Biting the heads off bait fish isn’t something 14-year-olds Michael Sinnott or Will Schriewer would normally do, but at the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base in the Florida Keys, they were living in the moment.
“It’s tradition,” the boys, members of Boy Scout Troop 439 of St. Francis Borgia Grade School, said, smiling.
“There was an aftertaste, though,” Sinnott admitted. “Everything I drank after that tasted like dead fish.”
Tanya Guehne, one of five adult leaders who accompanied the Scouts on the trip June 6-12, disagreed about the flavor — “It didn’t really have one,” she said.
But the story the island mates told the group about tradition got to her too, and she grabbed a fish, bit off the head and spit it out.
None of the other adult leaders could believe she did it. In retelling the story for them, she shrugs her shoulders. “It’s tradition.”
Sea Base is one of the Boy Scouts of America’s three high adventure programs along with Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico and the Northern Tier High Adventure Base in Minnesota.
Activities at Sea Base include sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, rustic camping on an undeveloped barrier island, shark fishing and deep sea fishing . . .
Unlike the other camps, Sea Base allows co-ed groups to attend, both boys and girls ages 14 to 20.
The local group that made the trip last month included eight Boy Scouts from Borgia’s Troop 439 — Sinnott, Schriewer, Sam Schonaerts, 14, Cole LaPlant, 15, Brandon Guehne, 15, Matt Eggert, 14, Shawn Eggert, 17, and Drake Raftery, 15 — plus one girl, 18-year-old Jessica Wissmann.
There were five adult leaders, Pete Schonaerts, Tanya Guehne, Michele Wissmann, Tim Raftery and John Eggert.
Together they made up Venturing Crew 2439.
Sea Base offers 11 programs which are assigned by a sort of lottery system. Crew 2439 was assigned the Out Island program, which was similar to the Keys Adventure program they had been hoping for.
The Sea Base website likens the Out Island program to the TV reality show “Survivor.”
The crew set up camp on Big Munson Island, an untouched, uninhabited island that was gifted to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in 1982.
Located three miles offshore from US 1 and four miles inshore from Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, which is famous for its reef formations, the island is one of just a few in the Keys “that remain as they were when the pirates first rowed ashore in search of fresh water and game to provision their galleons,” the Sea Base website, www.bsaseabase.org, reads.
It’s primitive, to be sure. There is no electricity, running water, restrooms or any modern conveniences.
One of the requirements at Sea Base is that crew members leave all technology behind. They turn over their cellphones, even watches.
In preparing for the trip, Crew 2439 had a vision of arriving to a beautiful tropical paradise, and it was just that, once they got past the smell of the floating sargassum (a type of algae) that surrounds the island.
“It’s overwhelming,” everyone in the group agreed, their faces twisted into various expressions of disgust.
And because the water surrounding the island is so shallow, the crew couldn’t pull their boats right up to the beach. The only way to reach the shore is to get out of their canoes and actually wade through the sargassum.
“Then when you step on the beach there are millions of these jumper bugs,” a Scout recalled.
The crew’s gear had been delivered for them to a floating dry dock, so crew members had to wade their gear ashore. Food was provided in a large trash can left on the dock, and crew members had to wade it, along with the water jugs, onto the island as well.
So while the scenery is beautiful, the experience is work, and that’s kind of the point, said Michele Wissmann, who has been involved with Boy Scouts since her son, now age 21, was involved.
“The point is to challenge them,” she said, “to get them out of their element.”
Any complaints or grumblings were met with what’s called the Munson shout — island mates yelling “Adventure!” to remind the offending crew member of the reason for the trip.
Like so much of Boy Scouts, the leadership and work of the trip was shouldered by the youth, the adults in the crew said. That included all of the cooking and meal planning.
“We caught some mahi mahi and the boys filleted it on the dock, put it on ice, hauled it back to the island and cooked it,” Michele recalled.
There’s a lot of planning that goes into even just attending one of these high adventure camps. Scouts have to apply for the opportunity far in advance. The Sea Base website notes it already has crews planned for 2013.
Out Island Adventures
As challenging as the experience was, it was more fun than anything, the Scouts said. They each had their favorite adventures.
Night snorkeling was the favorite for Cole LaPlant.
“I was the only one who didn’t get stung by a jelly fish,” he said, noting they used flashlights to see.
Sam Schonaerts loved snorkeling at Looe Key and seeing all of the sharks and big fish.
Both of those were at the top of Will Schriewer’s list, but so was something called buoy rodeo, where the Scouts would be on the dock sitting on a buoy with one hand on both the front and back of it, and then jump in the water to see if they could stay on it.
Michael Sinnott said his favorite adventure was deep sea fishing.
Brandon Guehne appreciated the quieter moments on the trip, just lying in the hammock. He also liked the unstructured activities.
“Just sitting around not doing anything but making our own fun was my favorite part,” he said, recalling how they climbed the gumbo limbo trees for fun one day.
Another time they made cups out of bamboo that floated up on the beach.
“We did a lot of things that were very impromptu like that,” Brandon commented.
For the adult leaders of Crew 2439, experiencing the trip with their child made it special.
“I went to Philmont as a Scout myself, but it was a treat to go on this high adventure with my son,” said Pete Schonaerts, adding it was equally as special to experience Sea Base with the other Scouts who made the trip because most of them had been part of his son’s troop since they were 5 years old.
Tanya Guehne agreed.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with my son,” she said. “I loved the whole island experience.”
Her most memorable moment, however, was catching a nearly 5-foot-long nurse shark and the process that was involved in doing it.
“You have to walk out to the (floating) dock and attach the bait — this mesh bag with fish chunks — and then walk back to the island,” said Tanya.
“Then later you walk back out to the dock — where you are trying to attract the sharks,” she said, with a laugh.
After she snagged the nurse shark, the crew snapped photos and then they released it back into the water.
Michele Wissmann enjoyed deep sea fishing the best, and “seeing all the smiles when they caught fish.”
Before the crew left Sea Base, they organized an island improvement project, another requirement of the camp.
A crew can come up with their own idea or select one from a list of suggestions that the camp provides. Crew 2439 opted to use some of the floating sargassum to build up a berm to keep the beach from eroding.
Many of them found it ironic that they spent an hour actually picking up and handling the very thing that caused so much disgust because of its smell when they first arrived at the island.
“The smell is gone by the end,” said Michael Sinnott. “You don’t even notice the bugs or the heat . . . you’re having too much fun.”