Fort Vancouver was restored to its former glory Saturday morning.
Hundreds of tents filled the Parade Ground just south of Officers Row, the same field that soldiers used for pitching tents in the 19th century. Members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Chinook Indian Nation blessed the Earth with drum songs shortly after dawn, and people dressed in Engagé, the traditional garb of Fort Vancouver workers, wandered the dew-laden grounds.
Only it wasn’t soldiers rising to the bugle call. Instead, it was nearly 1,000 Boy Scouts from across Washington and Oregon who had gathered at Fort Vancouver for a “camporee,” an overnight camping event for Scouts and their families to have a day of outdoor fun and education.
The event is a partnership between the Boy Scouts of America, the National Park Service, the city of Vancouver, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Chinook Indian Nation. It was first held at Fort Vancouver in 2018.
The camporee was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making Saturday’s event a special return. In past years, the event drew some 400 Scouts. This year, about 850 Boy Scouts and 200 Cub Scouts attended.
Most Scouts arrived with their troops on Friday and set up camp despite torrential rain fall that persisted through the night.
“Last night was the wettest I’ve gotten camping in a long time,” said Ben Blau, chairman of the Cascadia District of Boy Scouts of America.
An opening ceremony began at 8 a.m. featuring Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Superintendent Tracy Fortmann, Spiritual Leader of the Cowlitz Tribe Tanna Engdahl, Vice Chair of the Chinook Tribe Sam Robinson and Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.
Following a flag-raising ceremony and the firing of a Howitzer, Scouts set off for a day of activities throughout the Fort, including tomahawk throwing, navigation and compass work, fire building, cooking, first aid and more.
Scout leaders dressed in traditional Fort Vancouver garb were available to assist Scouts throughout the event. Near the barracks, members of the National Park Service gave a historic weapons demonstration, including the firing of the Howitzer and a Model 61 Springfield rifle.
Taken together, the event gave the impression that one had stumbled into Fort Vancouver in the 19th century.
After finishing tomahawk throwing, John Clark, 14, from Camas, walked with his troop toward their next activity, navigation and compass work. As he walked, he held a piece of splintered wood like a trophy.
“It’s a souvenir,” he said. “I threw the axe right at the target, and it cut this piece right off.”
He had never done anything like tomahawk throwing before, and the feeling was exhilarating, he said.
“It’s great to be able to do stuff like this again,” he said. “It’s definitely better than just staying at home.”
Over at the navigation and compass station was an all-girls patrol unit getting ready to head to their next activity, first aid.
In 2017, the Boy Scouts of America reversed a century-old policy that prevented girls from joining Scouts. Many girls participated in 2018’s camporee, and even more were present Saturday.
Freya Rozell, 17, and Helen Dreasher, 16, remember being in the first all-girls patrol unit to win a two-person saw race in 2018, and they were excited to be able to return to the camporee this year. Despite having to set up their camp in the rain and sleeping through a downpour, Rozell and Dreasher were in high spirits and excited to have a campfire in the evening.
There were more than just Boy Scouts at the Fort on Saturday: Roughly 200 Cub Scouts — ages 5 to 10 — arrived for the day to participate in activities at Pearson Air Museum, including archery, knot tying, pinewood derby racing and a cast-iron cooking contest.
Between Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, volunteers and family, some 1,500 people participated in the camporee.
Following the day’s activities, the Scouts returned to their camps for a night of campfires, music, performances and more. Today, they will pack up their camps and head out, leaving no trace behind.
“In 2018, the site was in better shape after the Scouts left,” said Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Superintendent Tracy Fortmann. Additionally, many Scouts volunteer at Fort Vancouver following the camporee to help keep it in good shape, she said.
“It’s wonderful to have young people here who are learning these skills, how to use a compass, how to put up a tent, how to build fire, how to stay dry in the rain,” she said. “Being a Scout is a great way to instill a sense of responsibility, stewardship, respect, inclusivity and a sense of grace.”
Kaleen Deatherage, board chair of the Cascade Pacific Council of Boy Scouts of America, agreed.
“Leadership via service is a big, big value that Scouts hold,” she said. “If other people were oriented to just pitch in and get things done like Scouts are, we would have stronger communities. Scouts are taught to pitch in and work together.”
Event organizers are expecting 2024’s camporee to be even bigger, as it will be Fort Vancouver’s 200th anniversary. Nonetheless, Deatherage believes that many Scouts will remember Saturday’s event forever.
“They’ll look back on scouting and they will remember this weekend,” she said. “That’s one of the many cool things that scouting creates is the memories. One day they’ll look back and say, ‘Hey, remember that huge camporee at Fort Vancouver when we slept in the field?’”