Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
A refurbished Camp Sawyer opens
Scouts about: Outdoor activities abound, sunset views amaze

It could be the most picturesque Boy Scout camp ever.

The windswept waterfront stretch of Scout Key that is home to Camp Jackson Sawyer at the Edward B. Knight Scout Reservation, as well as the Girl Scout Camp Wesumkee -- named for the island's former moniker, West Summerland Key -- boasts million-dollar ocean and sunset views, palm trees and other tropical foliage.

Now, with recent renovations to Camp Sawyer complete, the southernmost Boy Scout camp in the USA can boast million-dollar facilities as well.

"This place is really deluxe," said Cub Master Matt Cooper, whose Miami-based Troop 361 was the first Scout group to enjoy the new facilities, two weekends ago. "Even the fire circles are new, and the shower facilities are really nice. This is actually like condo living."

But despite Cooper's happy surprise at the many upgrades made to Camp Sawyer since his last visit, neither he nor his Cub Scouts came down here to live indoors.

"Right now they're crab hunting in the rocks," said Patty Schmucker, whose 9-year-old son, Nathan, was one of 30 or so Cubs taking part in the weekend gathering. "They could do that all day long."

Shortly after arriving on Friday evening, the Cubs, all of whom are in the first- through fifth-grades, set up their tents, lit a roaring campfire, and then set about cooking tacos on a grill.

Over the course of the weekend, the Scouts, their 11 siblings, and their parent-volunteers fished, played kickball, and learned about fire safety, how to pitch tents, whittlemanship, and "most importantly," according to Cub Master Cooper, "how to have fun together."

"We also teach them about wildlife conservation," Cooper added. "How endangered species got that way. What happens when the cycle of life gets disrupted."

During the day, the Cubs headed to Key West to visit the Eco-Discovery Center, and took in the Civil War Heritage Days re-enactment at Fort Taylor.

"They had a ball," Cooper said of the field trip.

Besides new restrooms and volleyball courts, Camp Sawyer now has an outdoor amphitheater, improved campsites and activity areas, and new rangers' quarters. There's also a new parking lot.

"The camp has been closed for two-and-a-half years while we were doing this," said Camp Sawyer Program Director Baron Bieber, who also serves as the district executive for Buccaneer District, which includes the camp. "But the planning goes back even further, about six or seven years, with the fundraising. It took a little longer than expected, but we're pretty happy with the results."

Of the $2.3 million total price tag for the camp's rejuvenation, a $1 million boost was provided by Key Wester Ed Knight, who serves on the executive board of the South Florida Council Inc. Boy Scouts of America.

"We had known years ago that we were going to have to do something about the bathrooms down there, because they were pretty bad at the time," said South Florida Council executive and CEO John Anthony. "We showed the plans to Ed Knight, and he pledged $500,000, and another $500,000 if we could match his initial contribution. We had sold a camp elsewhere in the state, so we used some of the proceeds for Camp Sawyer. It was actually going to be an even bigger project, with expanded cooking facilities, and a 40-bunk dorm, but we ran out of money."

Knight, who was honored at a South Florida Council dinner three years ago, was instrumental in making the new camp a reality, Anthony stressed. "Scouting is something that has been near and dear to his heart. He wanted to leave a legacy that the boys would be able to enjoy for years to come, and that's exactly what he did."

And with or without indoor cooking and sleeping at Camp Sawyer, there are those million-dollar views to cherish -- as well as the whole Scouting experience.

"It is primitive camping on the Atlantic Ocean," Bieber said. "We don't have a cafeteria or commissary or educational facilities. We do offer limited camping programs, including skills like canoeing and kayaking, swimming and snorkeling. Most of the Scouts who come down do take part in other activities."

Older Scouts, in particular, may take advantage of the Keys' "high adventure" camps, owned and operated by the national Scouts organization.

"You've got the National Sea Base in Islamorada," said John Anthony, "And the Britton Center in Summerland Key. The Scouts can do sailing and scuba there. There's even a program at the National Sea Base, where they fly to the Bahamas to sail for a week."

There's also the possibility of expanding Camp Sawyer in the future, to include the dorm and cooking area left out of the current plans.

"That's going to depend on the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District," Anthony said. "We'll have to see what happens. But in the meantime, we like our little camp just the way it is."

Scout troops must make reservations to stay at Camp Sawyer. Other youth groups may inquire about staying there by emailing john.anthony@scouting.org.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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