The Boy Scouts of America's recent announcements that it will start admitting girls to previously all-boy programs and drop "Boys" from its name has provoked the usual heartfelt (and loud) reactions. Commenters on Philly talk-radio host Dom Giordano's online pages see a threat to a beloved foundry of maleness: "Spineless … Another way that liberalism attacks the basis of our society… Plain wrong… The end of the line."
Scouts are used to political pressure from both sides. Philadelphia's liberal officials kicked the local council out of its Parkway offices for not accepting gay leaders fast enough. And though Scouts, like AA, expect belief in a Supreme Being (in the temple of your choice), conservative churches that long sponsored Scout groups — Baptists and, lately, Mormons — have been setting up rival organizations.
Women in the Boy Scouts aren't exactly revolutionary. Many serve as adult advisers in volunteer units.
Still, in all-male, dad-backed units like the one in Wilmington I chaired for most of 10 years, a mom on a camping trip was a rarity, and a female counselor at summer camp was special. Middle-school and high-school girls on the trail were a foreign idea. Until two pioneering young women showed us.
My five sons are Eagle Scouts. In 2013, the two youngest — 15 and 17 at the time — asked me and Dave, another Scout dad, to serve as adult advisers on a 10-day trek through Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Dave, a scrapyard owner, was an all-sports coach and athlete; I thought my trail days were done, and knew I'd need work.
Philmont is Scouting's Yellowstone, or maybe its Disneyland: For a few hundred dollars — the bigger expense is getting there — you spend 10 days hiking many miles a day, up to 12,000 feet above sea level, tent camping at remote stations where you learn such Old West arcana as burro wrangling, technical rock climbing, bits of indigenous cultures and natural history, trail-building with hand tools, supervised pistol and black-powder shooting, cleaning pots, and pooping in dry meadows in ways that "Leave No Trace," all while carrying food and bedding, and filtering water from truly rustic sources, and hanging food in the trees at night to keep bears away.
There weren't quite enough of us for a complete crew. So the Delmarva scout council asked if we would take along two young women who were members of coed Boy Scout Venture Crews, local units of 14- to 21-year-olds that have grown up alongside a few of the regular all-boy Troops of 11- to 18-year-olds.
Like first-generation women police officers and military volunteers, Amanda and Candace had brothers and dads in Scouts, and enrolled in Venture units downstate, with the usual Scouting emphasis on community service, leadership development, and hiking and camping.
We were puzzled how they would fit into our crew, with its years of all-boy experience on the Appalachian Trail and in the Adirondacks. Youths lead, adults stand back and watch, mostly. You're a small team, you decide by consensus, you work together. Squabbles are normal; the more you work together, the smoother it goes. How would the young women fit in?
Dave and I spent hours in Wilderness First Aid training, and renewed our Youth Protection certifications with the familiar and common-sense rules: never an adult alone with a kid; watch interactions between older and younger people for signs of bullying and exploitation; when to intervene; and when to call professionals.
We gathered the crew for practice hikes of up to three days. At first the women were mostly at the back of the line. I was, selfishly, a little relieved: at least the fat old man wasn't the only one the boys would have to wait for.
But they always came to the end of the trail ready to do the work. They never complained. They moved faster every hike. When we reviewed each day — "roses, buds and thorns" — they had some of the most useful observations. And they had special assets: Amanda saw trail features some of us missed; Candace's way with horses made it much easier to pack our donkey. She went back next summer as paid staff, and enrolled in an animal-science program at college.
My daughter, a veteran family camper and mountain walker, wasn't attracted to local Girl Scout units, their cookie sales and amusement-park trips. Her classmates weren't in BSA Venture Crews, so that didn't happen for her.
It will be a little easier soon for girls who want to backpack up ridges or paddle up creeks every month, leading to those long summer expeditions: units in more neighborhoods will open to them. I expect they will add a lot to the units they join, while broadening their own experiences and contacts, as with our crew high above New Mexico.