Hollister venturing crew returns from Louisiana trek

ON THEIR WAY Eric Spandri (from left), Autumn Salinas, Taylor Villalpando, Sommer Salinas and Anton Borges gear up before the trip. Submitted photo

As the new school year begins, so will the slew of questions commonly asked among classmates. One line of popular inquiry is, “What did you do over summer vacation?” 

For five Hollister teenagers, their answers will be anything but typical.

The San Benito Venturing Crew 402 (open to 14- to 21-year-olds), of the Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, braved a six-day, six-night, 61.6-mile high adventure canoe trek through the BSA Louisiana Swamp Base in Lafayette, La. They departed for the Hub City on July 16 and returned to Hollister on July 24.

“At their age, I would have never done something like this,” said Crew 402 Adviser Maria Spandri. “I’m just excited to have these fierce scouts, boys and girls, up for the challenge and the adventure.”

The crew, consisting of nine boys and girls ages 14-17, was chosen to trek Swamp Base after entering its Facebook giveaway in October. 

“We would have never gone to Louisiana,” Spandri said. “I don’t think I could have talked them into going.”

When Crew 402 was randomly selected from 2,300 scout troops in December, though, it prompted them to make fast preparations to partake in the adventure. Winning, Spandri said, “pushed them to go.”

But first, the crew members, as well as Spandri and assistant adviser Tina Gines, had to meet the physical requirements of the BSA.

“Most of these guys are all active in sports,” Spandri explained. “So they did their own preparation trying to get their cardio.” 

Spandri herself lost 40 pounds due to the BSA’s weight guidelines, and crewmembers used high school sport activities such as track and cross country, volleyball conditioning, basketball conditioning, and lacrosse conditioning to help build the endurance necessary for the trek. 

“Swamp Base sent us recommendations on what we needed,” Gines said. “Actually being able to paddle for 19 miles that first day was a daunting idea.”

With the six-day trek planned out for the crew, and with physical requirements and recommendations met, the crew felt prepared for the adventure. But just prior to their departure, mother nature created a diversion.

Word that Hurricane Barry was to hit the Louisiana area during their scheduled trek caused four crew members to stay home.

“It really scared a lot of people,” Spandri said. “The water was six to 10 feet higher than normal.” 

Eric Spandri (Maria’s son), Anton Borges, Taylor Villalpando, Sommer Salinas and Autumn Salinas went ahead with the trek. 

Fortunately, after Hurricane Barry touched down on July 11, it was downgraded to a tropical storm. But high waters still proved daunting—as well as the rigorous path laid out before them. The first three days were spent paddling on the swamp, traversing 19 miles the first day (“The first day was our toughest one,” Gines said), 10 miles the second day, and 14 miles the third day. All the while, the crew experienced overnight firsts: sleeping on a houseboat and sleeping in hanging hammocks on Rougarou Island. 

Once arriving at Island Outpost on day three, the crew was able to spend the night in cabins, and spend day four relaxing.  

“The fourth day was a play day,” Spandri said.  “We did our service hours; we did our paddle boarding and fishing and duck swamp tours.”

As the crew was nearing the completion of its trek, Swamp Base staff decided the weather was too daunting to continue.

“They actually took them off the swamp,” Spandri said. “They did part of their trek in the hotel. [Swamp Base] was pretty serious about our safety. Then they had their last day out on the swamp.” 

Paddling 17.6 miles through Lake Fausse Pointe and Grand Lake, the crew completed its trek with an 800-foot-long Swamp Stomp Portage. 

“We had to take the canoes and all our gear over a 25-foot levee,” Gines said. “And not just up and over. It was up and over, across the road and down the grass.”

Though they were physically prepared, the crew came across various physical and mental challenges. 

“Initially, everybody was so afraid of everything,” Spandri said. Spiders, thunder and lightning, and alligators kept the crew on their toes. 

“One person’s strength, or non-fear, helped whoever had a fear,” Gines said. “Anybody who really didn’t have an issue worked hard to get others OK with it.” 

As for the alligators, though present in the swampy waters, they didn’t want anything to do with people. 

“That’s a myth about the bayou; it’s all untrue,” Spandri said.

But with the waters higher than usual due to the storms, Spandri said they were canoeing through the treetops. 

“That was one of the most difficult things—you have more spiders and critters and more branches to go through.” 

And when canoeing through one spot, “all of a sudden water just dumped,” Spandri recalled. 

“We couldn’t stop; we had to go through the wind, the rain, the lightning and the thunder,” she said. “They had to work together as a team to get off the water.”

It was this teamwork that bonded the crew, something that hadn’t been achieved since the crew formed two years ago. 

“They just started bonding,” Spandri said. “You could just tell by the way they were paddling. Everybody was [initially] not in sync, but by the end everybody was working as a team.”

Autumn shared Spandri’s sentiments. 

“I know before this we weren’t as close, and now we just laugh about everything kind of like a big family,” Autumn said. “We probably won’t go back to Louisiana; it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I don’t think I’ll ever have this experience again.” 

Eric also agreed on the unique experience.

“Looking back on it, I never thought I’d do something like that, but I’m really glad I did,” he said.

The trip was particularly impactful on Anton, who now has hopes to attend a university in Louisiana, as well as starting a crawfish program with the BSA program there. 

“I just fell in love with Louisiana swamp,” he said. “I’m going to go back and stop there when I graduate high school.”

Spandri is particularly grateful to the community sponsors who helped cover their travel expenses. Without them, she said the crew “would have never done anything like this.” Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 9242, District 12 VFW, Don Chapin, Napa Auto Parts, Brian Holt, Great Oak Water of San Jose were all sponsors of the crew. Their donations, as well as the crew’s spaghetti feed, made their travels possible. 

Next summer, the venture crew hopes to head to a base camp in Hawaii.

But the adventure of paddling on a swamp won’t be easy to upstage.

“This is something I hope they’ll remember for the rest of their life,” Spandri said, “that this crazy lady took them to the swamp!”

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