Bluff City, TN

I Was the Only Guy in a Girls Summer Camp

John M. Dabbs

Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash

I was adventurous even as a boy, growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I lived to play and explore in the woods. My ideal job was that of fire-tower lookout for the forest service. We had a fire-tower within a mile of our home when I was a kid, and would often hike to it, talk to the ranger and check out the cabin and the tower.

The adventure begins

Entering the third grade, I joined the cub scouts. Our group -Pack 109- met after school and played a few games. Otherwise, we just drank kool-aid and ate cookies. My expectations were far from being met. I quickly lost interest and dropped out the following year - the year that changed everything.

That following year, my sister joined the Girl Scouts. They needed a troop leader, and they quickly enlisted my mom. She needed help. When my sister talked my cousin into joining with her, mom drafted my aunt Judy, who "couldn’t help" after a few meetings. I’m not sure why.

My time in the cub scouts came to a close because of boredom. I would hang out in our elementary school library while they had their weekly Girl Scout Troop (ironically Troop 109) meetings. It wasn’t too bad... then summer came.

The freedom of summer

Summer had me playing on the farm and helping my grandparents. I would swing in their backyard and play in the creek. Often I’d catch crawdads (crayfish), or just fish for the few bluegills in the creek as the cows watched.

I remember one evening mom was wrapping a cardboard box with aluminum foil. She placed a large candle-type thing in it and cooked dinner. It wasn’t too bad. Dinner was edible, and over the course of a few days, they cooked more meals oddly like this — outdoors.

They announced that Girl Scout Camp was starting, and my mother and sister would go for two weeks. They’d be home late at night. My euphoria was cut-off mid-smile as I was told to put some things together. I would be going too.

Camp Hickory Tree

The Girl Scout Camp was a primitive camp nestled in the bottom of Holston Mountain. It was very humid and comprised of a few clearings. There was the main shelter with a kitchen built on one end and a few other shelters with picnic tables scattered over the forested acreage. The few and rare amenities include a set of chamber toilets.

Each morning, the fresh troops would arrive by bus and loosely assemble and get together in a very loose formation at the flag pole. From there they would move about in groups to their assigned locations for the day. Each troop leader and a helper would travel in front of and behind the girls as they hiked to and from locations. Each leader and helper carried a garden hoe to kill snakes. Yes, I said snakes.

These mountains are full of snakes. We had regular garden snakes, black snakes, and a few poisonous varieties. The copperheads and rattlesnakes were the ones most feared by the ranks. I found them interesting. My dad, an installer/repairman for the local telephone company often worked at the sites on top of the mountain. He once came home late at night with a rattlesnake tied to the rear bumper of his work van. The snake stretched from one end to the other. He'd run over it on the mountain road earlier that evening.

We heard tales of people killing snakes daily at the camp, but I saw nothing other than a black snake during my time there. It would crawl along the top of the cabinets in the kitchen of the main shelter. This was a huge disappointment for me. I found the slithering reptiles interesting and liked to study them - from a healthy distance.

An expert in wilderness survival is born

I had to stay with mom every day while they were at camp. My duties were to hang out with mom and help her as needed. As the resident pyromaniac, I was often called upon to start fires. The girls in each group were paired up to foster an independent spirit. Each pair of girls would have to start a small fire to cook their meals on occasion. Although it wasn’t a daily occurrence, it was enough to keep me semi-interested. Keep in mind I’m an elementary schooler at this age, and not interested in girls other than noticing some are very pretty. I had my first kiss in grade school - it was on a dare that ended up with the girl slapping my face. The gym wasn't the same after that day. I stayed away from girls if I could help it. They could be violent.

One day my cousin came and went with me. Joe and I were told the girls were going to have to cook their lunch, so mom put together a primitive camp stove comprised of a candle type bunsen burner and 1/2 pound can with holes in it for the stove. She had given me a baggie with hamburger meat in it to eat, after cooking it. We made it to lunchtime when they realized this was the wrong day for cooking — but at least Joe and I had something to eat. I think mom and my sister could share with someone else... Such were our days at Camp Hickory Tree. …and yes, that was the actual name of the camp.

Camp Sky-Wa-Mo

Roughly seven miles south was the main camp of the Sequoyah Council. Along the same mountain, this camp had actual buildings — complete with a kitchen, dining hall, caretaker’s cabin, and infirmary. There were raised platforms for the girls to pitch their tents (made specifically for these platforms). There was also a group-lodge with a kitchen and great-room that doubled as the bunk-room and activity room.

I was with them on a special weekend event at the group-lodge during a school break. My sister ended up going home and staying with my aunt Gail as she came down with the flu. My aunt lived nearby in Bluff City and was not working at the time. I think she was a teacher then and had the summers off.

Back at the camp - I was helping in the kitchen when I noticed several women looking for a can-opener. They searched every drawer and ended up using a knife. They were stabbing holes along the edge of the lid to cut it open. I tugged at my mom’s blouse until I finally got her attention. I pointed to the can-opener mounted on the wall near the back door. I’m not sure why, but she seemed mad at me afterward. I've always been observant like this, but not very vocal.

Aunt Gail

Within the hour, I was told I was sick too. My aunt Gail (who is one of my mom's sisters) was coming to get me too. I would spend the rest of this long weekend with my aunt and sister. I had never been to her place before. Aunt Gail had a nice apartment over a hardware store in Bluff City, Tennessee. It was a small family-owned general hardware store, where you can find almost anything - with the help of the owners. Thomas Hardware was a great place.

Gail is one of my favorite aunts. I remember sleeping on the couch with my sister and eating excellent food. Her boyfriend Jim came by and we had a delightful visit with him. I’ve always liked him. He married my aunt Gail. They’ve been married for close to 50 years now.

I’m not sure why I had such a fondness for my aunt Gail. She's always had pretty hair that is long and brown. But that isn't it, maybe it's because she let me go downstairs to the hardware store with her. The kitchen sink had stopped up, and she got something in the store from Mrs. Thomas to open the drain. The hardware store was an old-time variety with lots of odds and ends that are no longer seen today. It was a treasure trove to a boy in those days… probably today too!


My days of scouting were fun back then, though it was mostly with a group of girls I went to school with. I didn’t get involved with the Boy Scouts again until I married and our pastor talked me into resurrecting the troop at our church.

Since then, my sons were born, and I was their Cubmaster through cub scouts and helped in their Boy Scout Troop too. I’ve also volunteered as the medic at the local Boy Scout Camp over the summer — at least for a week during a few summers.

I hate to admit it, but I still think I learned from my time in the Girl Scouts. It carried over to my time leading Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. The trials and tribulations have taught me many valuable lessons that I have used in the Ski Patrol and during Mountain Rescue School.

Scouting is a frame of mind. So get out there and enjoy the woods with a group of guys or gals. It doesn’t matter if it’s one or the other, or both. Just keep an open mind and keep smiling. It’ll pay dividends in the long run.

I learned a lot from being around girls and women at the camp. Give them a wide berth and don't help them unless they want to be helped. Helping people who want to do things themselves and haven't given up yet can get you into hot water. On the other hand, providing a match, lighter, some tinder, and a little know-how without an air of arrogance can go a long way.

I hope you've enjoyed this true story.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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