Like kids and mud puddles, camp, Scouts, sticks, and knives just kind of go together. One thing that all Scouts seem to have in common is their propensity for stick carving and whittling.
And within seconds after the Scouts step out of their vans arriving at camp, they are drawn to all of the sticks on the ground. It is as if they have never seen one before. And then, they grab the first one that they see and head to the trading post.
Once there, they buy the fanciest, the biggest or the coolest pocket knife they see. And it is usually not just a small knife. Often it is a big flashy single bladed “toad stabber” (as I call them). Then, often without even first earning a “Tote-N-Chip” card, they immediately start to “carve” on the stick – taking big chunks out of it with every stroke. And they have no clue what they are carving. They just love to “carve” on the wood. And about this time, the health lodge learns of a new badge in camp – the badge called “finger carving”. This scenario is repeated with almost every Scout in camp.
And this is not just a recent phenomenon. I have long loved the story of the boys who were a part of the “Whistling and Whittling Brigade” in Nauvoo, Illinois.
My first attempt at wood-carving was kind of lame. I was a newbie Scout at Camp Geronimo in Arizona and I signed up to “take” the Woodcarving merit badge. I went to the trading post and bought one of the neckerchief slide “kits” – which was no more than a piece of balsa wood – with a hole cut for the neckerchief – and with red ink to show what needed to be carved. (These “kits” leave everything to the imagination!) Anyway, I worked at this slide and kind of got it to look kind of look like the three fingers in the Scout sign. Yes, it was pretty hokey … but fifty years later, I still have that slide. It has become a symbol of the woodcarving spirit within me.
I did not become an avid wood carver at that moment, but the seed was sown and it lay dormant within me for several years. I did not do any more woodcarving for another ten years. I went to the Thunder Ridge Scout Camp, in Southern Utah – and that stick thing got to me. Somewhere from deep within me, I was drawn to a stick and wanted to carve on it. I don’t remember what knife I had with me – but it was probably the red knife that I used as a teenager when I was a florist. But, it worked sufficiently to carve my first walking stick. I carved the words, “Thunder Ridge, 1977” into the stick and added some diamond shaped designs in several places on the stick. And thus, a new hobby was born.
I determined then that I would set a goal to carve a new stick at each camp that I hoped to work at through the years. I didn’t quite meet that goal – but I worked at it. And a few years later, I got set back bit when one of my children was playing with the Thunder Ridge stick and broke it in two. I then set out to carve this stick over again. And that second stick also got broken by my kids. I learned from this that I needed to carve on sticks that were about an inch and a half in diameter so that I would not have a break again. And later when he was older, my son, Rusty, drilled a hole in both sides of the stick and inserted a dowel to hold the two ends together … and this worked.
I checked my journal and found that I bought my first whittling knife while attending a NEI (National Executive Institute) training at the old Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey for new Scouting professionals. I saw the knife in the small trading post at the event. It was a small but official BSA whittling knife – with the fleur-de-lis on it. It had three blades. One blade was long and I soon learned that this was good for cutting off bark and other big stuff on the sticks. It had a flat blade which was good for “stop cuts” (indentions that formed borders for cuts made by the small pointed knife blade). And while I was at NEI for the three weeks, I created another walking stick. And then the whittling action within me had definitely taken root. And somehow I forgot my carved NEI stick and left it in New Jersey as I returned back home to Utah. A friend of mine was in the next NEI class and he was kind enough to fly it home to me (though it was months before I was reunited with the stick).
I might add that I carried this new whittling knife with me everywhere. I always had it in my pocket – whether whittling or not. I carried the knife for some 25 years – until I took my wife and children up to Payson (Arizona) – located about 75 miles north of my home at the time, in Mesa, Arizona. We watched the fireworks events that evening. And the next day I realized to my horror, that I had lost the knife in the grass. I took the family back there and all of the family helped me look for the beloved knife. Sadly, however, the knife was nowhere to be seen. I guess someone else had already found and taken it.
Then knowing how much it meant to me, my three sons pooled resources and bought me a new knife – one that was an exact duplicate of the knife I had carried for so long. And now I have carried that same knife for another fifteen or more years.
And true to my goal, I began carving more sticks at each camp where I worked. I carved “the Ugly Little Green Man” into my Camp Loll Stick – after hearing Camp Director and story teller extraordinaire, Delose Conner, recite the “Green Man” story a dozen or more times.
Camp Bartlett, in Southern Idaho, was my next home. I was there for four summers and three of those I was the Camp Director. I used my carving to start conversations with Scouts and it was a great topic of conversation between us. I called it “walking stick counseling.” It was kind of funny … but I could sit anywhere – even on a secluded log somewhere – and within moments, I would have a couple of Scouts sitting on the log with me – watching as I carved. I’d ask them how they were doing and if they were having fun. I asked them what the best thing was that they were doing at camp. Then I would get more specific: “So, tell me about your Nature instructor …” or “tell me about … (whatever)”. And within a few moments, I was able to learn about my staff, the program and everything else in camp. This system worked really well. I literally knew EVERYTHING about the camp. And this floored my staff. They could not figure out how I knew so much about everything – them and the program and the camp. I didn’t let on to my secret.
And for years, I carved and carved. The sticks became very intriguing to all of the Scouts (and many leaders) who saw them. And at each camp, I had with me enough sticks to bring forth a new one for each day of camp. The first day they commented on the first stick – and then by the second day, they realized that I probably had more and would bring them all out. “How many of those sticks do you have?” many would say. This past summer, I said, “I don’t actually know. I really have never counted them.”
Another question I often hear is, “How long does it take you to carve a stick like that?” My answer is “ten minutes at a time for a long time”. That is how I usually do my carving. If I were to sit down and begin with a green Aspen stick – still with bark, I could do a full stick in a relatively short amount of time. But, it is usually a few minutes at a time – when I can make time for that few minutes.
And now, with the passing of years, I do have quite a collection. I have carved most of them. But, I admit that I have got a few from other sources. I have one that was totally chewed (the full length and all around) by a Beaver. And I tell Scouts that I “cheated” and got my zebra from the Ft. Worth, Texas zoo and my eagle from the Phoenix Zoo. Each stick has its own story and the Scouts love to hear these stories. It has become a fun way to talk to and to connect with the Scouts.
Over the years, I have carved some sticks which have become my favorites. One of these is my “four-bear stick”.
I had this stick for many years before I actually took the time to carve it. When I first saw that stick, I noted the large mass at the top of the stick and knew that this was a bear waiting to get out. The head was clearly there. I didn’t know, however, until I carved it – that it actually had two bears in there. And down further on the stick, there were several knobs – somewhere small limbs had been – located together. I knew that these together were to be a dancing polar bear. And at the bottom were more knobs – which clearly revealed a “Koala bear down under.” And so, as I got to the task of carving the hard maple wood stick, I just had to do a bit of work to “let these guys out of the sticks.” This stick became my “Camp Geronimo Stick.” This idea of envisioning the stick and what it may become is kind of a hard concept for some Scouts to figure out as I explain my carving to them but some “get it.”
This past summer as I worked as a Commissioner at the Thunder Ridge Scout Camp, I was again carving on a new stick. And the Scouts were fascinated with it. I told the Scouts that this stick survived the Brian Head fire – which totally surrounded our camp. I got the stick after our return to the camp (to get some of our stuff left when Lou and I got evacuated). The stick was made of Aspen and still had its bark. And on the white bark was a lot of red spray – the fire retardant that was sprayed or dumped down on the camp in an effort to suppress the fire. When I first saw this stick, I knew that it had to be my “Thunder Ridge ‘17” stick and that I would use it to tell the story of our summer adventures following the fire.
So, I left much of the red fire retardant on the bark of the stick. I carved the bark off of one side. And into this stick, I carved many “fire” flames – which moved up the stick. At the top of the stick, I carved a “ring of fire” symbolizing how the fire literally made a ring around the camp. I carved my characteristic personal hand hold at the top of the stick. (Usually, my sticks are either right or left-handed sticks – with the appropriate hand holds – but this stick was a first. It was ambidextrous – meaning that it could be used by either hand. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of this earlier!) And I went to work on this stick and got it all carved. I then used the talent and resources of my wife – Lou – to paint the flames and other features of the stick – including a big bolt of thunder for Thunder Ridge. (And I finished the stick with sanding and then several coats of Polyurethane/shellac for shine and protection.) It was pretty cool … if I do say so myself.
Anyway, I took this stick with me as Lou and I (and Michael) taught our new Scouts in the “Scouting Basics” track. Again, every Scout in our program had a knife and wanted to cut on their sticks every moment – even when we were doing knots or other basic skills. We taught the Scouts knife safety and helped each earn his “Tote-N-Chip” card. I took the opportunity to share with the boys how I carve sticks.
I said, “I see that you all love to carve on sticks … but I notice too, that you are just “carving” to be carving and that you really have no picture or plan of what you are carving. I tried to instill in them how they should get a stick and envision (with the natural bumps, curves, etc. on the stick) what you want to carve. (I used my bear stick as an example.) I showed them my whittling knife and told them its history. I showed them the three blades and showed them how each blade could be used. I showed them how I draw each thing I envision onto the wood – including the full shape of the letters – whether I carve them “in” or carve them “out” with relief carving. I challenged them to do their carving in this way. I also told them that woodcarving is a wonderful hobby. “All you need is a good – small – whittling knife – and this will cost you about $25,” I said. And then I said, “you can find all of the wood that you need anywhere out in the woods – at no cost.”
One of our new Scout participants was Scout Devaun of Troop 605 of Richfield, Utah. He had brought a stick to carve – just like all of the boys. But, he had heard my speech about seeing the vision of what the stick could become. He came the second day with a small stick. At the top, he was carving a really great bear – in the round. And he did raised-lettering with the word “Mom” and her first name on the other side. And Wow! This guy was fabulous. I was amazed at his skill and expertise. I asked him what motivated him to do these things. And was I ever happy when he told me that he had started carving after my little speech. He had truly caught the vision! I later sat with him and together we reviewed another few “book” requirements and he earned his Wood Carving merit badge. I was so proud of him. I know that Devaun will be a truly great carver as he keeps going for it in the future. And this is exciting – for him and for me!
Yes, there is something about camp, Scouts, sticks, and knives … Maybe sticks and carving can help Scouts catch a vision of themselves for their own becoming!
Best wishes along your Scouting Trails … Kevinthescoutblogger
See this link for an introduction to Kevin the Scouting Trails Blogger. Blogging articles have excerpts taken from Kevin’s many personal journals and Scouting Trails books including “MR. Scoutmaster!”, “Keys to Scouting Leadership,” “Gnubie to Eagle Scout”, and others at his Scoutingtrails website. Connect with Kevin and read his articles on Scouting blog sites such as The Boy Scout, The Scouting Trail and the Voice of Scouting. Feel free to comment on anything you read! Find Kevin on Facebook at: Scouting Trails Books and Blogs.
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