FernGutter

Once I was a Boy Scout in Wisconsin. It was great. For some merit badge we had to build a shelter out of stuff from the woods. Our troop didn’t earn a lot of merit badges but for some reason we decided to get this one. Our scouts were known for things like bringing more boxes of matches than underwear. We all had multiple boxes of “strike anywhere” matches and would sit around the fire flicking them at each other so they would ignite in midair. We had many shorts and lawn chairs with burn holes in them.

 Since the Boy Scout motto is “be prepared” we waited until the last day to get it done. Instead of making our own shelters (like we were supposed to) we decided it would be easier to do one big one together so we could all get the credit with minimal effort. The scout leaders were so happy we were doing anything they agreed that it would count.

Our plan was a tepee covered in fern bushes. After we set some logs against each other, we needed mounds of ferns. To speed up the process we cut them at the stem instead of cutting them at the frond. It was faster to stick the fern bushes in stem first (as if the log gaps were vases) than to lay the fern fronds lengthwise across them. By then the rain was already falling. 

We were supposed to sleep on the ground and things seemed to be going pretty good until we saw rain water pooling around our tepee floor. We waited until the leaders went to bed and snuck some cots in the tepee. Problem solved. But not really. A completely soaked cot and sleeping bag woke me up at about 3am. I realized that plants, by nature’s design, are shaped to catch as much water as possible then funnel that water to themselves. The way we placed them between the logs caused the ferns to funnel rain into the teepee. This may have caused us to get even wetter than we would have if we had just slept outside. Nobody wanted to wimp out after wasting all afternoon building, so nobody left the shelter. 

Our determination did not pay off. We did not get that merit badge for several reasons. As mentioned, we totally cheated by using cots. And, as it turns out we were only allowed to use materials that were already dead, as opposed to recklessly harvesting Wisconsin’s bounty. Usable materials were old dead trees or branches that had already fallen off. Not only did we cut down somewhere between 50-100 newly growing fern bushes, we also felled a whole living tree for the center support. We needed a center support because none of us could lash well enough to make a real teepee.

Cutting down a living tree is super against the rules for the merit badge for the camp, and just for life in general. You can’t just cut down trees, that’s usually illegal. Plus we were only supposed to use our personal knife, not an axe. When the leaders found us,  we had already chopped through half of it (the tree wouldn’t survive after that). They compromised by saying we could use it as long as we didn’t use the hatchet anymore. Maybe they thought we’d give up. But instead we had one of the scouts climb up as high as he could and the rest of us rocked it back and forth until it broke and he fell. As I said, we did not get that merit badge.

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