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Camp is a paradise for badge-seeking Scouts

(ran West, Beach, Seminole editions)

For boys from up and down Florida, the Sand Hill Scout Reservation in Hernando County is what program director John Barron calls "1,200 acres of Scouting paradise."

There are meadows and woodlands, a lake, a junior Olympic-sized swimming pool, a rustic but spacious dining-meeting hall with a huge fireplace, a few roofed pavilions and a trading post.

And every summer, there are lots and lots of tents. All in an outdoors tempered only minimally with civilization's necessities.

Perhaps nowhere else in Florida but at the weeklong summer camps at Sand Hill _ which is owned by the Gulf Ridge and West Central Florida councils of Boy Scouts of America _ can a Scout pursue requirements for some 50 of the 117 merit badges in the Scout handbook.

Boys ages 11 through 18 haul duffels, sleeping bags and bicycles into the five camps each June and July and typically achieve three to five badges, or at least get a start on them, Barron said.

Instruction for almost every outdoor merit badge is offered, said D.J. Pollock of St. Petersburg, an 18-year-old who has been a regular at the camp since age 11 and who this year serves as camp commissioner.

The spectrum of offerings includes camping skills for first-year attendees, nature and the environment, wilderness survival, climbing/rappelling, aquatics, shooting sports, handicrafts and more cerebral endeavors such as world culture and journalism.

Rank advancement and merit badges are the aims of the camps, Barron said, which attract as many as 200 campers each week. The cost is $150 per person for a cot in a two-man sidewall tent, three meals a day, instruction, coaching and even a little discipline for rare, unruly behavior.

Scout troops conduct fundraisers to finance their members' attendance, parents pay the fees, and "camperships" are available for the economically needy, Barron said.

Each day begins with reveille at 7 a.m. Five skills sessions are scheduled per day, and there are two activity periods when Scouts can work on their skills. The day also includes free swims, flag raisings and retreats, camp inspections and taps.

There's no TV, no video games and no computers. But commissioner Pollock says the kids grasp the outdoors mind-set, go with nature's flow and even cope uncomplainingly with soaking rain as they jog or pedal their bikes between program sites.

Thirteen-year-old Michael Cramer of Tarpon Springs was front and center before environmental station instructor Kathleen Johnson, 17, of Palm Harbor, as he told about his nature observation post, about which he would write a report.

"With the rain, my landscape has more grass than before," said Cramer, who aspires to be an Eagle Scout, which requires the environmental merit badge.

Shooting sports are one of the camp's main attractions, Pollock said, "because where else are kids going to learn it?"

Barron actually welcomed the rain.

"We have our lake back, so we're in much better shape than a year ago," he said.

The 100-acre lake had dried up during several years of drought, canceling classes in canoeing, rowing and motor boating. With canoeing and rowing back on this summer's agenda, motor boating instruction shouldn't be far behind, given all of the recent rain.

The efforts of Peter Hamilton, 16, of St. Petersburg to teach campfire building to first-year campers, the Pathfinders, were doused by the rain. His mostly 11-year-old charges huddled beneath a tarp, worrying that their bike chains might rust.

Temporarily out of mind were the knot tying, ax handling and compass reading they had pretty much mastered after four days of skill sessions. The campers do not fade after 6 p.m. dinner. About 50 of them assault the lighted climbing and rappelling tower and the COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) course.

The course includes a "giant's ladder," with rungs 6 feet apart, the "grapevine," a rope-to-rope swing high above the ground, and a 400-foot zip line. The climbing and rappelling towers rise equally into what seems from the ground like the stratosphere.

Pollock, who will be a sophomore this fall at St. Petersburg College, said his experiences at Sand Hill have led him to want to be either a forester or a Scouting professional. In an undertone, he admitted he wouldn't mind having the job of his mentor, camp director Joe Maxwell.

But, he hastily added, not unless Maxwell moves on or retires.

At the shooting range, Michael Ray, 11, of Largo counts the number of times he hit his target for his mother, Barbara Ray. Shooting sports are one of the camp's main attractions, said veteran camper D.J. Pollock, 18.

Jeremy O'Dell, 16, of Clearwater, who had held safety lines while fellow Scouts climbed, decided to outdo his buddies by climbing blindfolded. He also walked along a pole and cables nearly 50 feet in the air.

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