White water spawns spiritual growth

Teton High Adventure Base provides setting for LDS youths to conquer selves and pounding Snake River rapids

In a canoe, white water leads to white knuckles - and the folks at the Teton High Adventure Base wouldn't have it any other way.

Owned and operated by the Great Salt Lake Council-Boy Scouts of America, the base is 14 miles south of Jackson on the west bank of the Snake River. It is the center of operations for a summer of river running in the shadow of the Teton Mountains.But the high adventure base is more than water and wonderfully wet times - though it provides plenty of those. It also is a setting that builds strength of character as young men and women and their leaders guide tipsy aluminum canoes through the rocky channels of the big, powerful Snake.

It can be a bit scary at times - but always lots of fun.

And since the inaugural summer of canoeing here in the late 1950s, the river running challenge has helped strengthen physically and spiritually thousands of LDS youths who have participated. Souls are strengthened as young people tackle a tough river - and triumph. And there is plenty of time along the trip for prayer, scripture reading, reflection and heart-to-heart communication with priesthood leaders.

Most who have floated the river have done so as members of Church-sponsored Explorer and Varsity units, but hundreds more have had memorable summers working as river guides, cooks and staff members. Most have been from the Salt Lake City area.

This summer about 1,200 youths and their leaders navigated the 73-mile stretch of the Snake during the nine-week season from June 18 through August 18 in two- or three-day trips. They did so under the watchful eyes of 17 young river guides, 12 of whom were returned missionaries. Three others have or are awaiting mission calls, and the one non-LDS guide at the onset of summer was baptized in the river August 12 after working here four years. The new member credits his summer environment and the examples he has seen here with sparking his interest in the gospel.

Jeff Rowley, 21, recently returned from the Massachusetts Boston Mission and just concluded his third summer as a guide.

"For what we do, this is a very safe trip," Rowley noted. "People will swamp or will hit a log or tip, but there haven't been many serious accidents over the years. It's a lot of fun."

Rowley said when it comes to running the river, experience is the best teacher.

"You can't pick up a book and learn it, but it's something that comes with experience. We become expert canoeists by running the river over and over all summer long. The first time on the river in a canoe, I fell in probably eight times in a mile and a half. But with time, it comes. It's mostly balance and learning how to read the currents."

Rowley and the other guides are off Sundays and usually attend one of the three LDS wards in Jackson. They are often called upon to speak and teach, and often go to local Young Men activities during the week.

During their few days on the river with each group of visiting youths and their leaders, Rowley said they quickly develop close, trusting relationships as they help them safely make the trip.

Groups arrive at the base camp the evening prior to hitting the water, are bunked, fed and then taken by bus the next morning 48 miles upstream to just below Jackson Lake Dam in Grand Teton National Park to begin their trip in rubber rafts. Two river guides pilot the rafts among breathtaking scenery and a plethora of wildlife: elk, moose, coyotes, deer, osprey, beavers, otters, bald eagles.

Since the late 1970s, rafts instead of canoes have been required inside the park to limit noise.

After lunch on the river and an afternoon of floating, groups pull into a river camp 35 miles downstream from their starting point just outside the park. There they find their dry camping gear waiting in tents - trucked in from the base camp by staffers - along with a Dutch-oven chicken dinner, volleyball and horseshoes. There also is time at the river camp to wet a line and reduce the river's rainbow trout population, a favorite pastime. All meals on the trip are prepared by staff cooks. Young men are enlisted for cleaning up. Groups float every day of the week except Sunday.

In the morning after a brief orientation, it's into canoes - the first time for most - for 30 miles of white water paddling, arriving at the base camp that evening. River etiquette and especially safety are emphasized throughout the trip. Life jackets are a must when on the water.

Along the way most get wet by chance or choice. Many are swamped or tipped in rapids; others engage in water fights or plunge into the icy river to tip a leader's canoe.

At base camp, there are cabins for sleeping, staff housing, a dining hall, warehouse for canoes and supplies, basketball and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, campfire bowl and a trading post. Roughing it was never better. Groups dine on barbecued beef the second night, hot cakes the next morning and are back in the river for another half-day before pulling out and being driven back to the base camp for lunch. Then most groups are on the road for the return trip home.

For most of the past 12 summers, the Teton High Adventure Base has been directed by Bill Barnes and Sid Davis, executives with the Great Salt Lake Council-BSA. The two have helped integrate the operation into the fabric of the local community, opening the permanent base camp on council-owned property in 1979.

Prior to that, base camp was set up on leased land and was often moved from place to place along the river as circumstances changed.

"When the base camp was built, we really started professionalizing the operation and carrying larger numbers of kids," Barnes explained. "The program had started in the late 1950s with a few canoes and a couple of guides. They would take a couple of trips a week, starting with lake trips in the park, then gradually coming farther down the river. They used to carry all the gear in canoes and camp wherever it was convenient."

Barnes said about 70 percent of the participants are from the Salt Lake City area, a five-hour drive. Most of those are Church-sponsored units. The balance are Varsity and Exploring units from other parts of the country that learn of the program through their local councils.

Under the new Church budget guidelines, Varsity Scouts and Explorers can earn money for a council-sponsored activity each year, and the canoe base provides that experience under expert supervision, according to Barnes.

Andrew Johnson, a teacher in the Draper 6th Ward, Draper Utah North Stake, recently made the trip. He paid his way by helping a neighbor move dirt and digging weeds. Others earned money in a similar manner.

"It's been worth it," he said, after a day on the river. "I'd do it again."

Bishop Darrell Pehrson of the Murray 16th Ward, Murray Utah West Stake, floated the river in early August with youths in his ward. "I think it's a real growing experience. The young men got along well and did some things they didn't think they could do."

Explained Davis: "Bill and I try and provide a quality environment for the guides and for everyone who comes up on the trip. We do everything possible to minimize the risks. The guides' first responsibility is the safety of those going down the river. That's a lot to put on their shoulders. This provides them a good experience away from home where they are given some responsibility and a chance to find themselves."

Along with getting wet.

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