Shenandoah River Scouting

Shenandoah River Scouting

The summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I joined a Boy Scout sponsored 70 mile canoe trip on the Shenandoah River near Luray, Front Royal and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. I was the only member from my Explorer Post to go, so in order to have a canoeing partner, I recruited my Boy Scout younger brother Frank Laney. We went with a half dozen other Raleigh area troops for a District organized High Adventure. To give us proper adult leadership, Frank and I were attached to another troop lead by a kindly older gentleman named Rudy who had immigrated to the US from Austria.

This trip encompassed a number of firsts for me. It was my first over night canoe trip; and my first extended mileage trip. The longest trips I had been on before were 10-mile backpacking trips with the Boy Scouts in the desert of Peru. Even though I was prepared with sufficient equipment, training and experience, this trip caused me to experience another first. I became concerned about the somewhat complex logistics and suffered my first quantifiable bout of anxiety. I felt my first ulcer-like stomach pain. I noticed several anxiety related symptoms, including a lack of appetite for breakfast the first morning; and mild diarrhea. These symptoms were the beginning of a life-long relationship with my anxiety over logistics. For decades, I have felt a strong approach / avoidance conflict about any difficult trip. I love the adventure and outdoor activities, while I fear the exposure to things that can go wrong. Nearly 40 years later, when I received my first prescription for pharmaceuticals to reduce anxiety, my doctor advised that I would probably have led a calmer life if I had been on such drugs since this high school canoe trip.

For a couple days, we had a great time on the river. We canoed all day in beautiful, pastoral settings, and ate big, hearty meals at night. This trip was also my first exposure to freeze dried food. During the trip, I felt like I had plenty eat and was never hungry. Yet, strangely, when the trip was over and we got back to civilization, and we stopped at a Dairy Queen for our first post-trip meal, I behaved as if I had been starving and pigged out on about triple the amount of food that I would normally eat. Apparently, the freeze-dried food, while nutritionally adequate, was just not satisfyingly filling.

Then I had another bout of anxiety. I was aware that our logistics required us to locate a troop in front of us who would stop on the river bank to camp for the night, and we were to watch for them and camp in the same spot. Which led to another first: I doubted my adult leader, Rudy. I was concerned that he was not sufficiently watchful and would miss the other troop. That night, as dusk approached and no other troop on the bank was spotted, my fears were realized. We had missed our camp site. Our troop pulled out of the river and set up our solo camp on the bank. After dark, a District Scout leader paddled up and confirmed that we had missed the other troop. Happily, the next morning, we waited for the other troops to catch up to us and we rejoined the larger group.

I expressed my concerns and anxiety to Rudy. He did that best thing that could be done. Instead of becoming angry with me for doubting him, or lecturing me on following his leadership unquestioningly, which would have made me more upset, he simply gave me a big hug and told me that it was not that big a deal. We would all be safe in the end. And he was right.

But the best part of the trip was paddling the rapids. All us scouts were taught to paddle with our butts on the seats. Then when the water got rough, we were to kneel on the canoe bottom, which kept our center of gravity lower and gave us a more stable position in the boat, so the white water would be less likely to tip us over. But I lacked upper body strength. I learned that to get enough leverage properly to steer the canoe from the stern, I had to sit even higher than the seat, on the back deck, where the boat was the narrowest and my J-strokes had the most effect on the boat's direction. But I was also exposed in the least stable position.

The biggest rapid on the Shenandoah River is Bull Sluice. Our District leaders had warned us for days that it was coming. When we got close to the rapid, the leaders impressed on us that they would get out of their boats and stand on the shore above and below the rapids and give us verbal directions. As we approached the tongue at the top of the rapid, Frank dropped to his knees in the bow. I hopped up on the back deck and paddled away. The adult leaders shouted at me to get down on the boat bottom, but we just sailed on by, oblivious to the verbal tirades. Other boats with less experienced boys hit the rocks and the haystacks and bailed out all around us. Frank and I kept on going and never came back to the tongue lashing planned for us.

I learned a lot of things on this trip. But it took me 40 years, patience from my outdoor buddies and some good medicine to get a handle on my logistics anxiety.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.