What’s happening at the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base?

Sign at the Aquatics Base boat house 1
The Boy Scouts of America sign at the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base is barely legible. (William Paine/The Patriot)


The Patriot


For nearly two decades, the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base has provided the Boy Scouts of America, easy access to a myriad of aquatic activities, as well as the opportunity to earn merit badges relating to nautical activities. The docks and boathouse of the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base are situated in a cove across the water from Claytor Lake State Park. The Claytor Lake Aquatics Base, along with Camp Powhatan and Camp Ottari are all located in the heavily rural Snowville/Hiwassee side of the lake. The Blue Ridge Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) owns all three properties and large swaths of land in between.


According to Bob Drury, the Director of Field Services for the Scouts, the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base first opened in 2005 and continues to serve the needs of the Scouts BSA by offering lake-based summer activities for scout troops from as far away as Texas.


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Blue Ridge Scout Reservation Director Bethany Brownfield and Director of Claytor Lake Aquatics Base Charlotte Shelor at the Claytor Lake Aquatics Center boathouse . (William Paine/The Patriot)

These days the Claytor Lake Aquatic Base remains vacant for most of the year but for five weeks in the summer, scouts from all points of the compass come to swim and play in the waters of the New River. Aside from the Scouts, the only other visitors this year to the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base was a rowing team from Braddock Secondary School that stayed in the cabins for a few days last Spring. Otherwise, the cabins have remained unused.


Those who’ve approached the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base by water have likely noticed a large sign on the hill behind the boathouse. The sign notifies the public of an online auction for the property, which took place in August of 2022. The sign has remained in place for more than a year but as of this writing, the sale of the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base has yet to be finalized.


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Troop 174 from Charlotte, N.C. along with a camp counselor, are heading into the waters of Claytor Lake on their last full day of camp. (William Paine/The Patriot)

The 68-acre property which makes up the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base includes a huge hexagonally shaped dining hall/conference center, 16 compact cabins, a large bathhouse, two efficiency apartments, a 2-story home with garage, a boat house, a climbing wall and numerous   docks fronting 2000 feet of shoreline.


The auction company listed a suggested price of $3.5 million for the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base property. An assessment made in 2015 by the Blue Ridge Mountain Council Inc., lists the combined value of the 63 acres of land with buildings at approximately $2.3 million.


The sale of the property is deemed necessary because the Scouts can no longer afford the upkeep of the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base, especially with no one staying in the cabins.


“There just isn’t that much demand for it,” explained Drury.


The necessity of selling the Aquatics Center stems from several factors starting with the nationwide decline in enrollment in the Scouts BSA. COVID restrictions closed the Aquatics Base in 2020, along with its sister scouting ‘reservations’ of Powhattan and Ottari. The Claytor Lake Aquatics Base was open again in 2021 but attendance was low, which was no doubt related to the masking and social distancing restrictions that campers and counselors alike were required to obey.


Another potential factor that may relate to the sale of the Aquatics Base is that in 2020, in the face of numerous lawsuits stemming from allegations of sexual abuse by some scout leaders, the B.S.A. declared bankruptcy. Whether this played a role in necessitating the sale of the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base isn’t entirely clear but on a nationwide level, the Scouts lost around 40 percentage of their membership from 2019 to 2020. Other controversies, including the admittance of openly homosexual scout leaders in 2015 and the acceptance of “transgender” scouts in 2017 may have also negatively affected membership.


It is generally acknowledged by those involved in Scouting that the sale of Aquatics Base is a matter of when, and not if, it will be sold … but there is hope for some accommodation.


“It would be really nice if someone bought it and we could continue using the Aquatics Base but we’ll see what we can get,” said Blue Ridge Scout Reservation Program Director Bethany Brownfield. “Reservations for Claytor were low this year, so it’s combined with a different High Adventure program called New River Adventure. Kids can go rafting, caving, horseback riding and they can also choose to be out here on Claytor doing SCUBA or personal watercraft.”


All three camps are in use but unlike in years past, the Scouts no longer stay in the cabins at the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base. Instead, Scout troops make camp at Powhattan and a contingent of 35 to 50 scouts are bussed to the Aquatics Base in the morning. The Scouts eat a bag lunch and after spending more time on the waters of the New, they are returned to Powhattan in time for the evening meal.


Just as the 16 cabins at the Aquatics Base remain vacant throughout the summer, the large central space of the huge hexagon-shaped building goes virtually unused. Even so, those Scouts who do visit the Aquatics Base are given the opportunity to enjoy the lake at the height of summer.


“The Aquatics base offers sailing, paddle boarding, canoeing and jet skiing to scouts who come to camp but they must be at least 14 years old,” said Brownfield.


“Having the kids on speed boats is a popular activity,” said Charlotte Shelor, Director of the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base. “Our Personal Watercraft (PWC) have been really popular and the kids love to go tubing behind the speedboats. So that’s probably our most popular activity among the scouts this year. The kids do like to get in the kayaks and play around in those. We have water skis but they’re in storage.”


“Usually, we do not have anybody here on Monday except for a special S.C.U.B.A. class, who have their own separate group,” Shelor continued. “Tuesdays and Thursdays we have a Claytor Free day and we ask the kids what they’re interested in and usually it’s speed boats but those are the days where we offer a wide variety of activities.”


As Shelor explained the scheduling, a half dozen scouts from Troop 174 of Charlotte, North Carolina were donning their life vests. These boy scouts were all between 15 and 17 years old and had taken the Personal Watercraft safety course the previous Wednesday.


“We’re all going out on jet skis,” said Conner Janezic. “We all have our boater licenses.”


“It’s really nice to be out on this big lake and getting into the water while it’s hot,” said Brian Hogg.


“It’s really awesome … If we come here again, we’re coming back to the lake,” enthused Daniel Charnley. Fellow scouts Joseph Walsh and Max Norton nodded to signal their full agreement.


It was Friday in mid-July and these campers were scheduled to return to North Carolina the next day. Earlier in the week, these scouts passed a PWC safety course and, with the accompaniment of a camp counselor, were ready to enjoy their last day on Claytor Lake.


A whole new set of campers was due to arrive by 3 p.m. that Sunday.


Twenty-four-year-old Bethany Brownfield, who acted as a guide for the day, has been involved in scouting from an early age.


“My dad works in scouting, so we moved around a lot when I was a kid,” said Brownfield. “He was a camp director when I was born but I wasn’t allowed to join the Boy Scouts as a girl until I was 14 when I became a Venturer because Venture Scouts are Co Ed.  So, I did that and I then worked at a Scout camp in Michigan for five years as the Nature Director. I have three younger siblings, one who is a girl, and they’re all Eagle Scouts except me.”


As Brownfied explained, in 2019 the Boy Scouts became Scouts (B.S.A.) after it was decided to allow girls to join.


How does that work?


“They’re separated as they should be,” said Bethany. “A lot of times when people start a girl troop, it’s associated with a boy troop if they’re in the same area. So, a lot of them will have the same troop number like 141 G or 141 B. They do a lot of activities together but if there’s any female youth involved, there has to be an adult leader to supervise.”


Amanday Wareing’s 12-year-old daughter is part of Troop 19, which is based out of Floyd. This all-girl Scout Troop was formed in 2019 and, according to Wareing, already has two dozen members.


“We sometimes do stuff with the Troop 36, which is the boy’s troop but our troop is big enough so that we do a lot of the activities on our own,” said Wareing. “Girls are doing the same stuff the boys are doing and it hasn’t really been an issue. My only question is, why didn’t they let the girls in sooner?”


Wareing and her daughter’s Scout troop would likely return to the Claytor Lake Aquatics Center next summer but with a sale pending, no one is planning too far in the future. Though spirits remain high with both the campers and counselors, the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base remains in a state of limbo, and this is partially reflected by the state of the gear and the grounds.


The paint on the Claytor Lake Aquatic Base Camp sign is peeling badly but since the sale could be finalized at any time,  the sign will likely remain unpainted until its replaced by a new owner.


The two motorboats and the camp’s sailboat are in good working order but are starting to show their age. The kayaks seem water worthy but paddle boards have no rear fins, which makes them difficult to steer. The jet skis appear to be a relatively recent acquisition and responded well when the Scouts from Troop 174 powered out of the Aquatics Base cove, so it’s not to say the Aquatics Base is in disrepair but investments in upkeep are seemingly at a standstill.


Camp Powhatan was established at its current location when the Blue Ridge Mountain Council purchased 15,000 acres from Radford College in 1950. An earthen dam on Mack’s Creek was made to form a 7 seven-acre swimming lake and several buildings were then erected to accommodate the needs of a large Boy Scout camp.


Camp Powhatan is capable of housing more than 600 scouts and their adult companions and though attendance isn’t what is once was, for two weeks of the summer the camp was near capacity.


Camp Ottari, named for a native American term meaning, ‘in the middle of the forest,’ plays host to the Blue Ridge Mountaineer and High Knoll adventure programs.  The High Knoll Adventure program takes scouts through challenging backpacking treks, while the Blue Ridge Mountaineers make camp on Laurel Creek and hone their skills on the long-lost arts of hatchet throwing, musket loading and blacksmithing. Both of these Ottari based high adventure programs teach scouts the life skills necessary for survival back when these same forests were the wild frontier of America.


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Claytor Lake seen in the distance while the large For Sale sign can be seen in the foreground. (William Paine/The Patriot)

High Knoll Director Dave Clark will gladly show his scouts how to light a fire using a musket flint or the best way to bivouac in the wild. Meanwhile, Assistant Director of the Blue Ridge Mountaineer program, Jon Newbill, will be there to provide the period correct clothes and maybe even play a few Colonial-era board games at the Ottari Tavern.


“It takes the kids about a day of withdrawal from their cell phones and then they settle in,” said Newbill.


“We don’t have internet back here and we consider that a blessing,” said staff member Wade (Possum) Hale.


As a sugary bonus, the Ottari Tavern serves “homemade” root beer to the scouts three times a week.


As it was at the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base, both counselors and campers seemed upbeat and generally glad to be a part of this scouting experience. The Scouts participating in the Blue Ridge Mountaineer program on that particular week came from Niagara Falls, New York and Powhatan and Winchester in Virginia. It’s not uncommon to find Scout Troops from Florida coming to Ottari and Powhatan.


Unlike the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base, Ottari seems to be in no immediate danger of being sold but in both camps, there is a sense that these beautiful facilities are underutilized.


The is a lake at Camp Ottari, which nears or exceeds the size of the lake at Powhatan. Lake Ottari is replete with docks, a boat house and a couple dozen canoes but owing to the drop in attendance, hasn’t been available for use by the Scouts in several years.


Though hope springs eternal, if the Blue Ridge Council does sale Claytor Lake Aquatics Base, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Scouts B.S.A. would still have access to the property under private ownership. This year attendance has been especially hard hit as the National Boy Scout Jamboree took place at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in nearby West Virginia in July.


The Blue Ridge Mountain Council concludes its summer camping season this week. Though the Scouts B.S.A. have gone through many changes in the past few years, most will agree that Scouting is still a wholesome and worthwhile endeavor and would like to see it continue to flourish.


That said, it seems unlikely that the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base will be a part of the future for Scouts B.S.A. What will happen to the Claytor Lake Aquatics Camp? Only the new owner knows, whoever that might be.

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The second floor of the large hexagon shaped building has a huge open interior space and has served as the dining hall/meeting center for the Claytor Lake Aquatics Base in the past. (William Paine/The Patriot)