Exhibit title: Camping in the Jungle Scouting Stories from the Panama Canal Zone

Exhibit is best viewed on desktop computer


Camping in the Jungle

(above) Girl Scout Troop 68 present the colors as onlookers salute. Panama Canal Museum Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries

Often heralded as the "gateway to the world," the Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, merging water, commerce, and culture. Yet its surrounding area, the Panama Canal Zone, was a world unto itself. Extending five miles on each side of the canal, the Zone was controlled by the United States from 1903 to 1979. During that time, many U.S. citizens and their families, working on the construction and operation of the canal, made their homes there.


Many Canal Zone residents viewed themselves as living a thoroughly American life. An important marker of the American lifestyle in the Canal Zone was scouting. Scouting activities included parades, jamborees, and community-wide fundraisers that brought people together and created a connection to the larger American culture.


While some elements of scout life, like the iconic uniforms and patches, are universal, many things made Canal Zone scouting a unique adventure. From carrying a machete to sleeping in jungle hammocks, Canal Zone scouts have fond memories of their exceptional experiences.


-- Sarah Marek, curator



(above) Explorer Post 3 - Las Cruces Trail. Left to right: Don Nobel, Tommy Alexander, Cesar Nieto, Joel Esslinger, Frank Miller,

Frank Townsend (kneeling). Photo courtesy of Frank Townsend.

Whereas our scouting counterparts in the USA usually camped in tents, CZ Explorer scouts relied on jungle hammocks. Explorer Post # 3 was spending the night on the Las Cruces Trail, a 2 day 22 mile trek on that famous trail traversed by Spanish conquistadores, Henry Morgan (the pirate on his way to sack Old Panama), and the gold rush 49'ers. I was unprepared for how fast night falls in the jungle and how dark it gets due to the tree canopy blocking any moonlight. Placing my muddy boots on the hammock ropes to keep them dry, I carefully eased myself into the hammock so as not to cause it to flip for a much needed sleep before resuming our hike tomorrow. What a racket! Night in the jungle is not peacefully quiet, rather a noisy cacophony of insect chirps and buzzing, with a chorus of tree frog trills, and occasional neque (rabbit) squeal or gato solo grunt. Night Scouts!

-- Frank Townsend

(above) Photo courtesy of Mitzi Beers

In the summer of 1963, the Boy Scout Council opened their camp, Camp Chagres, located on the shores of Madden Lake (Lake Alajuela) to the girl scouts of Troop 77. We learned canoing, jungle survival skills, and enjoyed cooking in the outdoor kitchen. We felt very safe in the screened-in bohíos where we slept, in spite of the fact that snakes, very large spiders and noises in the night were prevalent. Camping in the jungle on the shores of the lake that provides the water for the Panama Canal was a unique and memorable experience.

-- Peggy Huff

(above) Boy Scouts are prepared for a long hiking and camping trip. Panama Canal Museum Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries

I was in troop 17 out of Fort Clayton from '62 through '66 when we left "The Zone." Went to 3 summer camps at Camp Chagres next to Gatun Lake. Troop 17 was the very first scout troop to hike the "Camino Real" from Pacific to Atlantic by way of the "Las Cruces Trail" through the jungles. A portion was and still is underwater because of the locks and dams. We went that portion by Cayuco. I also got to participate in US Military Jungle Survival Training put on for the Canal Zone boy scouts. Finally my highlight was going through my ordeal for Boy Scouts of America's Order of the Arrow. I did this at Camp Chagres about a month and a half before we left.

-- Andy Sanchez

[+] click images above for expanded view

I loved scouting in the Canal Zone in the late 1950s. We wore complete and correct uniforms and marched in holiday parades, as well as sleeping in jungle hammocks around campfires.

-- Mimi Stratford Collins

Our uniforms were of white Indianhead material. This was by way of special dispensation from Girl Scout Headquarters because the green uniforms were considered to be excessively hot for the tropics. That is why my badge sash is white.

-- Pat Callahan

Senior Scout Camp, 1948. Photo courtesy of Mitzi Beers

Girl Scouts was unique in the Zone. We sold Girl Scout calendars, not cookies. The calendars had great information on them, like the school schedules, local holidays, etc. We camped at the Girl Scout camp in Gatun. We had to lash dowels to our cots, which were surplus army, I believe, and if you didn't lash them correctly, my mother, the leader, made you do it again. The dowels held up the mosquito netting.

-- Pat Boyd

(above) Canal Zone Boy Scout Troop #10. Panama Canal Museum Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries

I was a member to Troop 17 and participated in the cross Isthmus between Christmas and New Year's Day 1964. I stayed in touch with our Scoutmaster, Captain Bauer aka Captain "B" after my father retired from the Army and we moved to Orlando, FL. Who will ever forget the planes on a "training mission" dropping C-Rations to us or being picked up by an LCM (landing craft – mechanized) from the beach? It truly was an adventure of a lifetime.

-- John Voelpel

I was also a member of Troop 17. On December 17, 1964 I went on a cross Isthmus hike. It was supposed to be 100 miles but we took a wrong turn and walked 117 miles. I know this because they gave me four patches for completing the hike and the patches say 117 miles. I also went to the Jungle training survival school. I am pretty sure we were there at the same time.

-- Bob D. Magic

(above) Boy Scouts of America at Corozal. Photo courtesy of Randy Everson

I remember camping out on "Scout Island" (aka Culebra), just the other side of Naos Island on the causeway. First camp out for me. It rained and I had the front of my tent facing a nice hill. Wasn't long before I had a river flowing in. Good times!

-- Robert Dillon

[+] click images above for expanded view


We took a lot of hikes, and there were a lot of campouts. Campouts in Gatun Lake on Mr. Leon Guerrero's Island, down at a campground on Chiva Chiva trail (where we would find leftover shells from U.S. Military exercises in the Jungle, and a mysterious trailer with satellite dishes and antennas all over the place, hmmmmm), and also campouts up some extraneous river from Madden Lake via canoe (I remember a natural bridge). There were "Snake Talks" at the Jungle Operations Training Center and campouts at the Toro Point lighthouse (at the Atlantic Breakwall) on Fort Sherman.

We spent a lot of time doing cub scout and boy scout stuff.

-- Robert Dillon


I remember the Scouting Store on the second floor of the Diablo Clubhouse. That is where they sold the Estes Rockets, the Boy Scout Uniforms, pocket knives, patches, eating utensils (camping type stuff), hammocks, cots, handbooks, and anything we needed to get out of mom & dad's life for a good solid weekend.

-- Robert Dillon

(above) Scouts saluting the flag. Panama Canal Museum Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries

My life in Panama Canal Zone was fun and I became a cub scout, boy scout, explore scout and sea scout. It was all for fun and I had desire to earn badges. When I was an explorer scout we went out to Barro Colorado Island to cut heavy brush and create trail. The brush was tough, our machetes would not stay sharp. All the nights we spent in jungle hammocks right after cooking our dinners. My hammock overturned, the rains made me wet I found being an explorer scout was not fun, so I left the explorer scouts and became a sea scout.

-- Malcolm Stone


Based on the physical exhibit curated by Sarah Marek, with assistance from Jessica Marcetti and Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler

Online exhibit curation and design: Lauren O'Neill

Learn more about the Panama Canal Museum Collection

Camping in the Jungle