Scouts pedal and paddle in Denmark

E-mail exchanges lead to invitation to Danish jamboree; teens recount their three-week bicycle and kayak adventure

by Don Faber, Ann Arbor News staff reporter


Forget about pen-pal ties; today it all starts with email exchanges.

An unusual Danish-American cultural exchange began more than a year ago when Boy Scout Troop 8, of Ann Arbor's St. Thomas the Apostle parish, received a hit on its web site from the Erik Menved Troop in Denmark.

After exchanging several e-mails about differences in American and Danish culture and Scouting, Troop 8 was invited by the Menved troop to participate in a Danish scout Jamboree.  With that, the germ of an idea took hold.  Why not take the Danes up on their invitation, and turn the trip into a three-week cycling adventure in Denmark?

The Scouts set to work rasing money by selling water at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs and by odds-and-ends fund-raising.  the trip averaged out to about $1200 a boy, and it all came together July 29 when six members of Troop 8, along with two adults, boarded a plane for Denmark.

They had prepared by learning some rudimentary Danish and by taking along U.S. flag patches, Scouting insignia, and hackey-sacks to give away as icebreakers.

Tim Kieras, 17, did all the trip planning and logistics.  And when Northwest Airlines misplaced the boys' bicycles in Amsterdam, he didn't panic.  The bicycles soon showed up and the boys were on their way. 

For five of the six scouts, this was their first trip overseas.  Steve Zekany, 17, of Ann Arbor, said he thought the area was "a lot like Michigan, especially the plant life.  And Scouting's more common there, maybe because it's subsidized by the government."

Equipped with tents, sleeping bags, and food, Troop 8 often used a corner of a Danish farmer's field as a campsite.  At $1.50 a night, the price was right and the lodgings were part of a network of approved farmer sites.

Bob Geier, Scout coordinator, said the boys even got some press coverage.  "The small town newspapers all ran big spreads, some with photos," he said.  Apparently U.S. troops touring Denmark by bicycle are still fairly rare.

They logged about 850 miles by bicycle in Denmark and southern Sweden and even did two days worth of sea-kayaking among the islands.  The kayaks were rentals, and the boys stayed in sheltered inlets of the North Sea. 

A highlight of the trip was staying on an island after a day's worth of vigorous kayaking.  It certainly was memorable for Seth Dawson, 14, of Ann Arbor, who got seasick from the experience.

Geier said there were many outstanding moments from the adventure.  The young men "really enjoyed Copenhagen, where there was a scout hut right in the city," he said.  "They stayed where with a host troop.   And on another occasion, the Danish Scouts took us out in a traditional Danish sailing vessel, all hand-crafted wood and square canvas sails that's used to teach sailing skills," he said.

A particular touching moment for Geier, a 14-year volunteer with Troop 8 and a former member of the Ann Arbor Board of Education, occurred in Vejens.

"We were running late when this guy pulled up in a car and offered to set us up in a campsite he knew about," Geier said.  "He gave us honey and juice and said that 'people around here do things for Americans and Brits whenever they get a chance, because this part of our country was occupied by Nazis.  It's a special thing to send your own sons to war to free another people.'   They wanted to let us know they remembered.  Well, it brought a tear to my eye."

The Scout Jamboree itself was a three-day event in Horsens, toward the end of the boys' trip.   The Danes tend to have multiple scout associations, some of which are independent, some affiliated with churches.

The Americans tried to make Yankee meals from Danish ingredients such as pasta, Geier said.  They also found their sweet tooths were different from those of their hosts.  The Troop 8 boys found Danish pepper candy "awful" while the Danish scouts were appalled by the sour candy the Americans were handing out.  The Americans also found that Danes usually don't warmly greet strangers, although the Scouts found one another more than social.

The "coolest part" in Kieras' opinion, was getting to know the Danish kids.  "We met five different troops," he said.

The Scouts learned that Europeans get a lot of information - or is it misinformation? - from television images of the United States.

"The Scouts there wanted to know if our cars are exploding all the time," Dawson said.  "And they thought all Americans were fat and had big guns, impressions they got from the media."   Zekany said: "They think America is all lawyer shows and cop shows and Jerry Springer.  I find that disturbing."

Other images taken home by the Americans were of adults "who smoke a lot in public places" and of "all kids our age having cell phones."

Other Scouts making the trip were Chris Hannaford, 13, David Westrin, 17, Zach Norman, 16, and Ian Darnell, the other adult chaperone who functions as high adventure adviser.

The group has invited Troop Erik Menved of Horsens, Denmark to come to Tree Town.  In case they take up the offer, Westrin said he's staying in email contact with "Jasper," who reported that the cost and exchange rate are big barriers, but he'd like to come to the States.