Portland's New Alternative Scouts

The 55th Cascadia Scouts welcome all comers to an outdoorsy scouting frontier

By Alex Zielinski June 4, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Cascadia Scout Jackson Jewett at the Tillamook Forest Center

Ethan Jewett and Travis Wittwer launched the 55th Cascadia Scouts with a wink. The “55” comes from Wes Anderson’s affectionately kitschy portrayal of retro camp life, Moonrise Kingdom. The two local scoutmasters cobbled together uniforms: matching brimmed hats; army-green shirts; worn boots; and blue, green, and white neckerchiefs (à la the unofficial Cascadia flag). 

But whimsy aside, while the century-old Boy Scouts of America pledge to “be prepared,” the upstart 55th may be better suited to the future. The troop—open to boys, girls, men, and women—aims to become part of a growing “alternative” scouting scene. Over the past few years, the BSA has outraged outsiders and alienated supporters by excluding gay participants. (The organization recently proposed admitting gay scouts, but not leaders.) In a city where no social problem is too big for a homespun solution, Jewett and Wittwer hope to make scouting multiple choice, for their kids and others.

“It’s something a lot of people in this community are really looking for,” says Jewett. “We just happened to be the first to take action.” A seven-year veteran of scouting, Jewett argues that aside from discriminatory policies, the BSA has drifted from its roots. Instead of building campfires and navigating trails, many of its scouts are glued to computer screens, earning their “programming” or “game design” badges. The Cascadian rebels are affiliated with the Baden-Powell Service Association, a US branch of a British group that weds a still-woodsy approach with social tolerance.  

“It’s all about getting back to the roots of scouting,” Jewett says. “Being indoors is a distant second to exploring the outdoors.” The new troop intends to create age-appropriate expeditions, from day hikes in local parks to exploring the Pacific Crest Trail.

Image: Nomad

So far, the 55th has attracted notice from one of Portland’s more famous outdoors wanderers. “A lot of people whose sons are Boy Scouts disagree with the discrimination,” says Cheryl Strayed, the author whose hit memoir Wild recounts her own misadventures on the Pacific Crest Trail. “They simply decide to overlook it, but I can’t.” She says she hopes to involve her two kids in the new outfit.

The 55th isn’t looking to butt heads with Portland’s mainstream scouts. Jewett says he’d like his troop to collaborate with the BSA, especially when it comes to leader training and adult background checks. In the aftermath of high-profile sex-abuse cases, Jewett says the BSA now has top-notch safety training for prospective troop leaders. 

By spring, 90 registered Cascadian scouts were active in four age-group sections. At one meeting, parents eagerly pitched Portlandian fundraising ideas (“A bike wash!” “Cupcake sale!” “Can we sell beer?”) for uniforms and gear. The showing left Jewett confident that the 55th is blazing the right trail. 

“Portland is ready,” he says, “to make the core values of inclusive scouting a priority.”

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