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Sarah Eliassen

Photo of Sarah Eliassen
Categories: 2020 Alumnae, Education, Girl Scout, Leadership


Biography

In 1958, Sarah Eliassen was the first Camp Director at Camp Togowoods—the premier Girl Scout camp in Alaska.  Over the past 61 years, over 20,000 girls from across Alaska have had amazing experiences at Camp Togowoods.

Eliassen began her Girl Scout career as a “tagalong” with her sister for several years.  She was too young to join Girl Scouts, but she went to camp and did as many activities as her sister and the troop would allow.  When she turned ten—old enough to be a Girl Scout—she went through the investiture ceremony at Camp Martha Johnson in Georgia.  Eliassen says, “That ceremony was the most important thing that had ever happened to me.  I had lived for that day.”  For 84 years, Eliassen has been a Girl Scout to the core.  She said, “Outside of family and religion, being a Girl Scout is the most important thing in my life.  Not a day passes that I’m not aware I’m a Girl Scout. You have the Ten Commandments and the Girl Scout Law—with those two guiding you, you cannot go wrong.”

One day, Eliassen received a letter that would change the course of her life—she was offered a job in Alaska by the Susitna Council CEO, Marge Bailey.  Eliassen said she, “lived on excitement for three months” as she prepared for her trip to Alaska. In Alaska, she would be working directly with girls and program.  Her new job was to build troops in the council and to help start a camp for Girl Scouts.

When Eliassen arrived in Anchorage in January 1957, she began her work starting new troops in Anchorage, Palmer, and Wasilla.  She lived in downtown Anchorage and often ate her dinner at the Club 25—a bar/restaurant for women.  At 32, Eliassen had never been in a bar.  Every day and everything in Alaska was a new experience for her.

By spring of 1957, it was time to work on getting a camp started for Girl Scouts.  The council used Girl Scout Cookie proceeds to purchase a homestead property from Phil Holdsworth.  The homestead was past Wasilla off the Knik Goose Bay Road—it is considered remote today and in 1957, it was way out in the woods.  In April that year, Eliassen, CEO Marge Bailey, the chair of the camp committee, and the board chair flew to the homestead and landed on Three Mile Lake.  They hiked into the homestead on snowshoes in three feet of snow.  Eliassen had never been skiing much less snowshoeing—living in Alaska was the first time she had seen snow.  They surveyed as much of the property that they could with so much snow still on the ground.

The Girl Scouts had been holding camp at Kings Lake in Wasilla, but they wanted their own camp.  At Kings Lake, they had to share the summer with other groups and could only offer three weeks of camp a summer.  Marge and Eliassen wanted Alaska Girls to have more opportunity to be outside and live in the outdoors and to have the Girl Scout experience all summer.  Purchasing and building a camp was integral to their plans.

That afternoon in April 1957, Marge and Eliassen and the others hiked around the homestead and began planning where the camp would be.  Marge had done a lot of research about the weather and where the first lodge should be positioned so that it would be in the best place to keep it warm and dry.  When they went back to Anchorage, they met with the Board of Directors and got the $6,000 in cookie money they needed for the camp.  In addition to the homestead, they purchased 35 acres from the Bureau of Land Management to complete the outer edges of the camp.  

Eliassen and Marge spent the next few months preparing for the camp.  That summer, they flew out on 4th of July to see what the camp looked like with no snow covering it, and to work on building the tent platforms.  When they arrived by plane again, they were met at the camp by Bob Eliassen—a nearby homesteader who came to see what was happening with his neighbors.  Eliassen and Marge and others like the council board chair, Louise Brown and her husband Charles, went out every weekend to work on the camp.  They were often joined by Bob Eliassen who became an important part of building the camp.  On New Year’s Eve 1957, Eliassen and Bob married.  Later, they moved to Anchorage where they started their family.

In July of 1958, the Girl Scouts opened their first camp with Eliassen as the first Director.  She ran two one-week camps with 24 girls, four tents and four staff—some of them mothers of the campers.  Not only did the girls learn new skills that summer, but the mothers learned how to be camp staff.  They cooked one-pot meals over an open fire—a skill Eliassen had learned from Girl Scouts as a girl.  She learned and taught others how to cook in the pouring rain and how to store the food in a hole in the ground to keep it cold and away from animals.  

That summer, the girls swam, canoed, and learned to survive in the outdoors.  They practiced the Girl Scout Law and made friends for a lifetime.  They also helped build the camp by carrying in the supplies for the camp, including the dishes, on their backs as they hiked in.  

Marge was friends with Leonard Seppala of the Iditarod fame.  He told her that Balto had gotten all the credit for the famous serum run, but that it was his lead dog, Togo, who did all the hard work—Togo never got the credit.  Marge asked Leonard for permission to name the new Girl Scout camp after that strong, brave dog, and Camp Togowoods was born.  The girls that summer built a sign naming the camp.

Since that first camp in 1958, the Susitna Council—later renamed the Girl Scouts of Alaska—has continuously run camps for Girl Scouts.  In the 61 years the camp has been running, over 20,000 Alaska girls have had a chance to camp, play, learn, and grow at Camp Togowoods.  Eliassen’s time and effort and willingness to come to Alaska to be the first Camp Director started a movement that continues today.  

Girls today still go hiking, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and they learn what it means to be a Girl Scout—a girl with courage, confidence, and character to make the world a better place.  All across Alaska, women in important leadership roles in our community had the opportunity to learn their leadership skills with the stewardship of leaders from Alaskans like Girl Scout Sarah Eliassen.

Eliassen’s vision for the Girl Scout Camp Togowoods allowed Alaska girls the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a new way.  The ability to live and work and play in the woods prepared them for life.  They learned leadership skills, outdoor survival skills, and they had a chance to simply have fun canoeing, swimming, hiking, and meeting other girls from across Alaska.  The camp started small, but it has grown and has been a place to treasure for over 20,000 girls for over 30 years.  The vision of Camp Togowoods expanded over time and the GSAK opened a day camp at Camp Singing hills to provide even more experiences for girls.

As a part of the national Girl Scout movement, Camp Togowoods was also a summer spot for girls visiting from other troops across the country.  Girl Scouts have long had a tradition of holding excellent camps, and Camp Togowoods is a prime example of what being a Girl Scout is all about.

Eliassen was so dedicated to Girl Scouts and making a difference that at age 86 she led a troop of girls including her granddaughter, Michelle.  The girls met with Eliassen and co-leader, Gretchen Wehmhoff, to work on their Silver Award, sell Girl Scout cookies, and learn other skills.  They did a project sewing beds for cats at a local fostering organization.  Michelle knew how to use a sewing machine (because Eliassen had taught her), so Eliassen taught them all how to cut and measure fabric and how to use a sewing machine.

In addition to her Girl Scout work, Eliassen is a community activist.  Eliassen worked with her Eagle River neighbors to fight and save a parcel of land from development to turn it into a park—now known as Eliassen Park. 

Eliassen and her teaching partner, Mel Bowns, created a program to teach their students how to grow plants and create a business.  They grew African violets, made the planters, and with the help of parents, created macramé hangers.  They sold the product and learned about banking, planning, building, growing, and success.  With the money they raised, they bought two computers for their classrooms.  For this project, Eliassen and Mel won an award of $500 from the UAF economics department for their work teaching kids economics in a hands-on way.

The girls Eliassen taught and influenced are the leaders in Alaska today.  With over six generations of girls learning and growing at Camp Togowoods and in Girl Scouts, the chances are great that a woman leader in Alaska benefited directly or indirectly from Sarah’s vision.  

As a teacher for thirteen years, she had the opportunity to shape and influence 100’s of other children in Alaska.

Eliassen continues to give back to girls in Alaska.  She participates in fundraisers for GSAK and has returned to camp over the years to work with girls and share the vision that became Camp Togowoods.  Her son, Charlie, helps continue the Girl Scout tradition in the family by serving on the Property Committee for GSAK where he helps guide the council on all things concerning Camp Togowoods and Camp Singing Hills.

Thousands of girls and women in Alaska thank Eliassen for all she’s done to help us dream big and accomplish whatever we set our mind on.