The "Ravens" shed their backpacks and dropped a length of twine into a muddy Potomac slough yesterday, hoping to hook some more catfish where the river spreads wide at the Seneca Breaks, 20 miles upstream from the Washington area where these hikers used to smoke grass, burgle homes and punch school teachers.
For 13 days, this band of maladjusted school kids who had never done much of anything in their 14 years except get into trouble, had trekked 160 miles through snow, muck and dust down the entire course of the C&O canal towpath.
Although most of them read at only fourth-grade levels, they kept journals. They watched Canada geese and black snakes and were lulled to sleep each night by owls and the murmuring river. Most importantly, for kids who had run away from their problems in the past, they stuck to their plan.
"Where kids who have a history of failure succeed at something, it's a great thing to see," said Robert Griffith, a counselor at the For Love of Children Wilderness School in West Virginia where the expedition was hatched.
The Wilderness School, founded in 1972 on a wooded tract near Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah River specializes in teaching youths between the ages of 9 and 15 to resolve behavior problems.The pupils, many of them from the Washington area, are enrolled by parents, public school officials and even courts as an alternative to detention. It is a vigorous outdoor-oriented program in which the youths learn drafting and carpentry, actually constructing shelters in the woods.
There were originally 10 Ravens -- one of four groups at the school -- but one of them "decided he preferred the detention center to the hike," Griffith said.
But with just 22 more milestones to notch to complete a two-week odyssey that began March 10 at the canal's western terminus in Cumberland, Md., the long journey was anything but an ordeal for the Ravens fishing and taking a breather at Lock 23 yesterday.
"I can't believe we've hiked this far. We're breaking the school record," said 14-year-old Vincent, who says he used to "smoke reefer and punch my teacher for no reason."
"It looks so long," he said, holding up a National Park Service map of the canal. "One night we saw 80 Canada geese. They landed on the river above us. Then they took off. It looked just like a sleigh taking off."
"It was just a white streak taking off from the water," said 14-year-old Nathaniel.
"It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen," wrote 15-year-old Skip in his dog-earred spiral notebook.
"These are guys who would lie down after five miles with no packs and complain they were tired," said 22-year-old counselor Dave Turner, remembering the two practice hikes the Ravens had made on the Appalachian Trail. "Yesterday they hiked 17 miles with packs. The only reason they could succeed is that they got sucked together as a group. It's something they'll look back on their whole lives."
The red bobber at the end of the catfish line suddenly jumped.
"Mike," Skip cried. "Aw, it's gone. Man, you don't know how to fish."
"I was talking man," said 14-year-old Michael.
"You're supposed to be fishing, man, not running your mouth."
On the way to the start of the hike a fight broke out in the car, and camp counselors Turner and Jim Jenkins had their doubts that the trip would get off the ground.
Then four days out, a blizzard struck and the beleaguered hikers trudged through eight inches of snow and debilitating cold. That night they found shelter in a Park Service trailer, and were warmed by a special menu of canned spaghetti and Milky Way bars the "chiefs," as the trip leaders were called, had procured from a local store off the canal. But the trailer started to crack apart. Skip noted in his journal: "I couldn't dream about my family because when I started dreaming about home the trailer would start cracking."
"That was hard, hiking in the snow," Vincent said. "The snow was up to my knees. I stayed back, walking in other peoples tracks."
As the group went further along, inspecting canal locks, studying plants with their leaders and learning about igneous and metamorphic rocks, the grim reality of freeze-dried food, known to hikers the world over, dawned on the Ravens.
The beef stroganoff, which the group had chosen in their extensive planning weeks before the trip, particularly disturbed Danny.
"It didn't taste too bad," he recalled. "But it didn't do right with your stomach."
Still, the 15-year-old who said he "didn't get along with his parents" conceded, "I'd rather be here than locked up."
The Ravens blamed the stomach ailments that beset a number of them on their food and on the water they had to drink -- an all too wild elixir of the muddy Potomac whose microorganisms they eliminated with iodine.
"It tasted like jet fuel," said John 14.
After a scape in which, according to Skip's journal, one of the Ravens was bitten in the pants leg by a wounded woodchuck that had been attacked by the group's black labrador retriever, there were more serene encounters with river wildlife -- beavers, two swans, a couple of snakes. Skip learned to tell male and female mallard ducks apart, and Vincent plucked the feather out of a dead duck he could use to "clean my ears." They caught catfish, which they sliced and cooked on a stick and they watched the river ebb and crest with the changing weather.
"The river keeps you awake at night," Danny said.
"It's taught me a lot of things," Vincent said.
By the time they hit the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry, where they were resupplied with food and their packs increased again to 50 pounds, the Ravens had tough feet, and the squabbles over Tootsie Rolls and who had the most room in their army issue tents had all but died out. The counselors were still worried that as they got toward the metropolitan area the fitful Ravens might be tempted to strike out for their old haunts.
"We had a conference," said Turner. "We asked them, 'Are you going to run?'" The hikers said no, and that they wanted to finish the journey as a group.
They got no fish yesterday, but no one minded. They were looking forward to a celebratory dinner of real food that the "chiefs" had promised them when the two-week journey was done. They shouldered their packs, and set off for the city.