Operation “ON TARGET” is an activity developed in the 1980s by Doug Brewer that has grown annually to connect Teams up and down the continental divide and from the east to west coasts. It’s one I loved to do when I could still climb and peak and get down again!
As a Team Coach there was nothing better than On Target season. I explained that a bit last year in my article Mountain Top Memories, but posting this brought back more memories. Doing the stuff to get ready for On Target, making mirrors, practicing signaling, collecting parent letters to sons and the letters from national and church leaders, getting ready for the hike, or usually in my case the trek to the top, all lent themselves to building my Team. The Sunday before or after we always used the event to strengthen lessons on duty to God.
Operation On-Target is an exciting High Adventure that tests many of the skills of Varsity Scouts and Venturers, and their leaders. Each time I’ve tackled a 12.000 plus peak carrying mirrors and other equipment, has been a personal challenge. So if you are a Scouter, get in shape so you can keep up with your youth.
Operation On-Target can be anything from a wilderness backpacking trek to a high-tech experience. It can also include a variety of activities such as radio communications, photography, wilderness survival, mountain climbing, GPS navigation, nature study, and making videos. This event is sometimes call the “mountaintop experience,” although a crew and team can carry out this program without having a mountainous area.
On the third Saturday in July each year, units from all across America will be climbing high-rise buildings, mountain peaks, and tall trees to flash their signal mirrors in the direction of another team. Just about any elevated spot will do. When contact has been made, both teams have concluded many months of preparation and are now “on target.”
In the past, Scouts have signaled from every high point imaginable, from the top of the Empire State Building to the Rocky Mountains, and from ship to shore on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Teams have even completed a signaling network through the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico in one day!
Varsity Scout team program managers will have the opportunity to lead portions of the Operation On-Target if you use this as a program feature, while crews will use an activity chair and consultant from their committee or community.
If you are a huddle or forum commissioner, you can get ideas to help your units at The Boy Scout.” You may also look Varsity Team Program Features Vol. II on page 80 for detailed information (this article is based on that resource).
The heliograph was an instrument used to send signals by reflecting sunlight with a mirror or mirrors. Heliographs were used by the armies of several countries during the late 1800s, especially the U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest from mountain peak to mountain peak.
In Operation On-Target, the heliograph is modified just for fun. Scouts from all over the country climb a hill, a mountain, a building, or ascend to any safe high point, carrying with them mirrors—from small handheld ones that can be seen from as far as 30 miles away, to large base-mounted mirrors.
It is strongly recommended that plastic mirrors be used instead of glass; picking up broken pieces of glass can cause cuts and problems in transporting the pieces back. Plastic mirrors weigh about half the weight of glass mirrors and, when climbing, every ounce saved helps. But there is nothing like making your own mirrors as shown in this video:
How to Make a Hand Signal Mirror
The back mirror needs only to tell you where the “sun dot” is that comes through the hole. It can be small and thin. The front mirror needs to be clean, structurally strong, and as big as you want to carry.
Mark the back surface where you want the hole to be. Scrape off a 1 ⁄8-inch-diameter circle of the paint with the point of a single-edge razor blade or similar device. Try not to scratch the glass. There will still be some glossy stuff on the glass that comes off best with a pencil eraser and elbow grease. Make the edges clean because this is your “aimer.”
When you have both mirrors “holed,” place them together back-to-back using super-glue to hold them together. Keep glue away from the hole.
How to Use the Signal Mirror
Learning how to aim a mirror takes a little patience, and knowing where your flashes are going can be critical when you see a reflection across the valley or on a neighboring peak. As you send your signal and receive responses, consider the strides made in technology. When once lives depended on those light beams, now they create fun and excitement for your youth.
Using a signal mirror is fairly easy, though it may seem complex at first. With practice and use, it becomes second nature and a valuable resource in your ability to survive.
- Look through the hole at your target.
- Find the “dot” in the back mirror (usually on your hand, face, or shirt).
- While looking at your target, arrange the mirror such that the “dot” crosses back and forth over the hole.
In other words, while looking at your target, align the reflected hole with the real hole, and you’re on target. To check yourself, sight in on a reflector such as a license plate, tail light, or freeway sign. These will really light up.
Make a Giant Fold-up Mirror
A 2-by-2 foot square mirror would accomplish the same function, but it is big and heavy. This one folds up to fit into a backpack. Use standard 1-by-1 foot decorative mirrors. Cut a 1-by-1-foot piece of 3 ⁄8-inch plywood (if it’s thinner, it may warp). Drill five holes: one in the center, the others 11 ⁄2 inches from each corner. These are to accommodate the little “jiggers” (hammer in permanent nuts, as shown). Use 1 ⁄4 -inch coarse-threaded jiggers with a wing bolt and a 11 ⁄2 -inch washer plus a homemade rubber washer from an inner tube.
Buy an extra jigger and put it near the center (but offset) and on the other side of the plywood. You will find it will hook up perfectly to a standard camera tripod, which will let you keep the signal on someone you know is there … until they notice you. Or send code by interrupting the signal with a hand-held cardboard “shutter.”
You may also want to hook a cabinet handle to the back center of the plywood for hand use.
Everyone will feel the excitement when signals are returned from neighboring peaks, the larger mirrors really standing out from the smaller ones. Every unit should have at least a 24-by-24-inch mirror on a light tripod; this larger mirror tends to catch the attention of stations on the other peaks and may bring more flashes your way.
In a 15- to 20-mile range, a 3″ or 4″ mirror is sufficiently imposing that you can clearly see it. For greater range and brilliance, use your small mirror as a “sight” by taping it (in the same place) to a corner or edge of a larger mirror.
Try setting up a code, or use Morse code by clamping to a tripod and interrupting the continuous signal with a cardboard deflector at appropriate intervals. Work with another crew or team and prearrange to signal each other at a certain time.
Helpful Tools You Can Make
Team Mirror Schematics
The following illustrate two examples of team mirrors. Design your own. Make it lightweight and easy to carry and assemble/disassemble. Share your design with other teams. Remember, large mirrors can make your Operation On-Target adventure more exciting by pulling in more signals.
Mountaintop Experience and Ceremony
This is the highlight of the whole event and for me and my youth has been one of the most rewarding parts of Operation On-Target. The ceremony may be held around a campfire on Friday evening or after the mirror signaling on Saturday on the peak itself. That is the way I’ve always done it. (Read more about my Mountain Top Experiences here.)
After gathering your group in a secluded spot or on the peak, follow this outline to have a reverent (Scout Law) mountaintop ceremony (the letter and other resources are available at Operation On Target):
Sample Coach’s Corner
Use the mountain you have climbed as an object lesson. The peak is your goal and/or life. At any one moment you are either climbing toward your goal, at your goal, or moving down from your goal. Relate to religious situations or self-reflection if appropriate.
- The letter from a famous person
- The letter from a religious leader
- Time capsule memorabilia
- The Coach’s Corner
The ceremony might also include a song, prayer, reflection, guest speaker, religious emblems recognition, or history of the peak the team will be using during its Operation On-Target event
On-Target Time Capsule
The time capsule is a container made to store special items from Operation On-Target and all other special Scouting events. Future visitors to the mountain will enjoy the years of memorabilia from your unit’s past events. The time capsule could include:
- Special letters
- Coach’s Corner or Advisor’s Reflection
- Unit roster and guests
- Unit history and location
- Operation On-Target pin
- Personal totems and comments
- Similar items from other events
- Summary of the day
Leave No Trace
Bring mirrors and
time capsule off the
mountain with you.
Best Story Told Contest
In the days before television or cinema, telling stories of places we had been to or things we had done was a form of entertainment and communication. A great deal of competition would develop over who could tell the “best story told.”
In Operation On-Target, the opportunity is given for each unit to tell its own story using slides, videos, or any other imaginative visual or audio medium. If your district or council wants to sponsor a contest for best video, that’s great, but your parents and friends are your best audience.
In developing your own “best story told,” try to catch the same feelings of excitement, companionship, and sense of accomplishment you felt on that mountaintop, seeing the response to your mirror flashes in hundreds of beams of lights returned to you. My team was so excited to see a report (that’s what a flash is called) from a peak nearly 200 miles away. If you capture that while you are there, you’ve got a great Instagram or YouTube post to share with friends and family; when you get home, post it to your unit’s Facebook page.
Before putting your own story together, check with your local council and find out will be for the “Best Story Told,” on their blog. It they don’t have one we’d love it right here on the Voice of Scouting. To submit your story, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
For your story, start from the day you first talked about your Operation On-Target adventure. Make recordings and take photographs or videos from early on in your program. (Take lots of pictures; you will need them in editing later.) The type of story you put together and the medium you use to tell the story will depend largely on the resources available to you in your team or neighborhood.
PowerPoint and Prezi Shows
Slide shows can be a great way to tell your story—Scouting’s social media outlets begs to put it up. Making a presentation can involve the entire team so now is a good time to make use of your Photography merit badge counselor to help train the group to take quality photos. You can also contact the folks at BSA’s Digital Storytelling workshop for more help.
With your phone’s camera, there is hardly an excuse to not record this event. Your youth know how and likely love to put pictures together with music to tell your story, so got to it. Here is an older example from several units in Southern California:
Video cameras a part of nearly every phone and their versatility allows the user to be creative with a number of features. Videos can be edited easily with today’s software or put up raw on YouTube to share the way it really was.
Videos may allow more room for creativity than Powerpoint slides, but with Prezi you can easily mix both methods.
Whatever visual medium you select, you should start recording your Operation On-Target adventure early . Studies of media impact have shown that the audio, or sound, from a production has a stronger impact on the senses than the visual. Consequently, you will want to put at least as much emphasis on your sound track as your visual. Try recording as capture your activities on-site—a colorful panorama of sound from the natural environment of birds and wind to the chatter of your Scouts and the static of a ham radio conversation. THen back home add a creative sound track together in somebody’s living room.
Plans and goals should be made early in your program—perhaps a theme to base your photograph or sound track around. Draw the entire crew or team together to help plan the show, listen to everyone’s input, and let them design the story.
In the end you will not just tell a great story and pass your excitement and experiences on to others, but create wonderful memories, both with each participant and visually—something that can be enjoyed by family and friends now and years down the road.
Every time you watch the “Best Told Story” you helped create, the memories and sense of accomplishment will be a reward felt over and over.
Operation On-Target Task Descriptions
There are some responsibilities or tasks that need to be carried out. Your unit Historian should make a record for your group Facebook page by reporting the happenings of the event with full coverage to use at a follow-up parent get-together with chartered organization members to show pictures and share the Operation On-Target experience. This will be one of the places to share your “Best Story.”
Here are some other duties shared in the program feature:
Team Flag Chairman: Create a symbol—like the “Stars and Stripes” is to the United States—to develop your own team esprit de corps. Carry it with you, unfurl it on the peak, and capture the moment on film with your teammates, perhaps in uniform, for all posterity!
Team Photographer: Record the Operation On-Target experience on film to best re-create your feelings or message for your locally planned fireside (approximately two weeks following the event) and perhaps for your own get-together with parents and chartered organization.
Team Map and Geography Expert: Become your team’s “sensor,” knowing such things as how to get them to the peak, where your team will fit in—in the overall operation, your radius of influence, locations of your potential return signals, and what your 360˚ horizon will look like from on top.
Choosing a Peak
Perhaps the key to your Operation On-Target adventure is the peak or high point from which you choose to signal. Don’t limit yourself to a mountain. A high building might be more appropriate in your area. Use your imagination; signaling from a boat in the middle of a lake (of course, while observing Safety Afloat procedures) could be an exciting On-Target station, as could a small wooded hill, a guard tower (with permission), a bridge, or the top of a ski run. Look around, be openminded, and choose somewhere fun.
Team Skill or Fitness Level A peak should be chosen that all members of the team can reach or a large team could be split, each half choosing its own peak with the level of difficulty acceptable to each group. The team Coach should be aware of all difficulties and dangers associated with the peak chosen by the team, and should also be aware of and considerate of the limits of all team members.
Solitude Close, easy-to-get-to peaks will be chosen by more than one team. A peak can be used by several teams and can add to the excitement of Operation On-Target with the camaraderie or competition with other teams. However, if your team wants to be by itself, you will probably want to choose a peak that is more inaccessible.
Weather Even though Operation On-Target occurs in the summer, high mountain peaks have been known to have snowstorms all year round. If this type of peak is chosen, the team must be prepared for all types of weather.
View If you are choosing a secluded peak, don’t get so secluded that you don’t see any other mirror flashes. Make sure that other teams will be close enough so that they can see your mirrors.
Fun Make Operation On-Target the center of your activity, but don’t limit yourself to just flashing mirrors. Plan other activities that all can join in on such as hiking, fishing, rappelling, and orienteering, or have your team set up a schedule or list of activities.
Be prepared for the activity. Review first aid for hypothermia and mountain sickness, and take along lots of sunscreen (factor 20 or higher). Give yourself lots of time to reach your stations, and don’t push your team in a low-oxygen, high-altitude area.
Check with your local U.S. Geological Survey office or state natural resource organizations to find out about peaks, mountains, or hilltops in your area.
On-Target With Ham Radio Operators
What Does the Ham Radio Operator Do? When you are on a peak scanning the horizon, there is a lot of country to see. It can be pretty difficult to pick out any one tiny mirror flash if you don’t know where to look. Your radio operator will be in contact with other teams all around you to help coordinate their locations with your team. This person will also be able to confirm your contact; after all, you want to know that the other guys saw you, too.
How Do We Find a Ham Radio Operator?
Many of you are probably already aware of hams in your neighborhood. If you are not, here are some suggestions on how to find them. The first clue is the antenna. Many hams have huge antennas on their vehicles. Another thing to look for is a “call sign” license plate. A ham station call will have three to five letters with one number in the middle somewhere, such as N7CES or WA7UFS. Many hams are very public service–oriented, so when you see one, don’t hesitate to approach a ham operator and explain what Operation On-Target is, and ask if he or she would like to help. (It might not be a bad idea to approach the ham in uniform to help make a good impression.)
It would be a good idea to try to contact a ham as soon as possible. There are a limited number of them around, and there always seems to be other public service events scheduled that request their services.
When you do find a ham, you might want to invite the ham to introduce your team to amateur radio. Most hams are proud of their stations and their hobby and love to show them off. It also provides an opportunity for you to get better acquainted.
Check with your local council for radio frequency details.
Every year there are fatalities across the United States involving climbers and hikers. Many of the accidents are from just plain carelessness; some are from individuals not recognizing hazardous situations when they get into them.
Some basic mountaineering skills and some good common sense can go a long way in keeping you and your team safe in a mountain setting.
Don’t overestimate your potential or your knowledge of mountaineering. If the areas you’re planning to visit require special skills unknown by you and your team, or special equipment you don’t have, then don’t go. Pick a safer environment. Don’t gamble with your lives.
Ideas taken from Varsity Team Program Features Vol. II, Ken Cluff and Andy Gibbons. Ken is Editor for The Varsity Vision Newsletter and Andy is Western Region Area 2, Varsity Scout Committee Program Chair. Also from Program Features.