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Backpacking the Mad River: A Decades-Old Scouting Tradition

The Scouts of Troop 27 in Eureka, California, approach the edge of the river with both caution and confidence.

They’ve done this before. In fact, some of the older Scouts have done this many, many times before. But that doesn’t mean they take anything for granted.

They look both ways to make sure they’re crossing in exactly the best spot.

If they have to go back a short way in the direction they just came from to find a safer spot, so be it.

They determine if it’s OK to cross one at a time, or if they need to cross together, as a team, to help each other out.

Most of the time, the water is shallow enough for them to walk across. Just in case, they unbuckle their waist belts and loosen their shoulder straps so they can dump their packs if they fall.

Other times, they form a line all the way across the river and pass their backpacks down to the last person, who drops them off on dry land. This frees up the Scouts to walk through the water without worrying about their packs at all.

A couple of times, they swim across in still water that’s over their heads, pushing their packs in front of them. Every single time, each Scout makes it across just fine, even if they end up soaking wet. They’ll dry off fast enough in the warm sunshine as they continue along their way.

This is what it’s like to hike along the Mad River.

The Tradition Continues

Hiking the Mad River in Northern California has been a Troop 27 tradition since 1955. It’s easy to see why nobody wants the tradition to end.

“I’ve done this trip about six times,” 17-year-old Micheal Stewart says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The trek begins on a Friday afternoon, when the guys walk a few miles before spending the night on a small sandy beach along the river.

Saturday is a big day, hiking around 10 miles along the river, and crossing the water back and forth over and over and over again as the route reaches a dead end on one side, only to pick up again on the other.

Younger Scouts are allowed to skip the Friday night hike and go a shorter distance Saturday before meeting up with the other group Sunday morning, when everyone hikes out together.

“We walk along the river bank, and basically when the river bank ends, we cross the river and go to the other side, and then keep going,” Micheal says.

Most of the crossings are simple. Sure, their shoes and socks might get damp, but that’s no big deal. They don’t bother changing socks, because another crossing is always right around the corner (and they wear noncotton socks that hold up when wet and are less likely to cause blisters.)

“You have to pay attention to where you are going,” says Andrew Rice, 17, of the frequent crossings. “It makes it more rewarding to finish it.”

Other times, it’s more of a challenge. For situations like these, the guys have to Be Prepared.

Lessons Learned

The key to surviving the Mad River hike is waterproofing everything in your pack that can’t get wet. The guys put those items in either resealable bags or large garbage bags that can be tied shut.

Mess kit? It’s OK if it gets wet. Just put it in your pack. Sleeping bag? Need to keep that dry, so into a bag it goes.

A package of freeze-dried food? It can get wet. Your extra clothing? Seal it up.

And on down the list they go until every item is accounted for.

Colton Johnston, 16, has completed three Mad River hikes.

“The first time I probably didn’t pack as well as I could have,” he says. “Some things I packed weren’t securely waterproof. You have to make sure the bags don’t get torn, because that can happen easily while packing and unpacking during the hike.”

The most challenging crossing is a spot the guys call “the gorge.” There’s only one specific point where it’s safe to cross, and because of the rushing water all around that spot, the Scouts have to be extra careful.

“It’s challenging,” says Campbell Nielsen, 14. “And it’s a lot of fun.” The best crossing spots are the ones where the guys really have to work together to get across. It’s what separates Mad River backpacking from any other kind of backpacking.

“It’s fun to cross the river in all kinds of crazy ways,” 16-year-old Grayson Hulstrom says. “At some spots, if one person tried to get through it by themselves, they’d have a much harder time than if everybody did it together.”

Crossing Streams with Backpacks

Crossing a stream where a bridge has washed out or where no bridge has ever been built is a potential danger that you should consider carefully before attempting. Take a few minutes to study the situation. Look downstream. Should you fall into the water, could you be swept into rapids or over a waterfall? If so, go no farther. Be smart and turn back.

Safe Swim Defense Applies!

Safe Swim Defense applies to nonswimming activities whenever participants enter water over knee deep or when submersion is likely — for example, when fording a stream. Safe Swim Defense training may be obtained from my.scouting.org, at council summer camps and at other council and district training events. Learn more at go.boyslife.org/safeswim

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