By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Ladies and gentlemen, please meet the Girls.
They are Christine Rose and Amy Ward, and their new company is called the Georgia Girl Guides, but they are also perfectly willing to answer to G3 if that’s easier for you to remember.
“And if we’re G3,” says Ms. Ward, “people don’t get confused and they don’t think it’s only for girls.”
G3 is not just for girls, Ms. Rose wants people to know. “We tell them, ‘We are the Georgia Girl Guides. We guide anyone,’ ” she says.
But it is definitely by girls. The two guides brainstormed for hours about what to call themselves and decided in the end to pick a name that emphasized what set them off from the crowd. “We’re unique because we’re women, and a lot of the guiding services are male-oriented,” said Ms. Rose. “We had to go with something with ‘girls.’ ”
Who are these Girls, and what do they do? They are the very latest attraction at Cloudland Canyon, a private outfitting and guiding concession within the state park – a purveyor, in fact, of outdoor adventure.
But not until recently. Before July, Ms. Rose, 35, was the park’s uniformed naturalist, and Ms. Ward, 26, was a clerk in the park office. It was only this summer that the Girls put their heads together, worked out a business plan and submitted a concession proposal to the park and its parent entity, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
In late September, after much hemming plus a tad of hawing, the park and DNR signed on the dotted line, giving the Girls precisely five days to hit it hard for the peak tourist season that begins Oct. 1.
In between, there was some suspense. “There was no guarantee that this was going to happen at all,” said Ms. Rose, who along with her partner sat down one recent day in the park’s Interpretive Center for a chat with the Sentinel. “We knew that that was going to take that long but still, sitting on it?”
So with their boats burned and their day jobs quit, the Girls did some serious twiddling of thumbs and sweating of blood; yet they did not waste the time entirely but proceeded on the principle that if life gives you lemons you make survival bracelets.
A word on survival bracelets: Lightweight, brightly colored paracord can be wound and knotted into trendy wrist ornaments. But get into a pinch and those bracelets unravel into eight feet of super-strong, potentially lifesaving rope lengths. “There’s stories of soldiers using them in Iraq,” said Ms. Rose. “We tell the teenaged girls who really like them that if you break your shoelace, you have a new shoelace.”
“Or a hair tie,” added Ms. Ward, demonstrating. “Or a keychain.”
Well, it’s a Girl thing. The bracelets, sold in the park office as well as online, have already become a kind of symbol of G3.
Still, bracelets are only a sideline. As Cyndi Lauper informed us so memorably, Girls just want to have fun, and fun is G3’s real stock in trade. Outdoor fun, specifically, with an emphasis on fun of the muddy, underground variety. The Girls lead hikes and rent bicycles, but caving is what the Girls specialized in from the minute they got the green light from the state.
“Every person has come out saying, ‘I loved it,’ ” said Ms. Ward. “We have not had a negative comment. It’s just been positive, every bit of it.”
Cloudland Canyon is the only state park in Georgia with caves on the premises, and it was visitors’ desire to see them that gave the Girls their startup idea. In her capacity as park naturalist, Ms. Rose showed guests pictures of Sitton’s and Case, the two Cloudland Canyon caves, in the Interpretive Center. “They told me, ‘I wish somebody would be able to guide me into that cave,’ ” she said. “I heard it day after day.”
Ms. Rose mentioned the need to park manager Bobby Wilson and he agreed with her tours would be a huge plus for the park. Sorry, though, he told her, there was simply no budget.
In fact, the trend was increasingly no budget for anything, until, said Ms. Rose, she and her friend saw the writing on the wall. “We saw people losing their jobs,” she said. “We saw furlough days. We saw cuts after cuts after cuts, and we knew it wouldn’t be long before we would be part of those cuts.”
Ms. Rose, who holds a master’s degree in environmental education, was already seriously underemployed as a part-time seasonal, furloughed three months each year. Ms. Ward, who had worked her way up from a high school Mcjob at the entrance booth, after nine years did hold a full-time position with benefits, but she worried not for long. So neither felt they were losing much security in striking out on their own.
Meanwhile, Ms. Ward had fallen in love with caving when a friend had taken her in her own first cavern. Her college degree was in office management, but as a park employee she jumped at the chance to join the search-and-rescue team and to take NCRC (National Cave Rescue Commission) as well as wilderness first responder training.
So she already had valuable cave skills, and when she took Ms. Rose into Sitton’s Cave for an after-work excursion, and the latter also caught the spelunking bug, their business path emerged clear as cave crystal: “We wanted to do what we loved,” said Ms. Ward.
Concession arrangements, though still rare in Georgia parks, are increasingly prevalent nationally for such services as food, gift shops and horseback riding. Under G3’s concession with Cloudland Canyon, the Girls charge park guests independently for their services, paying the park 15 percent of gross.
But Ms. Rose says the concession fee is not all G3 gives to the park; it is actually bringing in guests. “So not only are we giving 15 percent to the park, we’re also giving them revenues in the form of park passes, camping fees, cabin rentals,” she said.
Because tourists are lining up for their cave tours, say the Girls, the only impediment DNR’s conservation schedule, which closes the caves every third month and certain days every week as well as limiting tour attendance to 12 at a time.
The Girls emphasize that their cave tours are for both sexes and that there is no upper age limit – “We go as fast as our slowest person” – but have noticed that children in particular seem happiest in direct proportion to their level of muddiness. “They just have a ball getting into the dirt, and we do, too,” said Ms. Rose. “When we come through that crawl at the end and it’s like the sloshy, squooshy, wet mud, it’s just fabulous.”
So far, G3 has conducted tours only of Sitton’s, a horizontal cave where locomotion involves stooping, crawling and slithering but no rope work. This summer, they hope to expand into the park’s other cave, Case, which demands a 65-foot descent immediately upon entry. That will involve a whole ‘nother set of logistics the Girls have yet to work out.
And in addition, just last week they were presented another challenge for the future: DNR has invited them to submit a proposal to expand their guiding concession into other Georgia parks – a prospect that tickles both the Girls pink.
“It’s going to take time to build it,” said Ms. Rose.
“But so far so good,” said Ms. Ward.