For 80-plus years, Boy Scouts (and now Girl Scouts) have spent part of their summers at outdoor camps in our area. Today, despite a pandemic, opportunities for such adventures continue.
Formed in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is one of the largest youth organizations in the U.S. An estimated 110 million youths have participated in BSA programs at some point in their lives. These programs are administered through 272 local councils, usually chartered as charitable organizations.
Blackhawk Area Council
The Blackhawk Area Council (BAC) is the administrative body for the BSA in this area, formed in 1921. In 1971, it combined with the U.S. Grant Council to the west (formed in 1928) but retained the BAC name. Today the Council includes 12 counties: McHenry, Boone, Winnebago, Stephenson, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside in Illinois; and Grant, Green and Lafayette in Wisconsin.
The Council is further divided into five geographic districts, each with its own leadership directly responsible for the operation of the Scouting units. These units are Cub Scout Packs (grades K-5), Scouts BSA Troops (ages 11 to 18), Venturing Crews (14 to 21) and Exploring Posts (14 to 21).
“Before the pandemic, we had more than 8,700 Scouts registered in our Council,” says Sedrick Robinson, Scout Executive/CEO of the BAC. “At the end of 2020, we had 4,158. We have a definite plan to grow our membership, including establishing a Cub Scout Pack in every community we serve.”
Although Venturing, Exploring and Sea Scouting were already co-ed programs and women could be adult volunteers in all programs, girls were not allowed in Cub Scouts or the program then-called Boy Scouts until 2018. That year, girls could become Cub Scouts, and the following year be a part of Scouts BSA, the new name for 11- to 18-year-olds. They still function in gender-specific troops, however. There are 409 girl members in BAC.
“I welcomed the change,” says Steve Sarver, official historian for Camp Lowden. “It has been a long time in coming. I think the U.S. is the only country in the world that still has separate scouting programs for girls and boys. The change has been a very positive thing for scouting.”
Emily Cross is current Director of Field Services/COO of the BAC and was Council Program Director during the initial pandemic shutdowns.
“We didn’t want Scouting to stop, just because they couldn’t meet in person,” says Cross. “We trained the leadership on how to conduct meetings online and also created virtual camp-outs at home.”
Scouts were encouraged to make preparations for a real camp-out – plan for and assemble equipment and supplies online. Then they set up a real camp in their backyards with parental supervision and later conducted “debriefings” on how it went.
“Every step is a learning process,” says Cross. “It’s literally a game with a purpose.”
They also created a Day Camp in a Box program for Cub Scouts. Parents who registered online received a box in the mail which contained all the necessary supplies for a variety of Scout-related activities. The activities usually involved the whole family and were correlated with achievement goals in the Cub Scout program.
Claims of sexual abuse by persons in the Scouting program that became public in 2012 resulted in numerous lawsuits and forced the national Boy Scouts of America to file for bankruptcy in 2020.
In the 1980s, BSA developed a Youth Protection Training program (YPT) to educate young people, leaders and parents, to enhance the safety of the program, and to implement barriers against abuse. For example, the “two deep” leadership concept requires that no adult member can be alone with any youth member (except their own child).
“Every adult leader in our Council must complete YPT training before they can be registered in the Boy Scouts of America,” says Robinson. “The BSA also requires registered leaders to update their YPT training every two years. BAC requires it to be updated every year. Since 2003, all volunteers have to pass a criminal background check, and since 2019, subsequent checks are required for anyone who has not had one in the past five years. Scouting is safer than ever before and is a great place for youth to learn citizenship and life skills.”
“Scouting is alive and thriving in our area,” says Cross, “and it could not be at a better time. After 18-plus months of COVID turmoil, outdoor programs that teach citizenship, service to others and care for the environment are just what young people need right now.”
U.S. Grant Council (USGC), formed in 1928, was the first Boy Scout council in northwest Illinois. Without an official campsite, however, for several summers the Scouts rented land along the Apple River canyon in Jo Daviess county near the location of Millville, a village that was all but swept away in a disastrous flood in 1892.
According to Ron Spielman, historian for Canyon Camp, at the end of the summer of 1931, the Scout leadership learned the state was planning to purchase land for what would become Apple River Canyon State Park. Since the Scouts would no longer be able to camp there, a search began for alternatives. Three individuals, including then-Scout Executive Clayton Chatters, hiked down the Apple River that fall as part of the search.
They spent the night in a canyon on Coon Creek, a tributary to Apple River, and were impressed by how similar it was to their current campsite. For the next five years, USGC rented that farmland for summer camping activities, and in 1936, generous philanthropists from Freeport, Robert and Anna May Koenig, purchased 160 acres there and gave it to the Council for Boy Scouting. Thus, Canyon Camp was born.
“The guest speaker at the camp’s dedication in July 1936 was Paul Siple, a former Eagle Scout,” says Spielman. “He was a taxidermist on the Byrd expedition to Antarctica and brought along a stuffed penguin to the ceremony. A photo taken then shows him sweltering in the 100-degree heat, talking about Antarctica.”
In the early days, Scouts used World War I tents and slept on the ground. Since the area was former farmland, there were few trees along the creek and tall grass everywhere. Some of the first buildings constructed were the Rawleigh cabin headquarters and the Rain-or-Shine pavilion, an octagon-shaped open-air structure that eventually became the dining hall.
“The current 330 acres came about in three additional parcels being added in 1948, 1962 and 2008,” says Spielman. “Until we purchased the Hess farm to the north in 1948, the family lived and worked there, and drove through the camp regularly to get to and from their property.”
That former farmland now houses a climbing tower, zipline, and high ropes course. The majestic pines surrounding the Wilderness cabin were planted in the early 1950s, and, according to Spielman, are now near the end of their lifecycle.
For nearly 20 years, aquatic skills were taught in a pond created by a small dam on Coon Creek. The first swimming pool was constructed in the 1950s, but it had a metal liner.
“During lightning storms, they had to quickly exit the pool,” says Spielman. “The current pool was built in the 1980s but used concrete forms.”
Several additional buildings went up in the 1980s, using all-volunteer labor and mostly donated materials. A major source of lumber came from the deconstruction of Sherwood Lodge in Loves Park, Ill. It had been a major reception venue.
“John Wurtzel was primarily responsible for that project,” recalls Spielman. “He and others spent many hours dismantling and transporting the cedar lumber by the truckload to our camp. It included some laminated arch supports which were too large for us, so we sold them. John is still using remnants from the lodge for various camp projects, including making flower pots.”
Today, Canyon Camp is a complete service camp that provides a challenging summer immersion program and year-round camping experiences for Scouts and other groups.
Lee Binkley has been a part of Canyon Camp for the past 54 years and recently retired from serving as co-camp director with Dick Reynolds for the past 16 years. The summer program was put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic but operated at full capacity this summer.
“In a typical summer, we host 750 to 800 Scouts and leaders,” says Binkley. “This summer, due probably to pent-up enthusiasm and the fact that Camp Lowden was closed, we had 954 here.”
Their season begins with a Monroe Kiwanis-sponsored work event on the first weekend in May, when volunteers “un-winterize” the camp. Camp leadership arrives during the first week in June for director/staff training and camp set-up. The first group of Scout campers arrives on Father’s Day weekend, followed by four more weeklong sessions.
“We used to run between six and eight sessions each summer, but our numbers have dwindled in recent years,” says Binkley. “Concern over COVID, including required protocols and mandates, made it very challenging to hold meetings or activities in person. As a result, we lost about 50 percent of our youth membership last year, mostly Cub Scouts.”
Scouts sleep in tents on raised platforms and dine in the octagonal dining hall, now enclosed with screens and an attached kitchen.
“When the shutters are off the building, it makes you feel like you are all outdoors,” says Spielman, “and when someone is presenting the lesson of the day or leading Scouts in a song, it’s like performing in a theater-in-the-round.”
During the summer sessions, Scouts experience a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking, swimming, shooting sports, canoe, climbing and high-ropes work. In addition, STEM, robotics and other non-traditional Scout activities are provided.
During the off-season (September through April), Canyon Camp offers mostly weekend camping opportunities for Scouts and other groups who bring their own staff and conduct their own programs. The Camp provides one volunteer adult to oversee facilities and make equipment available for guests.
The Scout honor society, Order of the Arrow, typically inducts a percentage of youth each summer; new members are chosen by fellow Scouts for their leadership qualities. Leadership training is a big part of Scouting, and many of the 40-plus annual staff members are former Scouts.
John Wurtzel is a member of the property maintenance committee, is a former Scout, has camped for more than 60 years, and has worked on the summer camp staff for the past seven years. In fact, he met his wife, Jean, at the camp, and his son was married at the outdoor chapel in 2015.
“Some Scouts get frustrated because they can’t do everything they would like in just one week,” says Wurtzel. “We advise them to keep coming back again in future years.”
The Canyon Camp leadership has established a scholarship fund for young staff members going on to higher education. The trust fund has more than $100,000, and endowments provide funds at the end of the summer to recipients chosen by the camp directors.
“Serving on the summer staff is not a job you take for the money,” says Wurtzel, “so these scholarships are one way to supplement their summer income.”
The Mounds at Canyon Camp
In 1926, 10 years before Canyon Camp was founded, University of Chicago archaeologists surveyed a group of mounds on a ridge to the east of the main camp and near the present position of Indian Point campsite. They located a series of eight mounds and attributed them to the Woodland culture of American Indians, which inhabited this area from 500 BC to 1000 AD.
“We knew the mounds were there but little else about them,” says Bill Determan, member of the BAC Executive Board and the mounds project chair. He has been involved in Scouting since 1956.
“The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) contacted us in the spring of 2019 about conducting a resurvey of the site, and I volunteered to head up the project for the Scouts.”
The ISAS crew visited the site in June 2019 and documented the location of eight mounds. Determan suggested the Scouts be enlisted to restore and help preserve the mounds as part of their Scouting experience. Due to pandemic restrictions, the planned work was postponed in 2020, but was completed this past May.
During the process of clearing brush and creating a buffer zone between the mounds and the campsites, Determan and ISAS members discovered the location of three additional mounds, bringing the total to 11. They were assisted by a LiDAR map, which uses laser technology to reveal land contours beneath the vegetation.
“We are currently developing signage and educational materials to instruct the Scouts on this part of the camp’s history, and to help preserve the mounds for future generations,” says Determan.
Located at 4418 S. Scout Road south of Oregon, Ill., this camp was the result of a land donation in 1940 from the estate of Frank Lowden, who was Illinois governor from 1919 to 1921. Its northern border is contiguous with the Lowden-Miller State Forest. An easement allows Scouts to traverse part of the state forest to reach their aquatics area on the eastern bank of the Rock River.
“The survey map of 1980 shows the camp now contains 202 acres,” says Bob Gingras, property manager since 1993. A former Scout, he has been involved in local Scouting since 1984.
Lowden hasn’t run a summer camping program since 2019, due to the pandemic. The Blackhawk Area Council decided to hold summer programs only at Canyon Camp this past year, but Lowden was still busy through much of the year.
“We have hosted mostly councilwide events for adults and Scouts this year,” says Gingras. “They normally take place on weekends and include leadership training and other skills. We also held three family camping weekends for Scouting families, which were pretty popular. I think we had over 100 people at the last two.”
Okpik is a weekend course to train adults who run winter camping events. National Youth Leadership Training lasts a week and teaches Scouts leadership skills. Both sessions took place at Camp Lowden this year. And twice a year, the Order of the Arrow lodge holds a conclave, spring and fall, at both Lowden and Canyon Camp.
“We had more than 200 Scouts for that weekend in August,” says Gingras. “I gave them several service projects to do, including much-needed maintenance on the trails leading to the river. They did a terrific job of cutting, trimming and filling in washouts. Lowden also has an active off-season program, similar to Canyon Camp, where Scout groups run their own activities on weekends throughout the year. There’s usually something going on every weekend, except during holidays or deer season.”
Camp Lowden contains six cabins which can be slept in year-round. Several original buildings were constructed from lumber salvaged from Rockford’s Camp Grant when it closed at the end of World War II, but those have all since been replaced.
A tree harvest seven years ago provided much-needed funds to rehab or replace several structures and construct new metal roofs. A recent addition to the camp is an eight-unit unisex bathroom facility, which eliminated the need for four outside latrines.
The Boeger Leadership Lodge contains a large upper room with a big fireplace and a downstairs residential area that sleeps 55 people. The high adventure area has two outdoor climbing walls, one of which simulates an ice wall where climbers utilize special climbing tools to reach the top.
Camp Lowden is located 8 miles south of Lowden State Park, home of Lorado Taft’s statue of “The Eternal Indian,” commonly called the Black Hawk statue. An 18-mile hike to the statue and back to camp was initiated in the 1940s. Called the Black Hawk Trail hike, it became very popular but was closed in 1960. It was rehabbed and reopened in 1979 but closed again in 2004 due to property and upkeep issues.
Lowden plans to open for a full summer season of Scouting with a full program of activities next year. As is traditional, work on merit badge requirements and other advancement skills will be offered, although both Lowden and Canyon camp try not to offer the same exact opportunities.
“Programming options have changed as the world has changed,” says Steve Sarver, the camp’s historian. “Vocational skills such as welding and automotive repair have been added in recent years.”
A Sporting Clays course was added three years ago and has become an annual fundraising event for the Scout Council. In it, Scouts and other shooting enthusiasts compete in shooting clay “birds” from 15 stations around the course.
“It has been a huge success,” says Gingras, “and is now considered the largest such sanctioned event in the state.”
A dead oak tree in the middle of the camp is being transformed by a local woodcarver into a totem pole of Scout ranking badges, topped by an eagle. A raccoon will soon be added to an upper branch.
“We intend to paint in the colors of the badges,” says Gingras. “We hope it becomes the iconic symbol for the camp.”
Sarver has been working on several volumes of camp history and is about to issue the latest edition. The volumes contain numerous interviews with Scouts and leaders who have attended Camp Lowden and share memories of their experiences.
One such recollection was from a 1940s camp director. He remembered conducting blackout drills to teach Scouts how to navigate in the dark one year during World War II. It was a necessary but unpopular training exercise. A few years later, after the director had moved to Peoria, Ill., he heard a knock at his door. A former staff member had come to thank him.
“The man said he just got back from overseas,” says Sarver. “He said that when other troops turned on flashlights or lit cigarettes at night during combat, the Germans ‘nailed them.’ But his unit was the only one to come back intact, thanks to what he had learned in those blackout drills while Scouting. The director got very emotional about the story. ‘To this day,’ he said, ‘I have no idea how he found me, and I never saw him again.’”
You never know what you need to know, or when you’re going to need to know it.