The Capers Island Fire

As the father of an extremely active twelve-year old son, I would like an opportunity to express my views concerning the world of Scouting in general and Boy Scouts in particular. I was fortunate enough the second weekend in April to witness Scouting in action, and I would encourage every parent to consider Scouting as an activity well worth the time and effort it takes to participate.

My son's troop, BSA Troop 33 from Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina, announced their planned camping schedule for this spring back at Christmas, and encouraged parents to go along on any or all of the camping trips. One in particular struck me as interesting, so I signed up to go along April 16-18, 1999 to Capers Island, SC to camp. Salt water runs in my veins, and hiking mountains tends to tax my lungs at the 35% rate, so a nice beach camp-out sounded like fun. Capers Island is located at the extreme southern end of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge just north of Mount Pleasant, SC, and is an uninhabited, natural barrier island accessible only by water. It is home to countless species of waterfowl, alligators, red wolves, raccoons, and is a protected nesting site for the loggerhead sea turtle. Capers Island, like Bull Island to the north and all of the Cape Romain National Seashore is a protected refuge for wildlife and is allowed to remain completely natural.

capersisland.jpg

Two Scout leaders, Mr. William Woods and Mr. Dennis Smith (known affectionately to Troop 33 as "The General") and I departed Friday evening with a group of 16 scouts for the trip to Mount Pleasant. The local scout troop at Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church had graciously allowed us the use of their fellowship hall to sleep in Friday night so we could be at Moore's Landing early Saturday to catch the ferry to Capers Island. All the scouts got in their sleeping bags on the floor of the hall and we spent a restless night as 16 boys tried to get to sleep. Surprisingly, there was a pink moon in Mount Pleasant that night, but that is another story for the campfire. Saturday morning dawned, and we loaded up and embarked for the landing.

Moore's Landing is the beginning point for a trip to Bull Island in Cape Romain. Troop 33 had to charter the ferry, as Caper's Island is not a regular stop. The ferry normally runs to Bull Island, and that is where the majority of people go. After dropping off "the civilians" and a group of Girl Scouts on a day trip, Captain Bob of Coastal Expeditions turned the ferry for a 45-minute ride down to Capers. We landed on the north end of the island near a creek, the scouts unloaded our gear, and we put our packs on, and began a hike along the beach for about a mile to a campsite in a palmetto grove. Tents were unpacked, expertly set up and the campsite secured for cooking. All our food items had to be placed in "bear bags" and hung from high tree limbs so the local raccoon population wouldn't have a family reunion at our expense.. Once the camp was set up to the satisfaction of the Scout leader, the boys were on their own to explore the island. Observing the scouts, I noticed constant direction and instruction by the older scouts in teaching the younger ones the fine art of cooking, camp cleanliness and order, use of their knives in a safe manner, and countless other things that I didn't realize my son even knew. Hiking and exploring were done by the buddy system. No scout was allowed to leave the camp site without his buddy. "The General" explained that buddies were necessary in case a scout had a confrontation with a snake or an alligator, or was injured and needed help. That way, one could render aid or could at least return to camp and tell someone his buddy was in trouble. The system worked well, and we didn't lose a single scout to a marauding alligator.

As a parent along on this trip, I had almost a whole day to explore, observe, and learn on this beautiful barrier island. Two miles of beach covered in dead oaks and palmetto trees is known as "Bone Yard Beach". The captain of the ferry had explained that, as a natural area, the sea islands were left to their own devices, and natural erosion and hurricanes over the years had left many live oak and palmetto trees on the beach. As salt water encroached on their root systems, the trees die, some fall over, and others inexplicably live. The action of waves, wind blown sand and salt turn the trees a bleached white color and a glance down the island's beach instantly explains the name "Bone Yard Beach". The south end of the island is covered in palmetto trees. As a native South Carolinian, the sight of so many Palmettos together inspired a certain amount of pride seeing our State Tree in such abundance in its natural habitat.

After the scouts had taken a very cold dip in the ocean, a fire pit was dug in the sand, and a small campfire was expertly built. Dinners were cooked and eaten, and as darkness fell, we all sat around the fire and talked while the sounds of the waves rolling in provided calming background music. The older scouts took the younger ones on the required snipe hunt, and after returning snipe-less, most of the younger scouts called it a night and crawled in their tents. The leaders and older scouts sat up for a while, then we all turned in about 11:30 PM. My son was instantly asleep, and I lay in my sleeping bag tired, drowsy, and content. The waves crashed and roared, and a gusty sea breeze blew against the tent. The temperature dropped into the low 40's, but I was warm. I listened as the raccoons, who had obviously been sitting in the woods watching for the last light, descended on the camp scavenging for dropped food morsels. I remember thinking that a lot of the younger scouts had not followed instructions to clean up their belongings, and that the shoes, clothes, and equipment they had might be gone in the morning- a prize for an enterprising raccoon.

Just as sleep began to creep over me, a new sound came to my ears. It was the "thump-thump" of a helicopter coming closer. As the sound grew, I thought, "Boy, they sure are flying low." Just then, my tent lit up like it was morning! A searchlight had been cast on our whole camp site. The helicopter moved further south and I remember thinking that it sure was good that someone in the wildlife department checked up on the campsites. Then, the helicopter approached again, lower and louder, and hovered over us! I unzipped the tent flap and looked out, The 'copter had moved about 200 feet north and landed on the beach. One of the leaders went to see what was going on, and when he came back, he had a look of absolute terror on his face. I asked him what was happening, and he said, "It's the Sheriff's Department. We have to pack up and evacuate to the north end of the island. There is a forest fire about 200 yards south of us, and the wind is driving it this way!"

I remember getting a real sick feeling at this news, and I went into our tent and woke my son.

"Logan, we have to go. Let's get packed. There's a forest fire!" I said. My son was instantly awake, so I went with the other leaders to wake up the rest of the scouts and get ready to break camp.

Panic gripped most of the younger scouts. Many were just standing still, not knowing what to do first. Some were crying and others were struggling just to wake up.

One scout had his younger brother along, and was hugging and comforting him in the midst of all the confusion. As I moved through the camp with my flash light, I heard a lot of the younger guys looking for shoes and pants and other equipment they had left strewn around their tents. We were not in immediate danger from the fire, but as I looked south, there was a ruddy, orange glow in the night sky, and thick smoke rising up, only to be caught and dispersed by the constant wind. Several of the young guys came to me asking for help packing sleeping bags and finding items. I knew that Mr. Woods and the General were going around camp like I was, trying to help others as well as pack our own gear. As I held a flashlight for two scouts rolling their sleeping bags, I noticed things were calming down a bit. I looked for my son, and I saw that he was helping another of the young scouts take down and pack a tent. The three other older scouts had expertly and calmly packed their equipment, cut down the "bear bags", and were helping the younger guys get organized. Panic was not in evidence on any of their faces, nor in any of their actions. Calmly, these four scouts moved through the campsite, helping, giving directions, and calming fears of the younger, less experienced boys. I went over to my gear. My son had already packed it all.

Within 30 minutes of the sheriff's warning, the troop was ready to move. We went out on the beach, and hiked a mile through wet, sinking sand back to the point that the ferry had dropped us off. The sheriff's department had already alerted the Coast Guard to our dilemma, and they were on stand-by. Fortunately, Mr. Woods had the latest technological breakthrough for Scout Leaders - the cellular telephone. We were able to get a signal, and reached the ferry boat captain by phone. Captain Bob and his wife got up, drove to the ferry from their home 40 miles away, and took the cold 1 hour ride back to Caper's Island at 2:30 AM. There they picked up a cold, shivering troop of boy scouts and an even colder and stiffer parent, and ferried them back to the landing and out of harms way. The rest of the night was spent in sleeping bags less tents, and when the dawn approached, we packed up the church van and returned to Rock Hill.

It is difficult to write this, because the thoughts of what could have happened still haunt me. But most of the difficulty doesn't lie in the parental fear of the harm that could have befallen the group, but the inevitable pain and happiness of seeing a child become an adult. That cold, windy, scary night in the orange glow of a forest fire, I saw a man dressed as my son. I saw knowledge, skill, calmness, and compassion that I didn't think a twelve-year- old boy could have. I saw four gears of a well-oiled machine born of countless merit badge classes and camp-outs mesh and work together perfectly as a team. By day, these sons of ours were playing and splashing in the ocean, burying a comrade in the sand, chasing fiddler crabs, collecting sand dollars, and doing the things children will do. But, when danger approached and time was of the essence, I saw the true meaning of the Scout Motto "Be Prepared". I have no doubt in my mind that each of these four young men, Michael Becker, Chris Garrison, Charlie Tomberlin and my son Logan will grow into the type of leaders that this country so desperately needs. My thoughts of thanks go out to the adult leaders of Troop 33, Jeff Nieberding, William Woods, Dennis Smith, Greg Adams, and several others who selflessly give up their precious time and energy to work with and teach these young men the many skills they have all learned over the years as scouts. These skills enabled them to calmly take charge in a dangerous situation and turn it into an experience for the entire troop to learn from and remember.

Scouting changed for me this weekend. I no longer look upon Scouting as one of my son's hobbies, but one of the most essential components in his life. The skills he has learned so far and the lessons he has yet to learn will continue to shape and mold him into the man he is to become. As his father, I can never be more proud than I am today to say, " My son is a Boy Scout". I would encourage each and every parent to have their children consider Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as an activity. I hope that no other scout troop has to come this close to danger, but if they do, you can rest assured and be proud that your young men and women will perform admirably and well. I know that I am.

Footnote: At their scout meeting Monday, April 19, Troop 33 unanimously voted to make a return trip to Capers Island next spring. I , for one, will definitely be on that ferry me, and a young man that I am truly proud to call my son.




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