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Scouts learn life lessons on Melita Island

MELITA ISLAND — It was a Norman Rockwell scene — warm golden light, Boy Scouts playing cards in a big log lodge, a crackling fire, drifting smoke, the snick and clunk of knives slicing watermelon for lunch overlaid with the hum of voices, laughter and music. Songs such as, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” played. 

Outside, skies were grey and spitting rain on the Melita Island Boy Scout Camp on July 30. 

The camp is 64 acres of fun and learning. Beginning about the middle of June, approximately 125 to 130 Boy Scouts per week travel to the island on a Sunday and stay until Saturday of the following week.

On the island already are about 15 staff members, 50 adult leaders and two-to-four visiting instructors each week. Several staff members are female, and visiting instructors bring their families so it’s not an all-male bastion, according to Larry Shadow, Melita Island Camp Director. 

The scouts arrive at Walstead Fishing Access near Big Arm and are ferried to the island in one of three arks, old pontoon bridges retrofitted as boats. Each ark can seat 22 scouts as well as haul their gear. 

Driving one of the arks, Ward Dossche meets many of the scouts and hopes their experience rivals his.

“Scouting changed my life,” Dossche said. 

From Belgium, Dossche first came to the United States in 1972 and reported to a scout camp in Babb, Mont.  

“I knew … Keats, Shelley and William Shakespeare, but I couldn’t order from a menu,” he said.

Dossche credited scouting with learning disaster mitigation skills and picking up people-handling skills while dealing with a nice cross-section of life. Now, after a career as a successful businessman, Dossche is back in Montana for scout camp and enjoys teaching kids.

Boy Scouts come from all over Montana as well as other states such as Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington. Each troop and its Scoutmasters set up camp, pitching their tents, unrolling sleeping bags and designating a campfire area. Outhouse and porta-potties are available for the campers, as troops supply members each day for the service patrol while the scouts work in the kitchen or help with cleanup or overall camp maintenance.

One scout from Livingston was slicing cheese for lunch. He said service patrol was not so bad since he got to talk to the cooks and listen to the music in the lodge.

Water-related merit badges are available for scouts, since the camp is located on Flathead Lake. In fact, Melita Island Scout Camp is the only place a scout can earn a board sailing award. 

The island also boasts a fleet of donated watercraft, ranging from catamarans, speedboats, sailboats, kayaks and canoes, all of which the scouts can learn to use, some with adult supervision. The boys can also learn to swim and progress all the way through lifeguarding.

“Kayaking was the most fun of all the things I learned,” said Maxim Brozobsk, from Livingston. 

Brozobsk also earned merit badges in pioneering, carpentry and environmental science.

If a Boy Scout is not interested in marine activities, he can pick up basic carpentry skills, cook over a campfire in a dutch oven, learn to shoot an air rifle, handle a gun safely, take up archery, carve wood or work with leather in the handicrafts area or other of the 50 merit badges offered.

Matthew Zulke, 12, from Livingston said, “Rifle shooting was awesome.”

Zulke also took up carpentry and learned some survival skills. 

During the week, Scouts work in 50-minute sessions to earn their merit badges and finish up on Friday morning. Friday afternoons are reserved for raft races and other all-camp games. 

Barrett Neall, 11, from Livingston Troop #516, received his first merit badge on July 30 in rifle shooting.

“I’ve been a Boy Scout since last year,” Neall said, “and shooting is cool.” 

Neall celebrated his merit badge by learning how to clean his air rifle, instructed by Randon Brock, Bozeman. 
 
Derek Hickman, 13, from Spokane, Wash., earned four merit badges. His favorite badge to earn was geo-caching cause he’s not a water sort of guy. Fellow troop member Kyle Miller liked camp because “it’s on an island.” Miller said he enjoyed rifle shooting.
 
Merit badges are an important part of scouting, but Shadow said the kids are allowed plenty of time to gather at their own campsites.
 
“Some of the most important growth happens around the campfire at night,“ Shadow explained.
 
Scouts learn the reason for chores and why it’s important to do their part. For instance, fires do not happen without wood, and wet towels do not dry very well if they’re wadded up in a tent.
   
Scouts may go anywhere they wish on the island, Shadow said, although they are asked to use the buddy system and go in pairs. The west side of the island has been left undisturbed so there is hiking territory available.
 
The Montana Boy Scouts raised $1.5 million to buy Melita Island in 2005 from Fred and Harriet Cox. The island easily was worth $4 or $5 million, according to Shadow.
 
The Coxs had owned Melita Island for 10 to 15 years and had planned to build a house on the island. The Melita Island Boy Scout Camp tries to add improvements each year. This year the new building is a shower house.
 
“We (Boys Scouts) feel the Coxs are our biggest contributor,” Shadow said.
 
The showers came from a Forest Service truck used at fire camps, Shadow said. The rifle range was new last year, and the dock was completed two years ago.
 
All meals are eaten in the main lodge on tables made of lumber cut and milled on Melita Island. 
 
Cook Judy Newlon from Missoula prepares three meals a day for 250 to 280 people for the eight-week camp season. An active scouter herself, Newlon has been cooking at the camp for at least five years, and she works miracles in the kitchen with three staff members and service patrol scouts from each troop. There is no dishwasher, however.
 
“These are the dishwashers,” Newlon said, holding up her hands.
 
Bins for wet garbage, paper and plastic are set up for recycling since trash has to be bagged up, hauled to Walstead and then to the landfill. Incinerators on the island burn the paper garbage.
 
Dealing with the trash is one of Howard Haslam’s jobs. Haslam is the ranger on the island. He first came to Melita Island in 1971 and spends from three to five days a week on the island year round.
 
Since the forest on Melita Island is mature, Haslam cuts down dead and sick trees during the off-season, and saws the trees into lumber using the camp’s $30,000 sawmill. He also built himself a cabin on the island this year. It cost $76 and was made from Melita Island lumber.
 
Shadow has been involved in scouting for almost as long as Haslam, since he was a kid in Arkansas. He said he likes to watch kids learning new skills as well as the maturation of the teenaged staffers who spend the whole summer teaching.
 
Fifty years ago, Shadow said he was at a Boy Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colo., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of scouting. He said he didn’t think he would be here for the 100th anniversary of Boy Scouts.
 
“I must like it (being involved in scouting) or I wouldn’t do it,” Shadow said. “It’s nice to see the smiles.”

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