Do Pebbles Really Help If You’re Thirsty? A Scoutmaster’s Take on “Moonrise Kingdom”

Anyone who’s seen the new Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom, will smile at the term “Khaki Scouts.” The movie’s yellow-kerchiefed, badge-bedecked campers are comically earnest and resourceful—and clearly based on the Boy Scouts of America. Indeed, parts of the movie were filmed at a Boy Scout camp: Rhode Island’s classic Camp Yawgoog, a perfect backdrop for Anderson’s ’60s-era tale of young love and outdoor adventure. But how accurately did the movie depict what scouts learn about camping and wilderness safety?

For answers, we turned to Scoutmaster Ward’s real-life counterpart: 34-year-old Michael Hogan, assistant director at Yawgoog, and scoutmaster of First Providence Troop.

Which scenes were filmed at Camp Yawgoog?

Most of the stuff toward the end of the movie, where Scoutmaster Ward’s “Troop 55” meets up with the other Khaki Scouts and Jason Schwartzman’s character (Cousin Ben) at “Fort Lebanon.” The chapel, the dock where they get on the sailboat, the field where the lightning strike happens—those are all here.

In the movie, that field is actually labeled “Lightning Field.” Is that really its name?

You know, I don’t think it has a name. It’s really just an old leachfield (septic drainage area) with a pile of rocks in it, in a far-flung corner of the property here. This camp’s been here since 1916 and has grown over the years into a very large operation. So there’s a cartoonish map that we use to orient newcomers, with all these funny names like “The Land of Dead Things,” and “Dinosaur Cave,” like something from a Hardy Boys book. It makes it feel like a kind of wonderland for the kids to explore. While he was filming, Wes was referring to that field as “Stonehenge,” so I think that’s what we’ll call it now. We’ll probably end up putting it on the next revision of the map.

Speaking of lightning, I assume it’s not smart scout behavior to run into an open field during a thunderstorm, huh? Especially not holding a metal can. What should you do instead?

Yeah, that’s the opposite of what you should do. I’m sad to report that lightning is probably the number one killer of scouts. So in recent years we’ve really tightened up our storm precautions. Thanks to technology, now we know when bad weather is coming. If it’s a hurricane, there really isn’t good enough shelter here, so we’ll send the kids home or to a nearby school. With thunderstorms, we sound an alarm to tell everybody to seek cover. If you’re out hiking, you want to make sure you’re not touching anything metal: get rid of that backpack frame, fishing pole, etc. If your hair starts standing on end with static electricity, you might be in real trouble. Get as low to the ground as you can.

In the movie, Scoutmaster Ward scolds his troop for building a treehouse ridiculously high in a tiny tree. Is there a maximum safe height for a treehouse?

That part was funny to me, cause it rang true. It illustrates how, if you let them, these guys will really run with an idea using the skills they’ve learned, and come up with things you wouldn’t expect. As for treehouses—I think in the ‘60s, before we had as many safety regulations and insurance concerns, that sort of thing was definitely commonplace. Nowadays we have to be more careful, so the rule is that if you’re going to build something, it shouldn’t be any taller than you are.

So, does it really help to put pebbles in your mouth if you’re thirsty, like Sam (one of the 12-year-old main characters) did while hiking?

Actually, on a camping trip this fall, one of the older adult leaders recommended that our scouts try that, and they said it worked! It was funny, because they’d brought water, they just thought it would be cool to try out a survival tactic first—and that’s exactly what Sam did in the movie. In my 20-something years scouting, that was the first time I’d heard of that particular tactic. The idea is that the pebbles help you make more saliva to swallow. I personally wouldn’t recommend it, but I’m a germophobe, so I’m not pulling something out of the river and putting it in my mouth. Obviously, it’s a better idea to just make sure you bring water. Even if you’re just hiking for an hour, that’s hugely important.

What about throwing pine needles in the air to see which way the wind is blowing?

That is a good technique. That’s something that hunters do, to get a feel for which way their scent is carrying. Of course, when Sam did that in the movie, there wasn’t a strong enough breeze for it to work, and there was no real practical reason to find out which way the wind was blowing, anyway. I think he was just trying to show off for Suzy.

Did the actors in “Troop 55” have any scouting experience?

Not for the most part. So Dave Anderson, who was our scout executive here, set up a sort of boot camp for them. He showed them how to tie knots, took them on a hike, taught them to behave like a real scout troop. He was very involved with helping Wes and the producers during the filming here. Sadly, he died very suddenly at the end of last year. That’s why you see, just before the credits, that they dedicated the film in memoriam to him. It was really nice to see that. I’ve been to two screenings already, and I’m hoping to angle my way into a third. I love it. It shows the world how beautiful our little camp is.

Amanda Fiegl

Human Journey

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I'm an associate editor at NGM, where I write and edit stories for both our print and digital editions.