Winterfest, the massive annual event for Explorers and Venturers, blends serious competition with serious fun.

BEACH BALLS FLY. Multicolored lights bounce in time to a youth-selected mix of Lorde, Mumford & Sons and Kesha. T-shirt cannons blast their bounties into the waiting arms of screaming teens.

Shantrell Haddock, an Explorer from Milledgeville, Ga., Post 139, rests on her way up the rope climb.

The convention hall is reverberating, but from his vantage point alongside other adults in an out-of-the-way alcove, Winterfest chairman Scott Sorrels breathes a sigh of relief.

It’s Saturday night, and the 40th annual event is coming to a successful close. Winterfest, held in the mountain resort city of Gatlinburg, Tenn., brings together Venturers and Explorers from a dozen surrounding states for serious competition and serious fun.

Explorers make up 60 percent of the attendees, and almost all of them are Law Enforcement or Fire and Emergency Services Explorers. Exploring is part of Learning for Life, an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America.

In Exploring, men and women ages 14 to 20 learn about real-world careers while gaining life skills, citizenship, character education and leadership experience. That means even those young people who aren’t interested in camping or hiking can experience a values-based program that’ll help prepare them for life and a career.

Winterfest tests Explorers in situations faced every day by their real-life counterparts: drunken-driving traffic stops, extracting victims from car wrecks, even getting dressed in a hurry to go fight a fire. The scenarios are fake, but the takeaways aren’t.

Venturers, smaller in numbers at Winterfest but no less active, choose from an eclectic mix of activities. They build and race cardboard boats, go rock climbing, play dodgeball or just stroll around the teen-friendly environs of Gatlinburg’s main drag.

Organizers call Winterfest the nation’s largest gathering of Venturers and Explorers, a claim that’s hard to verify but easy to believe, considering an attendance of 3,105 young men and women this year.

Sorrels helped plan the very first Winterfest in 1974, and he says it’s come a long way since that first year, which “was basically a DJ, a strobe light and a microphone.”

“The first event was here in Gatlinburg and could fit into a hotel ballroom at the Holiday Inn,” he says. “That’s half the size of just one of the rooms we’ll use this time.”

Winterfest, now held at the 148,000-square-foot Gatlinburg Convention Center, hasn’t just grown in attendance. This year, Explorers and Venturers choose from a record 70 different activities, a number that’s sure to increase next year thanks to Sorrels’ ingenious strategy.

“I guarantee one volunteer will come up to me and say, ‘I’ve got an idea for an event,’ ” Sorrels says. “And I say, ‘Can you come back and run it next year?’ ”

the Cardboard Box Regatta is less serious but equally competitive. Chris Pruden (front) and Alex Porter of Loganville, Ga., Crew 6820 paddle valiantly.

WHY ADD A SAIL to a cardboard boat being raced indoors?

Alex Swaine doesn’t have time for questions like that. The 17-year-old Venturer from Crew 566 of Warner Robbins, Ga., simply says, “Why not?”

If the crew’s boat looks a little silly, that’s kind of the point. In 30 minutes, the Venturers will toss the boat into a pool and send one of their members paddling frantically to the other end. In the Cardboard Box Regatta, silly is unavoidable. The regatta is one of those events a volunteer suggested to Sorrels years ago, and now it’s one of the most popular.

Crew 566, though, is competing for the first time. The crew just formed a month ago; Winterfest is its first outing. Not a bad start.

“Just the idea of making something and getting to see if it works is phenomenal,” says Alex’s dad, Advisor Steve Swaine.

Let the adults consider the project-planning and teamwork skills being formed here on a chilly February morning. Alex and his fellow Venturers have a boat to build.

“Dad, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Alex says, adding another piece of tape to the boat’s gunwale.

The design for the boat — sail and all — was formed 12 hours ago from equal parts insomnia and maple syrup.

“Late last night we did some brainstorming,” Alex says. “We rolled in here on about five hours of sleep and pancakes and bacon. I don’t think it’ll sink.”

Unfortunately, that optimism doesn’t pay off.

The whistle blows, and the boat sinks almost the instant it hits the water, as if it were made of lead. By the time it arrives at the other end of the pool, the sailboat is a shapeless jumble of cardboard and the paddler is swimming alongside.

The soggy mess finds its way to the recycling heap, but Crew 566’s Venturers still have huge smiles — and a plan.

“We’re going to go with a different design next year,” Alex says.

Members of Cobb County, Ga., Explorer Post 33 (far left) move an 85-pound dummy through the Last Resort obstacle course.

THE BLACK BOX might not be the most enjoyable event at Winterfest, but it’s probably the most important.

In a fire, the final life that needs saving is a firefighter’s. That often means escaping through wires, walls and a maze of burning wood — all with almost no visibility.

The Black Box simulates that scenario. Fire Explorers put on full gear, including an oxygen tank, and flip their flame-resistant balaclava backward so they can’t see.

Then they enter the Black Box, a mystery enclosed in a 5-by-15-foot container. Nobody but the Advisors who designed the box knows what’s inside. It could be a tangle of wires and ropes, or it could be a wooden maze.

This year it’s a maze, requiring tight 90-degree turns a human body isn’t designed to make. It’s tough even if you aren’t blinded and wearing 50 pounds of gear.

The evil genius behind this torturous teaching device? Matt Asbell, a firefighter from Dalton, Ga.

Chapel Hill, N.C., Venturer Jason Byrley of Crew 505 has one goal: Escape the V-Squeeze.

“They have no clue what it is until they get inside,” he says. “We’ve not let anybody get to know it. And they’ve loved it every year.”

As someone who’s been into and out of dozens of burning buildings, Asbell knows the importance of training. “Every fire is different, but this is as close to the real thing as it gets,” he says. “It gives each and every person the idea of what the job is like. I call it an apprenticeship program.”

The next apprentice is Bailey Ledbetter, a 17-year-old Explorer from Post 2060 of Helena, Ala. She ducks inside and winds her body through the maze, squeezing through 16-inch-wide spaces meant to simulate the gap between studs in a wall. She keeps pushing through and emerges about a minute later. She busts the exit open and rips off her helmet.

“It was a lot more chaotic than I was expecting,” an out-of-breath Bailey says. “You’re running into everything.”

Bailey makes it through just fine, but if she had gotten stuck, the top of the Black Box can be removed, and help is just a few feet away. (Actually, at a gathering of police and fire professionals, help is always just a few feet away.)

Asbell says Winterfest’s competitions work because of that ability for Explorers and Venturers to fail gracefully and try again and again.

Or as he puts it, “It’s a good way for them to test the waters without having to tread in them.”

THE CLOSING CELEBRATION — complete with beach balls and the T-shirt gun that organizers dub the “best $50 we ever spent” — is intentionally adult-free.

Yes, you’ll find event chairman Sorrels and others standing along the sides and in the back of the convention hall, some even tapping their feet along to the pop music.

But both masters of ceremonies are youth members.

“I do not want an adult touching a microphone the entire weekend,” Sorrels says. “You’ll see only youth talking and emceeing at these events.”

Tom French, another Winterfest organizer, looks out on the crowd at the closing ceremony. The teens had fun, nobody got hurt and another successful Winterfest is in the books.

“It’s crazy. It’s amazing what a bunch of volunteers can do,” he says. “You can’t explain this at a roundtable. You have to see it.”

Southern Region Venturing President Maddie Culwell (bottom left) shares her goals for the movement at a roundtable with fellow Venturing youth leaders, including Zachary Muldrow, an area president.

Inside a fancy-looking conference room, you’ll find the Southern Region’s youth Venturing leaders.

The conference tables are arranged in a large rectangle, but the chairs are empty.

Turns out, the Venturers have crawled under the tables and into the enclosed space inside the rectangle. In this makeshift fort, they sit cross-legged and discuss serious issues facing Venturing in 2014 and beyond.

Topics include finding adult leaders: “Parents are there for Cub Scouts, parents are there for Boy Scouts, but they disappear for Venturing.” And improving relationships with unit commissioners: “My commissioner will be all for [a new idea] when we talk to them, but they never visit or follow through.”

The roundtable shows a beyond-their-years understanding of the Scouting program and its volunteer and professional structure at all levels. And the dedication demonstrated by youth like Southern Region President Maddie Culwell is impressive.

She’s even willing to give up sleep to help her fellow Venturing leaders.

“I am in college, and my sleeping patterns are not regular, so call me anytime,” she says. “Even if it’s 3 a.m., it’s fine.

“You know how when teenagers are bored they pull out their phone and get on Facebook? Me, I’m bored and I see if I have any texts or emails from my area presidents.”

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