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  • Jarod Contreras

Following Their Path

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

50 Years of Women in the Ranger Department Shines a Light on Progress, Trail Ahead

Logan Hardin (far left), Sarah Cobb, and Rebecca Wiebke sit in the meadow enjoying the tall grass and warm sunlight. Photo by Lex Selig.

August 1, 2022 — In the summer of 1972, two women, Nancy Wells and Kathy Leach, stepped onto Philmont Scout Ranch and made history: they became the first female rangers. Now, 50 years later, women serving as rangers have formed a legacy of leadership and excellence inextricably tied to the positive reputation Philmont holds in so many minds. That legacy has shaped the lives of many, especially one of the first female rangers: Nancy Wells.

Wells’ relationship with Philmont began long before her summer on staff. She had visited the Ranch with her family a couple of times growing up. When her father and brother went on trek, she said she remembers thinking how cool that was. Wells was a Girl Scout and had a passion for camping and backpacking. In 1969, when the BSA opened Exploring to girls, Wells applied. “I want to be a Boy Scout,” Wells said.

Soon after being accepted into the Exploring program, she applied to Philmont when she was 17. Unfortunately, she received a “very nice letter” back from the Ranch that said Philmont wasn’t “ready for girls,” even though the Exploring program was.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll give you guys a year to get ready,’” Wells said.

So, she applied in 1970, and in 1971 and in 1972. Four years in a row, Philmont told Wells the same thing: the Ranch was not ready for women. Finally, in the spring of 1972 Wells received a phone call: the Ranch changed its mind, it was ready for girls.

Nancy Wells poses with her crew in the summer of 1972. Wells is one of the first female rangers of Philmont Scout Ranch. Photo Courtesy of Philmont Photo Archive.

“I’m probably the drip that started the flood,” Wells said about all the women who followed. Wells was not alone that summer. Her fellow female ranger was Kathy Leach.

Leach’s brothers had all worked at Philmont, however, none of them ever worked in the Ranger Department. She, herself, had worked nearby at the girls’ camp, Cimarroncita. One day, the Ranch called Leach explaining they had a female ranger, asking if Leach would be the second. Leach said she has no idea if she was the first call or the 10th, but she said yes. She became one of two of the first female rangers.

“What does Philmont mean to me? It’s one giant door that leads to an incredible world of discovery, and it can be a discovery of so many things. But the one that speaks to me, especially about young women, is they learn they are more than they thought they were,” Leach said.

When that door opened for Leach in the summer of 1972, she said she found precious wilderness and a culture founded on growth and learning. However, she also found pushback.

Women rangers at Philmont celebrate at the top of Baldy Mountain. Photo Courtesy of Philmont Photo Archive.

“My first year we had a group summit on Baldy,” Leach said. “All the rangers broke out of their training groups, and we all hiked Baldy. It was fun. It was neat to see everybody climbing up there. As I got to the top, I heard this voice say, ‘Oh no’ as I showed up, and I hoped that would never happen again.”

Leach said she is discouraged hearing that, after all these years, there are still remnants of the boys’ club that exclaimed “oh no”.

Katie Horn, one of the two Rayado trek coordinators this summer, described a moment in 2021 when she was a ranger trainer. A crew approached her to ask how she felt about women joining the department “in the last few years”. Horn said she could not believe that the crew had not realized that women didn’t begin working at Philmont after the BSA opened to girls in 2019 but instead had been at Philmont for decades.

“It feels like I have to be on all the time to show all of the Rayado women rangers and participants that women can endure at Philmont. Women can endure in Scouting. I get to be that person [who] leads the way,” Horn said.

Nadine Richardson, left, embraces Kate Warrick, right, as she arrives back into base camp after leading a Rayado crew for 21 days in the backcountry on July 9, 2021. Photo by Marielle Scott.

Horn described the feeling that sometimes being a woman at Philmont feels like being a zoo animal. She thinks the crews that actively don’t want a female ranger must assume that women aren’t as strong. Horn said she hopes that by sharing that being a woman at Philmont sometimes means being singled out, she can help crews come to the Ranch hoping not “for a male, they’ll just come in hoping for a ranger.”

“I think there’s a lot of unconscious bias that occurs in the world. These advisors [who] are asking questions or making comments about us being women might not even realize the impact of their words,” Horn said.

Horn reinforced the importance of sharing this side of the experience because it builds camaraderie. She described feeling responsible, that she was doing something wrong, for the comments early in her Philmont career. But, by talking with fellow female rangers, she realized that many experience the same: that it isn’t her fault.

“I think we have to talk about it because they need to be called out, and not everyone has the courage to call out someone in the moment,” Horn said.

Both Leach and Horn reinforced that Philmont has nevertheless made great strides, and they hope to see that progress continue.

“I was ecstatic when we got to our conservation site, and there were women crew members working for cons. I was bouncing off the clouds. It was just so exciting, and they were so fun. It just created a great experience for our trek,” Leach said about her experience as an advisor on trek in 2013. “That was almost more exciting than having a female ranger. I got the sense that maybe acceptance for women was growing.”

Catherine Hendricks gives a trailhead talk her crew, instructing scouts on map and compass skills at Philmont Scout Ranch on July 14, 2022 in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Emily Schmidt.

Going forward, Wells, Leach and Horn reinforced the importance of increasing women’s presence at Philmont. Increasing female participant participation will lead to an increased presence of women on staff.

Horn illustrated the importance of supporting those women once they come on staff. Providing the voices, guidance and leadership of fellow women as a support network to assuage the self-doubt she has seen in so many of her female colleagues.

Leach described the need for increasing the visual representation of women across the Ranch. Leach said a fellow female ranger once said while the Scout Law can take you pretty far, adding “tolerance, respect and compassion” is a needed step.

“I look at the role of the woman Ranger, and what she can do, and the power of that position, and she just blows me away,” Leach said. “My heart belongs to the Ranger Department, and it always will.”

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