July 27, 2017

Article at AlaskaFamilyFun.org

Winding Trails - Girl Scout Day Camp In Anchorage

In the north section of Russian Jack Springs Park, down a short trail from the parking lot, on the edge of an open area, stands a tree. The birch has likely grown taller and wider - if it is still there. Fifty years ago, as part of a flag patrol, I attached the United States and Alaska flags to clasps and pulled a cotton rope through a pulley twenty feet above us as the other members of the patrol stepped back with their hands over their hearts watching the flags flow to the top. This marked the start of every day at Winding Trails Girl Scout Camp.

I spent my Brownie years at Winding Trails. Girls attended Winding Trails with their troops and Mom was our troop leader. She supported Girl Scouting and the different camp facilities, volunteering for years with Susitna Council. She eventually served as president of the Council. Mom was candid about her role in camping. Yes, the troop will go to Winding Trails. Yes, you will have a wonderful time. Yes, we will make sit-upons and go over what we need. No, I won’t be going with you. Mom’s good friend. Arline Hippe, had offered to take us to camp. Her daughter, and my good friend, Ann, was also in the troop. Those were the years where volunteers ran most programs and volunteer training was mandatory. Plans looked good until Mrs. Hippe had jury duty the week before camp, ending up in a trial. An experienced camper and a teacher, she would be fine, but the troop still needed a representative at training. Mom took her place with the mosquitos and bug spray. Fortunately, the trial ended before camp started.

At Winding Trails I learned how to build fires, create cooking fires, wash and sanitize dishes, cook cool meals and realized a never-ending list of uses for #10 cans - all in a small camp in the middle of Anchorage. I learned how to whittle at day camp, and carried a pocketknife with me the rest of my life. In addition to cooking over the fire, we learned to order supplies for our unit and set-up and cleanup camp every day.

In the morning after the flag ceremony we checked the Kaper chart, the method Girl Scouts use to divide the chores. Toters were charged with picking up the unit box and hauling water from the large water truck provided by the military. Unit boxes, strong, colorfully painted wooden containers were filled with camp supplies such as first aid kits, hatchets, saws and cooking equipment. Holes drilled near the top of the boxes held loops of rope to serve as handles. We used a hefty stick or small log inserted through the loops so two girls could share the weight of the box. We hauled water the same way, using tote sticks. 

The other chore groups included, fire builders, cooks, songs and camp improvement. Camp improvement meant making sure the camp was left as natural and as clean as possible. It also meant cleaning the latrines. Yes, there were latrines at Winding Trails. Whenever I smell Pinesol, I remember cleaning latrines at Girl Scout camp.

We crossed DeBarr to visit the City Greenhouse. The most magical part of the tour was the room with the banana tree and birds. A narrow cement path took us through gorgeous flowers and tropical plants. We were instructed not to touch any of the beautiful foliage. Birds flew from trees to small waterfalls and pools. They sang to us. A train of wide-eyed seven-year-olds moved along the path. Other days we took nature hikes where we learned the names of Alaska plants and what plants to avoid. We were instructed to never pick a flower unless you could leave at least a dozen behind for others. Peeling bark off live trees was bad and not holding the branch for the person behind you was worse.

One of the trails took us by parts of an old, rusty truck from the 30’s. “That’s Russian Jack’s truck,” the guide told us. We passed by the remains of some kind of shed. “That’s Russian Jack’s cabin,” she said. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t the case. Although the structures and cars may have had nothing to do with Russian Jack, the myth added to the mystery and excitement of the walk through nature. Twenty years later, I worked for the Girl Scouts and directed Winding Trails Day Camp. After leaving the Girl Scouts to become a teacher, I volunteered at the camp as “Melody” where units joined me under the “song tree” to sing Girl Scout songs. As a volunteer trainer, I taught fire building, knots and knife safety to leaders. 

Marjory Bailey, the former executive director of Susitna Girl Scout Council for over three decades, along with the Board of Directors at the time, negotiated a deal with the City of Anchorage in 1952. The area in the Northern section of Russian Jack Springs Park was dedicated for exclusive use by the Girl Scouts. 

Over the years vandalism destroyed buildings used to store camp equipment. Increased homeless camping in the area became a concern and in the last decade, the camp was returned to the Municipality. The Girl Scouts moved the day camp out to Singing Hills in Peters Creek.

Whenever I crest the small hill on DeBarr, I remember the volunteers who directed traffic in the morning and afternoon on camp days. I think of the Greenhouse and wonder if the banana trees still grow and the birds still sing. I think of the nature walks and wonder if Russian Jack’s car and cabin are still there. I haven’t made any effort to see if it is all the same. I’m not sure I want to remember it any other way.

Gretchen Wehmhoff is a Co-Conspirator with Alaskafamilyfun.org. Reach her at Gretchen@alaskafamilyfun.org