Back in the depths of lockdown, our Group was less than a year old. We were still very much in the phase of establishing an understanding of what Scouting is in our Young People and, having put so much time and effort into setting the Group up for them, worked really hard from the outset to provide a quality programme for them online. Our first Zoom meeting was in the same week that Boris shut the country down and those early meetings were a huge success. It quickly became apparent, though, that in order to maintain our fledgling membership, we’d have to really think outside-the-box to maintain virtual attendance and interest in Scouting values.
This led one of our Leaders to attend what was billed as an “International Scouting Meeting” with the idea that we could use the time to forge online links with scout troops around the globe; something we’d not have looked at in normal times. When the meeting took place on 25th April 2020, we were somewhat underwhelmed to see that only Scouter James from Canada and one other Cub leader from the UK showed up.
Nevertheless, we pushed forward with plans for a Sunday afternoon meet-up on Zoom and almost all of our Troop turned out in full uniform to find out more about Scouts across the pond.
During the Zoom call, and those that followed, we found out about Scouts in each others’ countries and even worked towards badges on each others’ programmes.
It was at the end of that first meeting, though, that everything changed.
Rafe, one of our youngest Scouts at the time (and top right in the picture above) asked very meekly once the Canadian Scouts had left the call, “Can we actually meet them? Like really, meet them in Canada?”
Now, it may be that we were still very green as leaders or it may be that we were more committed to YouShape than we had perhaps realised, but our reply was immediate: “What a great idea… Of course!” – it was the start of our Adventure.
Over the following months, we carried out a huge amount of research about what an International trip entailed. Remember, at this point, our Troop had only managed to squeeze in a single-night sleep over in tents on our meeting place’s school field. For our Scouts and some of our Leaders, that was their sole experience of Nights Away. Fortunately, my wife and I have been teachers for over 25 years and have run many residential trips so knew how to organise residential activities from a school point of view. We had a lot of early support from Devon’s ACC (International), Paul Charlton who gave us every encouragement to move ahead with this idea and be brave. Our Exec sprung into action as well, embarking on a £10,000 fundraising adventure of their own in order to offset some of the costs of the trip. They attracted funding from a myriad of sources and, an important aspect for the Leaders, the Scouts themselves worked tirelessly throughout the period raising money – whether clearing an overgrown campsite for hard cash, or turning out for more Bingos and Curry Evenings than we care to remember.
Over the next two and a half years, that idea from Rafe gradually became a reality. The accommodation was booked at the amazing Blue Springs Scout Reserve near Acton, Ontario (Google it, it’s an amazing place…) and a basic programme gradually put together with the Canadian Scouters James (who had unwittingly initiated the whole thing back in April 2020), Chris, Larry, Bruce and Roxanne. We had a huge sign-up from our Scouts despite the financially difficult times and ended up booking 31 seats on BA0099 from Heathrow to Pearson International, Toronto, for Half Term week in 2022. We were all set.
And so finally, 22nd October 2022 came around and we were ready to leave our rural north Devon village with 26 Scouts and 5 Leaders to travel a quarter of the way around the globe:
We left Woolsery at 8am and walked through the doors of the Ridley Lodge building at Blue Springs near Toronto 19 exhausting hours later. For some of our scouts, this was their first flight; for many of us, our first long-haul experience. There was an unreal feeling that, at last, our Adventure was underway.
The first few days were spent on the Reserve. We had deliberately left our programme on the Reserve very flexible because we knew the Fall weather in Canada could be fickle and would dictate what we could and couldn’t do. We were blessed, however, with unbroken sunshine and unusually warm temperatures. Our Lodge looked out on a huge field, surrounded by beautiful forest.
The Scouts were enjoying their first morning in Canada and taking things very easy to keep Jet-Lag at bay but after a while, it because apparent that almost all of them had sloped off into the woodland and there was a lot of chatter which we didn’t recognise. It was one of those magical unforeseen moments of the whole trip: Our Scouts had come across 138th Toronto Scouts who were bivvying in the Forest for the weekend. Without any interaction from Leaders on either side, the Scouts had met up, shared Scouting (and other) stories, exchanged neckers, badges and social media tags – our Scouts were beginning to experience the worldwide family of Scouting first-hand.
The Scouts gradually got to know the Scout Reserve, exploring the lakes and pathways, taking part in archery and obstacle courses and generally settling in.
As Canadian schools don’t have half term breaks, we weren’t able to meet with our hosts, 1st Milton Scouts, until the Tuesday evening when their whole Group – Beavers, Cubs and Scouts – came up to Blue Springs to share a Camp Fire with us. We sang songs, performed skits, ate food, swapped more badges and got to meet some of the Scouts we’d only seen on Zoom. It was a perfect evening.
During our time at Blue Springs, we also went off-site on an 8km hike along the Guelph Trail – partly formed by an old railway line as well as some very scenic pathways through former Maple Syrup woodland, The Sugar Shack Trail. This was a great experience for the Scouts to see a bit of “real” Canada in full autumn colours and see the Reserve as part of the surrounding landscape.