Women blazing a trail at Philmont Scout Ranch

Each summer, more than 1,000 young people from all over the world travel to Cimarron, N.M., to work at Philmont Scout Ranch. Their mission is monumental: deliver
wilderness adventures people will remember for
the rest of their lives.

Philmont Scout Ranch is world famous as a Scouting mecca and backpacker’s paradise. But it’s known for more than its rugged beauty: It’s the people who bring that wilderness to life.

“You first come to Philmont for the mountains,” camping director Steve Nelson says. “You return to Philmont because of the people.”

Those people include men and women. As the Boy Scouts of America welcomes young women into all Scouting programs this year, some readers might be surprised to learn that women have been part of the Philmont experience for decades. They have served on staff, worked in the backcountry, and participated in treks as members of Venturing crews and individual treks.

In the 2018 summer season, which was affected by fires that closed the backcountry, Philmont had 1,187 staff members. Women accounted for about one-quarter of that total, or 300 staffers.

With diverse backgrounds, interests and levels of Scouting experience, women play key roles at the famous Scout ranch. Here, you’ll meet four of them.

Miriam Kirsch Jackson, Backcountry Staffer

Miriam Kirsch Jackson, a 22-year-old from Dunwoody, Ga., says Philmont gives a young person a chance to discover his or her true self. What’s Jackson’s true self? She’s a black-powder-rifle-shooting, tomahawk-throwing, mountain-climbing historical interpreter.

Two years ago, she began working at the shooting range at Ponil, one of Philmont’s backcountry camps. She arrived with only a basic safety certification and virtually no Scouting or hiking experience.

Initially, her job was “very intimidating,” she says, because her coworkers were far more experienced with the muzzle-loaders. This lack of expertise made Jackson work harder. She pushed herself to learn as much as she could and studied firearms past the scope of her training.

By her second season on staff, she became certified in every firearm used at the ranch. She also became the first woman to work at the Miranda backcountry camp.

As a woman in an almost entirely male work environment, Jackson says she feels empowered.

“When I was in charge of the [Ponil] gun range, no one questioned my authority, and participants were always very respectful,” Jackson says. “I’ve even gotten comments from Scouts and advisors saying how cool they think it is that I am
out there working.”

Katheryn Wilkerson, Ranger

“You’ve got to have a lot of grit as a girl in Philmont’s backcountry,” says Katheryn Wilkerson, a 22-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., who is one of Philmont’s rangers.

Rangers are the de facto face of Philmont. They accompany crews during their first three days in the backcountry, teach them how to thrive and then leave them to test what they’ve learned.

While getting paid to hike around is awesome — especially for a former Venturer — Wilkerson says her favorite part of being a ranger is the positive impact she makes on a crew.

In the summer of 2017, Katheryn took an all-girl crew to the top of Baldy Mountain, Philmont’s highest peak. At the start, many crew members couldn’t imagine hiking to the 12,441-foot summit while wearing a full backpack.

With Wilkerson’s encouragement, the crew climbed that mountain — and many more. Watching the girls become more confident reminded Wilkerson why being a ranger is worth the work. Wilkerson and the crew who conquered Baldy still communicate regularly and have become close friends because of their shared experience.

When she isn’t at Philmont, Wilkerson studies health sciences at the University of Memphis. She also runs a blog about her experiences at the ranch. Wilkerson, who is 5 feet tall, calls her blog “The Littlest Philmont Ranger.”

“I write about Philmont from my heart,” she says. “The memories and friends I’ve made at this place are what really caused me to grow as a person.”

Ellyn Washburne, Musicologist

The meanest fiddle player on staff, 27-year-old Ellyn Washburne of Evansville, Ind., has one of Philmont’s coolest positions. It also happens to be one she invented. As the only Philmont musicologist, Washburne travels to every backcountry camp where music is performed to make audio recordings of their shows.

At the beginning of the season, she helps each camp develop its shows. She visits camps twice during the summer to offer feedback and record their music. In the fall, she puts together albums of all the backcountry music and posts them for free at philmontfieldrecordings.bandcamp.com

Washburne didn’t start as a musicologist. Since she was first hired in 2010, Washburne has staffed base camp campfires, worked at backcountry camps and served as an Autumn Adventure Guide — the fall season’s equivalent of a ranger.

Before she got the musicologist job, Washburne spent her off days hiking to every camp with a musical program to record their shows. Instead of relaxing at camp, she documented the sounds of Philmont.

This volunteer job, coupled with her official job, became a lot of work. So she proposed a new full-time musicologist position. Her bosses loved the idea.

Now pursuing a doctorate in musicology at the University of Kentucky, Washburne anticipates a career as a music professor specializing in bluegrass and Appalachian mountain music.

She never saw herself being the teaching type until “one time I was showing a Scout some chords and strumming on the guitar, sharing the little bit that I knew with someone else, and it dawned on me that I was teaching.”

Davilyn Rohr, Philmont Training Center

Although Philmont is known for its treks, it’s also the home of Philmont Training Center, which hosts a variety of conferences throughout the summer season.

Adult leaders learn the latest Scouting techniques, while their spouses and children enjoy hikes, games, crafts and other activities. A team of 17 program counselors leads these activities, and Davilyn Rohr, a 22-year-old from Glendale, Ariz., leads that team. With four seasons under her belt, the Kansas State graduate is one of the more experienced employees at PTC.

Rohr says PTC enables adults and youth in Scouting to learn how to be leaders in their units, councils and communities. The PTC youth programs introduce young children to Scouting values and practices.

Rohr grew up in a Scouting family and watched with envy as her brothers enjoyed Boy Scouts. She “loves the opportunity to pass down Scouting” to the next generation. She also loves the ever-changing nature of her job, where she might interact with an 80-year-old and an 8-month-old in a single afternoon.

One of the challenges of working at PTC, Rohr says, is battling the misconception that it’s exclusively for male Scouts. She enjoys the chance to create a more inclusive perception of the camp.

“We’re training Scouting leaders from all across the country, so the PTC has a really unique opportunity to change the path of Scouting’s future,” she says. “Instead of training Scoutmasters how to just educate boys, they’re expanding their horizons to incorporate whole families now.” 


About the Author

Jessica McClelland is an experienced backpacker who has spent two summer seasons on staff at Philmont Scout Ranch. Most recently, she served as a photographer for the ranch’s marketing team. She is studying sustainable development and geology at Appalachian State and works as a freelance photographer in her spare time.

“Both seasons pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me mentally and physically,” McClelland says, “but what stuck out to me the most were the relationships
I made with my coworkers.”

While interviewing the women for this story, McClelland says she saw a passion for Scouting “like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

“They pour their hearts out about how Philmont has touched their lives, made them better people, stronger leaders and kinder friends,” she says. “Philmont pushes their limits and expands their horizons, and they chase new knowledge with vigor and purpose.”


Rising Up

The Ute Park Fire that started in May 2018 burned more than 26,000 acres on Philmont property. Philmont subsequently did not open for the 2018 season. All seven- and 12-day treks, as well as individual backcountry programs, were canceled.

Other programs, including conferences at the Philmont Training Center, remained open.

Even though treks were canceled, many summer staffers stayed at Philmont and elected to work in the Philmont Recovery Corps. This wasn’t the job they signed up for, but these men and women rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The group helped restore Philmont’s backcountry and worked to prevent future fires from becoming so destructive. Their work means Philmont is ready to welcome campers into the backcountry for autumn adventures, winter treks, the 2019 summer season and beyond.

Some Philmont staff members chose to leave, but they made a difference, too. Many filled needs elsewhere, taking their talents to local council camps or to the BSA’s three other national high-adventure bases: Florida Sea Base, Northern Tier and the Summit Bechtel Reserve.

2 Comments

  1. My niece Elizabeth Harper has been an active participate at Philmont for a few years. Her love of outdoors and comrodrety in the friendship she’s made are infectious. Watching her take on new challenges and leadership has provided her with skills she will carry through life.

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