In the summer of 2013, four of my friends and I decided to go to Boy Scout camp for a few days.
Not as scouts, of course (we were a little too old and little too female), but rather as visitors to see our friend, who was a counselor there. His shift lasted the entire summer, right up until the school year began. This was one of the only opportunities that we would have to hang out with him before we all went our separate ways in the fall as college freshmen. And so, after spending two sweaty hours stuffing camping gear into a minivan, we set out for Tomahawk Scout Reservation in Birchwood, Wisconsin.
I’d been to summer camp plenty of times before this particular excursion. I was a girl scout for many years and went to camp until I was 12. In high school, despite the fact that I’m not religious, nor have I ever been, two of my friends convinced me to go to church camp once.
Apart from one of the male counselors being forced to describe his sinful struggle with pornography during “confession circle” (a conversation that neither he nor any of the campers really wanted to be having), it was a good time. Despite possessing a good amount collective camp experience, my friends and I weren’t really sure what to expect from the Boy Scouts. It was an interesting junket to say the least, and one from which I learned a lot of new things as well.
For starters, one thing I never knew about Boy Scout camp before going to Tomahawk is that women can be camp staff. When we first rolled down the knobby dirt road to “Family Island,” where visitors are assigned to stay, it was a young woman who settled us in and helped us get our bearings. Throughout our stay, we were surprised when we noticed a handful of other women working in various areas of the camp, teaching classes, playing games and corralling unruly hoards of Webelos.
At Girl Scout camp, there’s generally a strict “no men” rule, and I suppose I sort of just assumed that it was the same situation for the BSA. I did a little research when I got home and found out that this has been a thing since the ’80s. There typically aren’t a ton of female staff members at Boy Scout camps—out of the 200 or so staff positions at Tomahawk, about 30 of them were women, but still.
In addition to finding out that ladies can work at Boy Scout camp, I also learned that the boy scouts are crazy. Maybe crazy isn’t the right word, but it’s what came to mind when I initially witnessed how much “less regulated” a lot of things were at Tomahawk in comparison to any camp I had been to. For example, my friends and I were strolling down a wooded path one morning of our stay in search of the horse stables when we came across a group of scouts who were casually flinging actual tomahawks into the trees. At Girl Scout Camp, we weren’t allowed to wear open toed shoes or go anywhere without a buddy, let alone play with axes in our free time.
One night after the tomahawk incident, we were making the long dark trek back to Family Island from the main camp when we crossed paths with a group of staff jogging in the opposite direction. Two of them had flashlights, three of them were carrying pots and pans and one of them had a bow and arrows strapped to his back. When we asked them what they were doing, they told us that two bears had wandered into one of the scout campsites and they were going to go chase them off.
“It happens all the time, we’re deep in bear country, ” one of the guys said. “In fact, we heard something big moving around in the woods a little ways back. Be sure that you’re making as much noise as possible the rest of the way back to your camp!”
I remember wondering if “bear control” was included in the job description for staff positions.
While I found that the boy scouts engage in some slightly questionable activities, I also learned they also do a bunch of stuff that is just insanely cool. One activity that stood out to me in particular was Scoutcraft. As a general term, Scoutcraft refers to a variety of woodcraft skills and knowledge that one needs to survive in the wild. At Tomahawk and many other Boy Scout camps, Scoutcraft involves some sort of large building project constructed by the campers. When my friends and I were visiting, the scouts had created a massive playground/obstacle course entirely out of wood from the surrounding forest.
The structure was huge and astonishingly detailed — I was amazed by it and pretty jealous that the girl scouts don’t get to do this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being a girl scout and I adored Camp Greenwood, but spending a week at Tomahawk left me kind of wishing that I could have joined the BSA as a kid.
Fortunately, it turns out that there are similar coed options out there, such as Venturing. Venturing is a program that is actually under the BSA and is designed for young men and women ages 14-20. Navigators is another scouting organization that is open to everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or religion.