Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series in which we spotlight dedicated long-serving volunteers at the BSA’s national high-adventure bases.
He’s 65 now, but Owen Gibbs still remembers his first trip to Northern Tier High Adventure Base.
“I hated it,” Gibbs says with a laugh. “I was small, just turned 14, and almost all the crew were seniors. The guy who ran the trip [darn] near killed us little ones.”
But Gibbs went back the next year. “And then I fell in love with it,” he says. After earning his Eagle award in 1962, he worked as a swamper for Northern Tier in 1966 and as a guide from 1966 to 1970. “I stayed until I had to go out into the real world,” says Gibbs, who now lives in Euless, Texas.
After graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio, Gibbs spent his career working in the oil industry and telecommunications. His love affair with Northern Tier was renewed in 2009 after his wife died. “I was trying to figure out what to do when I grew up, and this little voice said, ‘Go north.’ So I emailed [Northern Tier General Manager] Kevin Dowling. I told him I was an old, broken-down guy, but I wanted to volunteer on two conditions. First, that he didn’t pay me, and second, that he didn’t not hire a college student for what I’d do for free.”
Gibbs started on the maintenance staff and “fell into” the canoe yard, he says. “I try to keep the boats floating and get the canoes passed out.” He’s become well-known for the speech he gives to every crew before checking out the canoes to them.
“I want them to take care of things,” Gibbs says. He urges Scouters to apply the thinking behind Leave No Trace to the equipment they get from the canoe yards and the post. “In other words, leave no trace on your gear. You show the crews that come after you the same respect that crews before showed you.”
Gibbs sees his work at Northern Tier as a way of repaying the mentors who taught him there as a boy. “They’re gone now, and the only way I can say thanks is to try to give back what they gave me and pass on the love of the place to another generation.”
He says that the summer of 2015 might be his last at the base because “it’s harder and harder to keep up with the 20-year-olds on the staff.” But he will never forget what the camp has meant to him. “Much of the man I am was forged in the crucible of summers at Northern Tier,” Gibbs says. “In many ways, not being paid at all, I’m the highest-paid person there.”