MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA — The skies had opened up shortly after lunch, keeping most in the sleepy coastal town inside. But a group of Cub Scouts was just venturing out into the elements.
What made the group different from the Cub Scouts of the past 108 years was that among the five bundled-up fourth graders in Pack 30 was a pair of 9-year-old girls, Cia Donohoe and Lily Oliver.
The den based in Manchester-by-the-Sea is part of the Spirit of Adventure Council, which includes troops in 75 Massachusetts communities from Milton to the New Hampshire border. It has joined the Boy Scouts of America’s early adopter program for welcoming girls, a significant step for an institution that has been criticized for being slow to adapt to changing times.
“For us, it was a no-brainer,” said Todd Cooper, Pack 30’s cubmaster. “There’s nothing in the curriculum that is gender specific. These are values or skills that have nothing to do with gender. It just has to do with being kids and growing into adults.”
While girls are currently being allowed to join the Cub Scouts for children 7 to 10 years old, they won’t be allowed to join the Boy Scouts — for ages 11-17 — until February 2019. The troops for older scouts will be divided by gender.
More than half of the 272 councils nationwide have welcomed girls to the Cub Scouts. According to the Boy Scouts of America, over 3,000 girls have registered, though this number is expected to rise during spring recruiting, which is underway.
“When the Boy Scout curriculum was developed, it was helping kids have character attributes that allowed them to be good providers for their family, good conscious voters, and active citizens in their community,” said Chuck Eaton, chief executive of the Spirit of Adventure Council. “As society changed, our curriculum hasn’t changed but those things we instill in young men are appropriate for women as well.”
Donohoe and Oliver — both of whom were introduced to the organization through brothers and friends — said they were drawn to the boys’ group because they prefer the active nature of Boy Scouts to the comparatively sedentary one of the Girl Scouts.
The boys, they had noticed, went to fire stations, slept on battleships, and took annual camping trips to to Singing Beach in Manchester.
The girls, on the other hand, did a lot of crafts and sold cookies, they said.
“I’ve been a tomboy since preschool,” said Oliver, whose blonde curls were covered by a purple beanie. “I have the pictures to prove it.”
Sara Brea, who founded the Cub Scout pack at Emily G. Wetherbee School in Lawrence in 2016, said she pushed to include girls from the very beginning after seeing how much her daughter, now 7, loved all of the active outdoor activities. Now, her pack of 30 is about half boys and half girls.
“They are young enough that they didn’t realize that there was Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and it was separate and they did separate things,” Brea said. “They all interact and intermingle together. It’s not that girls are on one side and boys are on another side. They haven’t been as affected by the outside world that separates them.”
Last year, the Lawrence pack spent a week swimming, canoeing, and shooting arrows at Lone Tree Scout Reservation in Kingston, N.H. The scouts, who live in an urban area, had a blast trying all of the activities at the camp, Brea said.
“There are times that I sit and think about how different the program would be if it were only the boys and only the girls,” Brea said. “I hope that everyone else will eventually see that, too. It’s nice. At the very least, it’s been working for us.”
Denise Burgess, the chief executive of Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, thinks it is important that young boys and girls are allowed to grow and develop in single-gender environments. “The Girl Scouts have been around for 100 years. What we do is based on 100 years of experience and that can’t just be replicated overnight,” Burgess said.
“It’s a part of our image that people don’t think we are very active. We have 10 summer camps that are for girls. We have kayaking, we have sailing, and horseback riding.”
Back in Manchester-by-the-Sea, after scavenging the house for enough boots to cover all of the scouts’ feet, the group walked from den leader Michael Carvalho’s home along the road and down a path into the Clara B. Winthrop Nature Reserve.
In the woods, the goal of the day was to learn survival skills. The scouts created a temporary cover by stretching out a blue tarp and attaching it with rope to nearby trees. Later, they huddled over a square of tin foil on the ground and struck magnesium sticks with steel scrapers to light bits of dryer lint on fire.
Crouching shoulder-to-shoulder, they made tons of sparks like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July, the smoke from the fire mixing with the fog from their breath.
To the boys in the den, the presence of the girls was a nonissue.
Asked about his feelings on the change, Avery Cooper, Todd’s son, shrugged.
“It’s perfectly fine. Now we have more people.”