Ashley “GRIZZ” Gould is our new Camp Robbinswold Property and Operations Manager. She is the first woman to hold this position, as well as a Girl Scout alum, former summer camp staff member, and longtime work party volunteer. Read on for some of GRIZZ’s experiences and insights about camp, outdoor programming, and community building!
How did you get involved in Girl Scouting and camp?
I was a junior in high school when I was introduced to Girl Scouts when my best friend asked me to join her troop. In the summer of 2001, when we were both 17, we participated in the counselor-in-training (CIT) program at Camp Robbinswold. While I hadn’t been to Robbinswold before, I remember being excited to spend a summer on the water and in the woods. I also remember looking forward to developing my outdoor leadership skills and gaining more experience working with young people. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect by following my friend to camp, but I did sense that whatever I was getting myself into was going to be a worthwhile adventure!
Later, while I was attending Western Washington University (WWU) in 2005, part of my course work as a Recreation major involved participating in an outdoor education internship. Christine “Stiner” Avakian was the Camp Director at Robbinswold at the time. Stiner also happened to be a recent graduate from WWU’s Recreation program, and she invited me to come back to Robbinswold as the Nature Specialist. Having already gained so much from my CIT experience at Robbinswold, choosing to do my internship as the camp Nature Specialist was a no-brainer. I knew that I would have many different spaces to use as “outdoor classrooms,” including the intertidal beach environment, freshwater streams, lake, trails, and distinct wooded areas on the upper property, as well as a host of flora and fauna to which to introduce campers.
What was it like being the Nature Specialist at Robbinswold?
What I really enjoyed about being in the Nature Specialist role was being able to gently nudge campers and staff to be more curious about things they encounter outdoors and to examine their assumptions about things that are “icky” or “scary” on the beach or in the dirt (i.e., crabs, worms, birds, jellyfish, macroinvertebrates, etc.). There was also the opportunity to ask campers to consider how they interact with these things and how they themselves fit into the bigger picture.
I hope that my facilitating “nature time” for participants helped them experience a little of the magic that can usually be felt in natural spaces. If you are willing to dig in a little, broaden your perspective, or simply sit quietly for a minute, the magic is there, especially at camp.
Programmatically, I got a kick out of facilitating “Each One Teach One” hikes for groups at camp. In this activity, I spaced buddy pairs out along the trail and introduced them to a unique native plant, which they became the ‘experts’ on. Then, each pair of ‘experts’ taught the other pairs as they hiked past their station as we all moved along the trail. By the end, everyone had the opportunity to learn and teach something about the natural environment we were all experiencing as a unified group.
I also spent a lot of time constructing a blindfolded sensory walk trail in the summer of 2005, which someone nicknamed “GRIZZ’s Nature Surprise.” During my two-hour breaks, I would hike out near Primitive Point to clear brush, cut trail, and weave a handline over, under, and around trees, roots, stumps, and through native vegetation along the path. It took me almost the entire summer to complete it, but after some test runs with some brave camp interns and a little fine-tuning it was ready. Younger campers were able to go on the sensory walk and experience nature in a different way, relying only on their sense of touch (and trust in themselves) to feel their way through the forest.
Reflecting on my role as the Nature Specialist so many years ago, the themes of being curious about the natural world, critical thinking, and the importance of environmental stewardship are pretty clear. And of course, these are still important themes that I want to see continue and be felt by everyone who comes to Robbinswold now and in the future.
How are people empowered by learning how to take care of nature?
Specifically at Robbinswold, I have found a space where it is OK to make mistakes, ask for help when I don’t know how to do something, and rely on my community for support when I need it. Throughout my time at Robbinswold, I’ve been fortunate to have met and interacted with some pretty great humans—from rambunctious Brownies to venerable characters who were Girl Scouts and campers at Robbinswold in the 1940s. I have worked under the tutelage of several skilled mentors and teachers spanning many generations of Robbinswold Girl Scouts and committed camp stewards, all devoted to ensuring the longevity of this special place.
From my perspective, stewarding nature and the built environment at Robbinswold have always gone hand in hand. There is this shared sense of commitment to one another and connection to the landscape—we are responsible for protecting the space and ensuring that people coming to camp after us will be able to enjoy it as we did. Whether it is making sure no pony beads are forgotten in a bunk, working together to move benches in the lodge, cutting back huckleberry and keeping it from encroaching on the units, ensuring a fire is totally put out, or simply keeping our feet on the trail, we are ensuring that the spaces are left as good as or better than we found them. This shared “ownership” and responsibility to a place is something I have always felt at Robbinswold, and it empowers me. These group norms and the culture of stewardship must be consciously passed on to new community members so they aren’t lost over time. Similarly, these values translate to protecting nature and the environment outside of camp.
I think back to being the Nature Specialist and encouraging campers to discover shore crabs under the beach cobbles at Robbinswold. Sometimes, campers were afraid at first to be near the crabs or to touch them. Similarly, humans often make judgments based on what we see on the surface and are afraid of what they aren’t familiar with. And it takes a little bit of effort to dig in deeper and to understand, and to be curious—whether it’s a person, an ecosystem, a plant, or even a creature that you find on the beach.
How did this living thing get to this particular spot? What environmental factors shaped its journey? What things could it control and what things were beyond its control? And to go beyond considering the perspective of a little crab on the Hood Canal, a giant cedar tree presiding over Little Creek, or other natural histories, how do I put myself in the shoes of somebody else in my group and try to see things from their unique perspective? Furthermore, how did I get here? How do I show up? And what is my impact on the environment and in the world? This web of interconnectedness is something you can definitely see at Girl Scout camp if you take the time to explore and think critically.
What’s so powerful about making human connections while in nature?
I think we all have a human connection to nature, even if we didn’t necessarily grow up that way. When people get outside in nature and get outside of their routines, something beneficial happens that I don’t know that I can accurately put into words. Even if it’s not their cup of tea to begin with, I’ve seen people sort of ‘grow into the feeling’ and be put more at ease by spending time in nature.
It depends on somebody’s background, but getting out of our homes, cities, or built environment can often help a person reset. At camp, we are sort of forced to build relationships with one another and navigate how to work together to achieve mutual success—from choosing a suitable overnight spot, to cooking a shared meal, or encouraging one another to keep going when the hike becomes steep, the fire won’t light, or the wind literally blows us off course. Being in nature and at camp provides a unique opportunity for connectedness with one another, which isn’t always something we have to intentionally engage with in the “real world.” At camp, it is necessary to interact with one another, build positive relationships, and face challenges directly as a team, which can be a very powerful experience.
What about being outdoors makes you feel strong and confident?
Working for the Department of Ecology, the WA Conservation Corps, and as an Ecologist with the King County Dept. of Natural Resources and Parks gave me a significant amount of experience doing outdoor work. Specifically, I learned a lot about using hand and power tools, managing planting and invasive species control projects, and working with teams of people. At work parties, if you have a little bit of knowledge or even a bit of interest in something, the community will encourage you to practice your skills and possibly take on a bigger leadership role in more technical projects once you’ve advanced your skillset. For instance, I developed a lot of my confidence around trail building by participating in work parties at Camp Robbinswold over many years. At the end of a work weekend, it was always satisfying to be able to point at a section of trail and say to my fellow trail builders, “Hey, look what we just built!” and know that our work will have a lasting, positive impact on programming and the property. I have had many opportunities to learn skills from and work alongside other strong, knowledgeable, and confident women at camp, and I am sincerely grateful for those experiences.
Having experiences like these at camp helped me be a confident leader throughout my career as an environmental professional. I have come to understand that I can’t know everything and that I have the ability to ask questions, learn from others, and seek out support when I need it. If I try out a new skill or technique, I will learn from whatever the outcome is, and I know that it is ok not to be successful on my first try.
During one particular project, I remember watching Bill Morris (our former Camp Robbinswold Maintenance Specialist) fell a large big leaf maple tree on Robbinswold’s upper property. Once Bill cut the log in half lengthwise, it was up to me and the rest of my volunteer team to haul that log up a hill, set it in place, and construct a footbridge. We used a rigging system to haul the log up the hill. Under Bill’s direction, we attached a pulley high in a tree at the top of the slope, with one end of the rope anchored to the maple, and my team pulling on the loose end. I took the position at the front of the line and worked with the group to maneuver the log up to the trail above. Unfortunately, the pulley broke while we were working, which sent me cartwheeling down the hill, flying over the log, and into the ferns at the bottom of the slope. Miraculously, I managed to only injure my pride—it was not graceful! But literally being able to fall down, have other people pick you up, and then get the project done together—that’s always stayed with me. Also, safety first!
What are you looking forward to about your new position at Camp Robbinswold?
I’m excited to steward Camp Robbinswold and her community in a new way. I look forward to being engaged with new generations of Girl Scouts and having a hand in giving people access to an environment where they can experience the outdoors, reconnect with old friends, and contribute to the enduring legacy of place and outdoor programming at Robbinswold. I’m excited to work closely with Haley “Nerd” Peel [the Robbinswold Camp Director] and resident camp staff to create the magic for campers. I also look forward to interacting with troops and their troop leaders. I am fortunate to have Jim Messmer and Jesse Jacobson (our two former Camp Robbinswold Managers) as mentors and the committed volunteer community to help me with my onboarding. I know there will be a few bumps in the road as I come up to speed in my new role, but I am confident in my skills and the support I have around me to be successful.
In my new role as the Site Operations Manager, I have an opportunity to deepen my understanding of Robbinswold and broaden my maintenance skillset, which I am excited to dive into. I’m excited to learn about camp through a new lens and to experience the cadence of camp throughout the cycle of a whole calendar year. It turns out it isn’t always summertime here at camp! Currently, I am learning how to best deal with trees that blow down in wind storms, leaves that clog gutters, and permits that need to be renewed on an annual basis. I am now responsible for everything that needs to be done to care for this place, from making sure the unit equipment is functioning, the forestry plan is up to date, ACA standards are being met, the dock is ready to go in the water, the trails are maintained, and the buildings are winterized, to engaging camp stewards in volunteer work parties and representing Robbinswold to the local community. I look forward to building relationships beyond Robbinswold too and being a part of the year-round life on the Hood Canal.
What advice would you give your 17-year-old self?
Be confident; you can do hard things. Challenge yourself to develop new skills. Work with your hands. Rely on your people and your community. Ask more questions. Keep a mean spreadsheet! (I’m so thankful for all of Jim’s spreadsheets.) History is important—learn from it, the good and the bad. Take the time to share and hear stories. You’re not always right—be curious. It’s okay to take up space at camp and in the world. And be yourself.
Huge thanks to GRIZZ for speaking with us! Be sure to say hi the next time you’re at Camp Robbinswold!