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Up to the Challenge

Robert Baden-Powell, the legendary founder of the Boy Scouts, had a knack for teaching lessons his students didn't realize they were learning.

"He kept it fun," scout leader Mark Foster said. "That is the whole idea of the Ego Challenge. You do all this great stuff, then afterward you say to yourself, "Wow, I can't believe I did that.' "

For five weeks this summer, groups of scouts pushed their bodies and minds to the limits as they hiked, biked and paddled through the woods of Hernando County. At no time were they more than 40 miles from their base camp at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation, but they might as well have been in the Amazon jungle.

"It gets hot, muggy, buggy and wet," said Seamus Bradley, a 17-year-old Boy Scout counselor from New Port Richey. "There were times when the trail turned into a river. But we like the rain. It keeps the bugs away."

Scouts sign up for the $150 program with a sense of adventure and the chance to earn merit badges and build confidence.

The scouts patterned their program after the world famous adventure race, the Eco-Challenge. But because the scouts wouldn't compete against anybody but themselves, they called it the "Ego" Challenge.

In a typical session, 20-25 scouts arrive on a Sunday and have an orientation process, which includes a medical checkup and swim test.

"We had one scout who heard what we had planned for the week and he decided to go home," said Kyle Schmidt, an 18-year-old instructor from New Port Richey. "He said he wanted air conditioning and his own bed."

On Monday, the first real day of activity, the scouts rise at 6 a.m. then hike to the new climbing wall and ropes course where they learn to climb and rappel.

"The hardest part for most scouts is taking that first step," Bradley said. "Some people have a hard time going over the edge."

The ropes course features 12-, 24- and 36-foot towers, as well as climbing and "bouldering" walls.

The scouts are strapped into a safety harness so there is little danger of injury, but occasionally somebody lets out a little too much rope.

"They hesitate and end up upside down," Bradley said. "We call it the tea kettle."

From noon to 2 p.m., the scouts stop what they are doing and take a siesta.

"It is just too hot to do anything," Foster said. "We try to have them conserve their energy."

Then, after the ropes training, they embark on their first hike, a 4-miler into the woods, where they set up camp and feast on a dinner of jambalaya and summer sausage.

"We don't have any special meals," Foster said. "If you can't buy it at Wal-Mart Supercenters, we don't want it."

The scouts are divided into five, four-man teams, and each day they share the cooking and other camp chores.

"A big part of what we try to do here is teach teamwork," Foster explained. "It is like they say in the movie White Squall: Where we go one, we go all."

After a restless night in a hot tent, the scouts are up again before dawn to embark on another hike, this one a 12-miler. Midway, they stop for a breakfast of Pop-Tarts and granola bars.

"In the evening, we sit around and talk," Foster said. "We pick a subject like Star Wars, then everybody has a chance to express their opinion. It helps with team-building and it counts toward their public speaking merit badge."

Foster has been a Boy Scout, in one capacity or another, for 21 of his 29 years. He said the organization has been challenged in recent years to keep scouts interested, as more outside activities compete for their time.

"We lose a lot of kids to sports," Foster said. "But we encourage parents to bring the kids back when the season is over."

On the second day, the scouts hone their canoe skills on the Withlacoochee River, and that night they work on their astronomy merit badge. The next day they canoe back to the starting point then hit the trail on the mountain bikes.

"That is probably the most physically demanding part of the Ego Challenge," Foster said. "But so far we haven't had anybody drop out."

Wednesday afternoon, the scouts learn to use a map and compass. Then they try their newly acquired skills on a 1-mile, 12-point orienteering course.

The next morning the scouts explore some of the better-known caves in the depths of Withlacoochee State Forest. After a lunch of canned tuna, crackers and oranges, they hit the trail again, and on the way pass a convenience store where they are each allowed to eat as much junk food as $5 will buy.

Afterward, they hit the water again, this time in sea kayaks on the Chassahowitzka River. "This is a chance for them to cool off," Foster said. "And this is where we see some of our best wildlife."

So far this summer, different scout groups have spotted otter, deer, turkeys, wild pigs and a black bear.

On Friday, the scouts split up into sailboats and motor boats to travel out to a small wreck in 15 feet of water off Hernando Beach. They do some snorkeling, then switch roles _ those who sailed, motor and those who motored, sail _ before returning to their "Sea Base" at Bayport.

That night, the scouts write, direct and perform a play for the other scouts and counselors. "That is the highlight of the whole week," Foster said. "It is usually really funny."

By Saturday morning, the scouts are ready for the comforts of home.

What did they miss the most?

"Ribs," 16-year-old Daniel Martinez of Miami said. "All I want is a big, fat plate of ribs."

"Hot shower," said Travis Baldwin, a 17-year-old from Oldsmar. "I am sick of being sweaty and wet."

But Cory Dewell, a 14-year-old from Palm Harbor, was looking forward to something most of us take for granted.

"Porcelain," he said. "Nice, clean porcelain. It is as simple as that."

Boy Scout Ego Challenge

The West Central Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America launched a program in the summer called the Ego Challenge. This seven-day, 70-mile adventure trek in and around the Withlacoochee State Forest is loosely patterned after the internationally acclaimed adventure race, the Eco-Challenge. The scouts conducted five Ego Challenges in the summer. The last one finished Saturday. Here is a breakdown of the events:

Backpacking: 7 miles.

Canoeing: 20 miles.

Biking: 22 miles.

Kayaking: 5 miles.

Ocean sailing: 15 miles.

Caving: 50 feet down.

Ropes course: 50 feet up.

Scouts earn the following merit badges in one week: astronomy, camping (partial), climbing, forestry, pioneering, small-boat sailing, wilderness survival, backpacking (partial), canoeing, cooking, orienteering, public speaking and theater. For more information, go to wcfcbsa.org.

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