Cultivating the Next Zahniser
Canoeing the Boundary Waters, a Girl Scout finds her calling to protect and expand wilderness
Featured, Voices of NexGen, Your Stories
Guest blog by Ann McNally
On a misty morning in the northwoods of Minnesota, a group of seven teenage girls and their two college-aged guides nestle in their tents and listen to the loons singing from the crystal-clear water of Knife Lake. As the day dawns, the crew rises from their tents, lowers their food from where it hangs between pine trees, collects water for breakfast, and packs up their tents and gear for another day in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
After breakfast, they launch their three canoes. Soon, they see the first people they’ve seen since the day before – a group of fishermen, headed in the opposite direction. A few miles later, they arrive at their first portage of the day – the head of a half-mile trail that will lead them to Vera Lake. They have heard that the trail is muddy and steep, but they know that with hard work, good teamwork, and a can-do attitude, they will persevere on the portage, and maybe even laugh and sing along the way. They also know that, after they get all of their gear across to the other lake, they will be able to swim, rinse off the mud, and maybe make the mosquito bites itch a little less.
We all know that it takes time and energy to cultivate a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts who will work just as tirelessly to protect and expand wilderness in the coming century as Howard Zahniser, Ed Abbey, Mardy Murie, and others did in the last century. We also know that the first step in cultivating the next generation is providing first-hand experiences to youth. It’s in places like the Boundary Waters (or the Bob Marshall or the Selway-Bitterroot or the Lee Metcalf) where that cultivation takes place.
For five years, I guided Girl Scout canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota – one of the first areas designated in the U.S., in 1964. I have been the summer program director now for four years. For just as long as the Wilderness Act has been around, Girl Scouts have been safely traveling in this “fisherman’s paradise,” showing that girls and youth belong in the wilderness just as much as anyone else.
Cooking out at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
One of the young women I’ve witnessed find her wilderness calling in the Boundary Waters is Sarah Gaulke. Originally from suburban Washington, D.C., she went on a 10-day Girl Scout canoe trip through Northern Lakes Canoe Base in 2011, after finishing ninth grade. She now studies wildlife biology at the University of Montana. She is currently a canvasser for MWA's Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, a nonpartisan program that encourages students to vote in support of our great outdoors.
The girls in her crew were all strangers on day one, but the beauty and challenge of wilderness travel brought them together as fast friends with an appreciation for the wilderness.
“Canoeing with the Girl Scouts in the Boundary Waters showed me what’s really important,” Gaulke says. “Not possessions, but friendships. The wilderness that is left in this technologically-centered world. And the appreciation for the simple things in life like food, shelter, and canoes.”
Gaulke’s crew traveled about 10 miles a day, paddling across large crystal clear lakes, small swampy lakes, and up and down beaver streams, portaging their gear and canoes several times a day to move from lake to lake or to skirt rapids. Sarah’s guides taught her and the rest of the crew the “Girl Scout Way” to travel in the Boundary Waters.
Teamwork is the key to a successful portage, with three girls flipping a canoe together and one girl carrying it alone, while her buddy follows along and gives her regular breaks along the portage trail. Girls learn proper paddling strokes and take turns in the stern, or steering, position. Fire building, cooking, pitching tents, and hanging the food at night is done as a group so each girl learns many new skills. Sarah’s crew learned a ton about teamwork and wilderness living on their 10-day adventure, laughing all the way.
When citing why she decided to study wildlife biology at the University of Montana, Gaulke makes it clear that she wants do her part to protect our wilderness areas.
“I love the wilderness so much – the untouched beauty and the crystal clear water,” she says. “Everyone should come out of their shell just to see it and appreciate what nature and wild there is still left.”
Sarah’s experience paddling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with the Girl Scouts taught her about the beauty of the wilderness, the strength of working in a team, and the power of an environment where girls are supported and encouraged to face challenges they have never seen. This experience will last her a lifetime and may even inspire her to defend Montana’s own wilderness areas.
Who knows, she may be the next Zahniser, Abbey, or Murie.
Ann McNally has been the Summer Program Director of Northern Lakes Canoe Base for four years, after guiding for the program for five years. For more information on Girl Scout canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, click here or contact Ann directly at email@example.com or 206-861-5730.