Camping like a girl

Friday, July 11, 2003

WAYNE COUNTY, Mo. -- Her blond hair pulled back in pigtails and dark eyes shining, 12-year-old Erica Steger clapped her hands, stomped her feet and sang along with the 42 other girls crowded into the camp dining lodge.

There's little evidence left of the shy, reserved girl from Cape Girardeau who first came to Cherokee Ridge Girl Scout Camp four years ago. Once afraid to ask questions or participate in group activities, Erica, who is hearing impaired, has blossomed under the girl-powered influence of the camp.

"I guess it's changed my life in a way," Erica said. "I'm so much more outgoing now. I've made a lot of friends, and it's been such a learning experience."

For over 35 years, Girl Scouts from Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois have made the trek down a winding gravel road in Wayne County to a place where lasting memories are made, fears are conquered and giggling girls make strides toward womanhood.

Scouts are not required to attend the camp, and most come as individuals, not in troops. Around 240 girls signed up for this summer's camp at a cost of around $125 each.

A simple wooden sign bearing the official Girl Scout emblem marks the entrance to Cherokee Ridge Girl Scout Camp -- a 1,100-acre tract of land located near Sam A. Baker State Park on the banks of the St. Francis River.

"It's a place to gain self-confidence and learn life skills," said camp director Sara Scheper -- nicknamed Slugger for her softball-playing days. "It's beautiful here. I'd live here all year if I had a choice."

Girls' rite

The five-day camp is a rite of passage for many girls. It's often the first time they're away from their parents for an extended period, and their first time without readily accessible electricity and hot water.

"I've seen girls cry when they get here, and I've seen those same girls cry when it's time to leave because they don't want to go home," Scheper said.

The summer resident camp runs from June to the end of July, and is broken into five-day sessions based on the age and interests of campers.

A wide range of activities -- from float trips on the St. Francis River and overnight trail rides to campfire cooking and pitching a tent blindfolded -- make the experience unforgettable.

"This place rocks," said 12-year-old Angel Reid of Cape Girardeau. "It definitely beats sitting at home, being bored."

The girls are inclined to break out in loud, enthusiastic songs -- like "Bananas Unite" and "Wisconsin Milk" -- at any given moment. The same whimsical chants and ballads that were sung decades ago still echo in the dining hall at mealtime and punctuate the quiet of the woods as campers make their way from one activity to the next.

Canoeing and fishing in the camp's 25-acre lake, playing on basketball and volleyball courts, going to a swimming pool and archery lessons are all accountable for their peeling cheeks and sun-streaked hair.

By far, the most popular camp pastime involves donning helmets and boots and being hoisted onto the back of a horse.

Cherokee Ridge is home to 19 horses, all well-seasoned in the task of training inexperienced riders. That knowledge is often of little comfort to first-time riders like Allie Hardesty.

The thought of sitting astride a snorting, pawing animal that stood several feet taller than her was very intimidating for the 9-year-old from Cape Girardeau.

But after a few tense minutes in the saddle, Allie's stiff body relaxed and a smile spread across face. It's a look that Cherokee Ridge counselors have become familiar with over the years -- a symbol of proud accomplishment that serves as the cornerstone of the camp.

"I was worried I would fall off, but once I was up there it was really neat," Allie said. "I'm glad I did it."

Modern additions

While Cherokee Ridge upholds many Girl Scouting traditions, a few things have changed since the first group of scouts stayed there in 1966.

An air-conditioning system has been added to the dining lodge, as well as a television and VCR. Two staff cabins now have electricity, and a new pool house with showers and hot water was built in 1997.

Even with the updates, the overall interest in Girl Scout camp has waned over the years. In the early 1990s, the camp attracted more than 400 girls each summer. This year, enrollment is down to 240 girls, and sessions were cut from seven to five days in hopes of boosting attendance.

"The camp has changed, but it's still the same in most ways," Scheper said. "The girls are introduced to so many new things, it's really a growing experience. It always has been."

After five days of living without electricity, hot water and parents, the girls leave Cherokee Ridge with a new-found satisfaction in themselves and a respect for nature.

"It's been really cool," said 9-year-old Macayla Hopple. "I've learned a lot of stuff I never thought I'd be interested in."

335-6611, ext. 128


A history of Cherokee Ridge Girl Scout Camp:

1966: First piece of land purchased for camp by a girl scout troop from Perryville, Mo.

1968: 25-acre lake built

1973: Outdoor chapel built

1976: Shower house and pool added

1980: Fourteen horses purchased for the camp

1981: New barn and corral constructed.

1992: Cabins constructed in place of platform tents that were previously used.

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