until the sun crept down to the horizon.
Fires out, we headed to bed with the promise that we would be up with the sun and heading down river.
So I was up four hours later and packing up as the sun came up. In July, the sun doesn’t set until around 11pm and comes before 5am, so I was shocked because I had to sit around watching the sun rise for nearly two hours before anyone else got up.
They had a morning routine which took them nearly an hour and a half to do, along with another dozen “I forgots” before they even began to pack up.
I showed the leader a map of the creek and made plans for our lunch stop, places of interest and our goal for the evening. In all, the trip would take us at most 6 hours. It took 10. Namely because when we were an hour downstream and I was showing them fossils, some of the boys realized they had forgotten stuff upstream.
I took one of the older boys and we paddled back upstream to gather the backpacks and tent that were left behind. We made quick work of it and caught up to them for lunch.
I travelled ahead and would set up wherever the group was planned to meet next. While they did their activity, I moved on to the next point and reached the campsite around 5:30 and they appeared closer to 7.
I set my camp up on a small bluff overlooking where a smaller stream intersected with Birch Creek. I’d carried my canoe up the bank and tied it off to a tree as well. I’d been watching the weather all day, and while it had been mostly sunny here, the mountains to our east and upstream had been obscured by storm clouds all day.
The water had started to change mid afternoon from nearly crystal clear to a murky gray from the silt being churned up from the rainwaters by the time the troop arrived.
They were exhausted and I came down and told the troop leader that it would be best to set up on higher ground, but he was frustrated and tired and refused to listen. The second adult chaperone, one of the boys’ dad, nearly bit my head off when I pushed the point because “the mountains are at least 20 miles away.” They beached their canoes and within a half an hour had their tents set up on the gravel bar as near to the trees as they could get since a wind had come up again.
Dinner was canned soup and within an hour, most everyone had gone to bed. I watched the fire as it burned low before putting it out and turning in myself. The sky was cloudy and I could smell rain on the air. It mostly sprinkled and I allowed the pitter patter of raindrops on my tent lull me to sleep.
I woke up to the sound of the little stream gurgling. It was still dark, but the creek was much louder now. I sprang from bed and ran out to see how much the creek had risen.
The little stream was now a raging torrent overflowing its banks and Birch Creek had risen enough that most of the gravel bar was under an inch of water. Kids had started to scream and yell as the frigid water soaked their sleeping bags and they awoke to find themselves now in the creek.
I threw on my boots and waded across the stream that I had once been able leap across a few hours prior. Kids poked their heads out of their tents, many still in their sleeping bags, as I ran up the gravel bar to where they had beached their canoes. Only a couple were tied off and even those had been tied to small rocks.
A few of the canoes were bobbing on the sides and one had started working its way to the main current, dragging its small stone along. I hefted the boats up the gravel bar and hefted them onto the higher bank where thankfully a couple of the kids had come out and tied them off.
By the time I was done, the water had risen another inch and many of the tents started to collapse as the current shifted onto the gravel bank. I no longer ran since the water was now above my ankles.
I counted off all of the kids who stood on the slightly higher bank and they were all accounted for. The leader was trying to save supplies and the chaperone had gotten trapped in his tent when it collapsed. He thrashed about and I pounced on him and yelled for him to hold still as I cut away the fabric that had cocooned him.
The leader and a couple of the older kids began to drag the tents up to the bank by the time I’d freed the chaperone and helped him pull his now destroyed tent up to the bank.
It didn’t take much to convince them to move to higher ground since the water had risen another couple of inches and the small stream was overflowing its banks just behind them.
Tents were tossed into canoes and I instructed them to take them downstream around the bluff point were they would be able to pull them up to higher ground. The rest of the troop waded across the stream and up the embankment to my site.
After a check on my own canoe, I started a fire while the leader took assessment of their supplies. Fortunately, the only item they lost was a cooler that had been left in one of the boats that had rolled over. Everything else was there, even if it were a bit wet or ruined.
We ate a breakfast of granola bars and hot chocolate as we waited for the sun to rise. The creek rose another 6-8 inches in the next couple of hours creating swift currents, but luckily the creek was wide here and we were below any white water.
The rest of the canoe trip could be done in under 3 hours, though the original plan gave us nearly seven. The leader and the chaperone were done with the trip and many of the boys were cold and on the verge of tears, so as soon as the sun was up, they decided to paddle to the haul out.
I paddled ahead, looking for any sweepers in the water or any trees that looked like they may fall in as the flood eroded the bank. The water was swift and it didn’t take a lot of paddling to reach the haul out in just two and a half hours.
We all started unpacking our supplies and carrying out canoes up to were the leader was going to bring the van and trailer down that they had left in the parking area.
About fifteen minutes later, he reappeared, walking instead of driving. “Do you have the keys?” he asked the chaperone who pulled out his set for the other van.
The leader looked a bit sheepish as he turned to his troop and said, “I forgot the keys in my jacket in the other van.”