Homemade Handcarts and Trails of Skill


A modern-day Mormon Encampment recaptures the spirit of the early pioneers

In the early days of the Church, the call went out for the Saints to gather to Zion, and they gathered. Those in Europe and other lands over the sea risked hazardous crossings by boat, then joined other emigrants for the tedious, long-distance journey by wagon or handcart to finally reach their destination. It took a hardy breed to survive.

A remnant of that pioneer hardiness endures today, if the LDS Boy Scouts from five stakes in the Potomac and Capitol regions of the Church are any indication. When their leaders sent the call for them to gather in a wilderness area 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., they came, almost 300 of them, 400 including adults. And they brought with them handcarts they had built themselves.

“We wanted participants to learn what it was really like to be a pioneer,” explained Kevin Rees, 17, the youth director of the encampment. “So we combined elements from the experiences of the first pioneer company with the experiences later faced by the handcart companies. Then we added in some training on Scouting skills and physical fitness, because we felt pioneers needed to have skills like that, too.”

The entire activity, called the Mormon Encampment, was directed by Kevin and his committee of teenage Scout leaders. Adults were nearby as advisors, but Kevin and crew organized and conducted the events mostly on their own.

The 400-plus member group was divided into two companies, Camp Zion and Camp Cumorah. From the beginning there had been rumors of mobs, and sure enough, that night as campfires were just being built, messengers ran through the camp carrying an urgent letter.

“Should it be necessary to flee for safety, each family should be prepared to do so at a moment’s notice,” it said. “Take with you all that you will need, but only that which you will need. You may have no time to prepare later, so do so now.”

Within minutes, the warning became a reality, as a mob (actually it was adult leaders and youth leaders) formed and started toward the camp areas. The soon-to-be pioneers took flight.

On the road they faced the perils of Indian attacks, mudholes, broken wheels and axles, chasms and “cliffs” to cross, and heat and fatigue. But through cooperation and teamwork, every handcart finally arrived at the mouth of “Emigration Canyon” to be personally greeted by Regional Representative Julian C. Low. Dressed as Brigham Young, Brother Low delivered a lecture about the colonization efforts of the Saints and the growth of Salt Lake City.

At stops along the route, the Scouts had received instruction in rope making, knot tying, first aid, handcart repair, and pioneer-style cooking. They had also crossed a monkey bridge, slid on a block and tackle, plotted a course through dense underbrush using a compass, and devised a rope system for ferrying carts across ravines. They had also earned awards for “best handcart” and “best company banner,” although no prizes were given for speed.

“We didn’t want the trek to turn into a race,” 17-year-old Brian Meacham, the encampment’s youth commissioner, said. “There was no winning or losing, except that everyone who finished won. Just like the pioneers, the object was to get everyone to the valley.”

“I had ancestors who came across the states in a handcart company,” said Travis Taysom, 13, of the Suitland Ward, Suitland Maryland Stake. “Here we got to go through the same things they went through. It taught me just how much work it was.

“It showed us about teamwork, too. If you don’t have everyone pulling together on the rope to get up that hill, you just won’t make it. On some Scout camps you can relax and let somebody else do all the work. But here you knew that if you didn’t help, it wouldn’t get done.”

Danny Sulzen, 14, of the Falls Church Ward, Oakton Virginia Stake, said, “This is work, but it was only five miles. I think it would have been a lot tougher if we had been with the real pioneers. We only did this for one day, not for more than 100 days in a row like the pioneers did.”

In fact, talk about pioneers was common. It seemed almost natural when someone along the trail struck up a chorus of “Come, Come Ye Saints,” or when, encouraging Scouts to find their own solutions to challenges, a troop leader would say, “Well, what would the pioneers have done?”

Perhaps one of the most poignant comments came from Paul Orchard, 13, of the Hampstead Ward, Baltimore Maryland Stake, when someone asked him if he would have given up on the real pioneer trail. “I’m sure there would have been times when you felt like throwing in the towel,” he said. “But the prophet would have told me to keep on going, so I would have kept on going.”

The handcart trek wasn’t the only activity at the encampment, however. Another entire day was spent on the Challenge Trail, a marathon combining Scouting skills with athletic competition. Different stations along the trail included an obstacle course; archery competition; an air rifle marksmanship contest; a handicap trail, where participants were blindfolded, then led over a course including old tires, balancing beams, and collapsed tents; a fox hunt, a search through underbrush to find a concealed box; a nature recognition path, requiring Scouts to identify plants and other natural objects; orienteering, using a compass and an aerial map to plot and traverse a trail; push-up, sit-up, pull-up, and sprinting contests; and a return to Brownsea Island to see and experience the activities of the first Scout troop as organized by Lord Baden-Powell.

And there was still more! Since the encampment was held at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on land belonging to the U.S. Army, Scouts also got a tour of the base and demonstrations of firefighting operations, tanks and heavy equipment, and bridge construction. They also visited a nearby military museum.

For the Blazer Scouts, who at age 11 are not allowed to stay overnight, there was a backpacking excursion as well. There was also an Indian dancing demonstration by members of the Order of the Arrow. And for everyone there were the surprises nature always provides—sudden rainstorms, gusty breezes, verdant scenery, poison ivy, and the joy of discovering a yellow wildflower or a bright orange toadstool.

Todd Rolapp, 12, of the Potomac Ward, Washington D.C. Stake, said he felt like an ox during the handcart trek, “because I had so much weight to pull,” and after the Challenge Trail, “my muscles ached and I almost didn’t finish the obstacle course.

“But,” he added, “I slept real good at night.”

Maybe that’s how pioneers felt when they reached camp at night—worn out, but content. It’s a pretty safe guess that most of these Scouts felt the same way Saturday morning as they loaded up their gear one last time to head for a welcome destination—home.

Photos by Richard M. Romney

[photos] “There’s no race, no winning or losing,” Sky Best, assistant camp director, told some young men who were running ahead of another group. “The only winning is to bring a handcart safely into the valley. You’ll have to help each other. Cooperate, don’t compete”

[photos] “Unlawful marauders have plundered and pillaged the homes of our brethren on the outskirts of the city and threaten to strike Nauvoo itself,” warned a mock letter from President Brigham Young. That same night, just at dusk, the pioneer trek began

[photos] “Our entire objective was to combine Scout skills with our pioneer heritage,” explained Quentin West, encampment director. “The pioneers used many of the same skills while crossing the plains, and we wanted our Scouts to know why it’s important to learn in advance”

[photos] “We had to organize ourselves, just like the handcart companies did,” Randall Clark, a Scout from McLean, Virginia, said. “The youth leaders organized and directed everything that went on and delegated assignments down to each handcart team. It all ran smoothly”