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Iowa Life: Girl Scouts ramp up outdoor challenges, badges

Girls can now join Boy Scouts, leading women-led group to 'take it to next level'

Saniah Bell, 11, of Cedar Falls, aim at her target during archery practice earlier this month at Camp Liberty in New Liberty in Eastern Iowa. The 235-acre camp had a $5 million upgrade that added a lodge, indoor horseback riding arena and the high ropes course in 2016. More than 5,000 Scouts and 1,500 community members used the camp in 2017.)
Saniah Bell, 11, of Cedar Falls, aim at her target during archery practice earlier this month at Camp Liberty in New Liberty in Eastern Iowa. The 235-acre camp had a $5 million upgrade that added a lodge, indoor horseback riding arena and the high ropes course in 2016. More than 5,000 Scouts and 1,500 community members used the camp in 2017.)
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Going first in anything takes guts, especially if the activity scares the person trying it for the first time.

Allana Hill-Baker, 11, of Cedar Rapids, fears falling from high places, but last week at Camp Liberty, she attempted the high ropes course before any of her friends in Girl Scout Troop 5313.

“My dad told me, ‘If you’re nervous, go first,’ ” Allana said Tuesday after she zip-lined to the ground from a 40-foot-high stand. “I have a problem with overthinking things; I think of every possible thing that could go wrong, so this is an opportunity to get rid of my fear of falling.”

If Allana would have been surrounded by some of her male peers, one Girl Scouts official predicted there might have been a different outcome.

“I think activities like this show that girls are much more likely to take risks and try new things in a single-gender environment,” said Maura Warner, spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.

In February, girls Allana’s age and older (11 to 17) may join Boy Scouts of America, soon-to-be-called Scouts BSA, and begin earning the prestigious Eagle Scout rank.

The move has motivated the regional Girl Scouts council — maybe more than ever — to promote its wide range of female-led programs and associated benefits before the school year starts.

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A common misconception, Warner said, is that Girl Scouts does not offer comparable opportunities to explore the outdoors as do the Boy Scouts.

When she hears someone say that, Warner invites that person to Camp Liberty, formerly Camp Conestoga, in the northwest corner of Scott County in New Liberty.

New, improved digs

In addition to the high ropes’ course, girls who visit the 245-acre camp can try archery, fishing on Flint Lake, geocaching, hiking, horseback riding, paddling a variety of watercraft, rock climbing, swimming and camping-related activities.

“They’re not just selling cookies,” Warner said. “There are tons of badges they can earn in the outdoors.”

And the mission at Camp Liberty, she said, is to gradually introduce girls — some of whom are new Scouts — to the wilderness, where they develop independence and an appreciation for nature.

The camp has undergone quite a makeover.

The council spent about $5 million in donations on a 16,795-square-foot lodge, an indoor horseback riding arena and the high ropes course, which were completed in 2016, among other upgrades.

Members of the public also may reserve the facilities for events, including weddings and retreats. More than 5,000 Scouts and 1,500 community members used the space in 2017.

Last month, Warner organized One Tough Cookie, a 3-plus-mile mud run and obstacle course that drew almost 500 people to Camp Liberty. After the fundraiser run, a group of children with epilepsy checked into the camp.

“I don’t think there’s a weekend it sits empty,” Warner said.

Four weeks of summer Scout camp are in the books, but girls, from grades 2 through 12, still can sign up for one of the three remaining five-night sessions.

As of last week, about 1,250 girls had registered for camp, staffed by about 50 women throughout the summer.

“It’s good because the girls have female role models to look up to,” Warner said.

Younger scouts bunk in climate-controlled cabins attached to the lodge, while older Scouts sleep in “moderate,” non-air-conditioned areas with bathrooms or tents for a more rustic experience.

Adventure badges

Camp Liberty Director Ashley Arnold touted the Girl Scouts’ well-rounded program offerings, including community service, STEM (Science, Technology, Math and Science) and arts and crafts, to name a few.

The night before she attacked the high ropes course, for example, Allana enjoyed tie-dyeing and candlemaking with her troop mates.

As for the Girl Scout Cookie Program, Arnold said, it helps participants learn entrepreneurial and financial literacy skills.

The ramped-up focus on outdoors skills stems from a recently formed partnership between the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and The North Face. The collaboration will produce 12 new adventure badges in the coming year. Scouts throughout the country may earn them by learning new skills, including trail running, mountaineering, rock climbing and backpacking.

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While Camp Liberty provides a solid platform for some of those pursuits, Scouts already are venturing to other areas for more challenging excursions.

Last month, Girl Scout Troop 1337 in Davenport went white-water rafting, rock climbing and zip-lining in Colorado, where they visited Garden of the Gods, Rocky Mountain National Park, Seven Falls and Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre.

Another group of Scouts associated with Camp Liberty has a backpacking trip planned later this month at Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa.

Growing numbers

Back at the high ropes course, 11-year-old daredevil Brooke Rouw of Cedar Rapids navigated the high ropes course after Allana.

“This was the thing I was looking forward to the most,” Brooke said, taking big gulps of water. “I feel like I just had a really good workout.”

This week marked her third consecutive summer at Camp Liberty, but her first time on the high ropes course, open to sixth-graders and older.

“I don’t get to be out in the wilderness too often, so it’s fun for me to be out here,” Brooke said.

As of June 11, families were able to enroll their daughters, age 6 to 10, in Cub Scouts associated with the Illowa Council, which oversees 5,700 members in 82 troops across Iowa and Illinois.

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More than 9,000 girls, age 6 to 10, have enrolled in Cub Scouts across the country, according to the Boy Scouts of America.

Meanwhile, the regional Girl Scouts council, which serves 16,000 girls in 38 Iowa and Illinois counties, is on track to see an uptick in membership, according to Warner.

“We’ve been experts in the outdoors for years, but we’re trying to keep programming up with the times and take it to the next level,” she said. “Our focus always is going to be girls.”

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