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CAMP STEINER - Richard Jackson still remembers the swim test - a test of manhood - at Camp Steiner's Scout Lake nearly 50 years after he was a Boy Scout.

"Most people live to tell about it and some go back," said Jackson, a Great Salt Lake Council volunteer, as Scouts worked for merit badges as the legendary camp opened for the 78th year. "Once was enough. I was 12 or 13 at the time. I am now 62. I have not been back in the lake."

Such is the lore of Camp Steiner, a rustic facility about 3 1/2 miles from Mirror Lake and a 1 1/2 -hour drive from Salt Lake City. At nearly 10,400 feet in elevation, this is the highest Boy Scout camp in America and a place where hundreds of boys have earned thousands of merit badges since it opened in 1930.

There is nothing fancy about the camp and its three-sided log Adirondack cabins that sleep 12 Scouts. You won't find electricity here. The legendary outhouses have no running water. Cell phones are useless.

But many view this camp - named after the family that owned a Salt Lake City laundry company and donated $25,000 to get it started and leased from the U.S. Forest Service in the heart of the High Uintas - as one of the best of its kind in the world.

"This was the Holy Grail of camps when I was a scout," said Gary Wilson, of Tooele, who volunteered to come to camp this summer with his son's troop. "Boys can learn things here even when they don't want to."

Just ask the Scouts who passed swim tests or earned a canoe or boating merit badge requiring them to dip into the frigid waters of snow-fed Scout Lake.

"It was freezing," said 13-year-old Preston McMullin, of Bluffdale. "A dad got hypothermia and had to go home. I couldn't breathe. It sucks all the air out of you."

Traditions are important at this camp, which is on the National Historic Register. Ray Ertmann, who camped at Steiner for 26 years, including the second year it was in operation in 1931, wrote about his memories in a history book kept by the Great Salt Lake Council.

"It was and is my favorite Scout camp," he wrote. "It was not a merit badge factory like so many. Merit badge help was always available but real outdoor Scouting adventure was the big purpose of Camp Steiner. Fishing, cold water swims, rafting, boating, canoeing, hiking, mountain climbing, star study and forest exploration has always been the call to Scouts 'come to Camp Steiner.' "

Ertmann wrote that members of his Salt Lake City troop joined Utah National Guardsmen in 1930 for a week of building trails, campsites, flag poles, outhouses, boat piers and rafts. In those days, only one boy had a real sleeping bag. Most used their mothers' old quilts and blankets put together with safety pins.

According to Ertmann, his father brought up a large 5-gallon hand-crank ice cream freezer. Scouts chipped snow and ice from a nearby snowbank and used strawberry jam for flavoring. Something wasn't quite right, though. The mixture was a gray color. So Ertmann's father opened up the first-aid kit and poured in some Mercurochrome, turning the ice cream a beautiful pink. No one was the wiser.

These days, scouts are likely to hear a half-hour story from program director Rob Ellis about a man named Hyrum, who lost one of his arms and part of his face in an accident while building the nearby Duchesne Tunnel but still haunts the camp.

Monroe said Camp Steiner's 22 campsites can host about 160 Scouts and another 40 leaders at one time. Because snow often does not leave the area until July, the season is usually short, starting the first week of July most years and going until the third week of August.

While the camp is definitely low-tech, scout officials did add a sophisticated lightning detector after a 15-year-old staying in one of the Adirondack huts died in 2005 when it was struck by lightning.

"It predicts static in the air and, when that happens, a siren blares and we close down the camp," said Paul Moore, CEO of the Great Salt Lake Council.

Scouts who visit the camp these days can choose from 24 merit badges.

Most usually earn between four and six in such subjects as first aid, weather, rifle shooting, orienteering, archery, lifesaving, small boat sailing, climbing, fishing, leather work and Indian lore.

"This is a beautiful setting for scout activities," said Spanish Fork scoutmaster Lance Manesse. "The facilities are great, though it is hard getting gear in."

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* TOM WHARTON can be contacted at wharton@sltrib.com. His phone number is 801-257-8909. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

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