National Wildlife Refuge System
March 2, 2013

Refuge Update March/April 2013

“Waterfowl 365” at Fergus Falls

By Bill O'Brian

More than 800,000 people visit waterfowl production areas annually. Across the Prairie Pothole Region, WPAs are epicenters of outdoor recreation—few more so than western Minnesota’s Townsend WPA each summer.

There, every August since 1989, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center and Fergus Falls Wetland Management District have co–hosted a weeklong sleepover gathering known as Woodie Camp.

Woodie Camp is designed to help foster the next generation of Minnesota conservationists by teaching 50 youth (ages 13–15) the ins and outs of nature journaling, outdoor photography, waterfowl identification, shooting skills, waterfowl calling, wild game preparation, boat safety, gun care and other aspects of being an enthusiastic, responsible waterfowler.

Jessica Dowler, a wildlife biologist at Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in northern Minnesota, is a Woodie Camp alumna. She attended as a 13–year–old in 1994, when the camp was about half its current size.

“I give a lot of credit to Woodie Camp for where I am today,” she says. “The shining moment for me was that I won top gun. It was pretty cool to beat out 19 high school boys in the shooting.”

The intricacies of shooting and gun safety are a big part of Woodie Camp, but so are the fundamentals of conservation. The week features lessons about wetland ecology, waterfowl ecology, prairie ecology, aquatic plants, wetland invertebrates and duck banding.

Last year volunteer instructor Andy Thill coined a phrase that defines Woodie Camp’s mind–set— “waterfowl 365.”

photo of Noah Simpson
Campers Noah Simpson, above, and Jenna Sypnieski, below, release ducks during a banding lesson at Woodie Camp, a weeklong sleepover gathering held each August at Fergus Falls Wetland Management District’s Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.
Credit: Teressa Schlieman/Minnesota Waterfowl Association

“We hope that waterfowl hunting is the gateway into a yearlong and lifetime journey into nature,” says Matt Conner, a visitor services manager at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center. “During the course of the week campers are taught the ‘how to’ of waterfowl hunting, but the passion of ‘why to’ shared by the instructors is what makes this a truly special week.”

Woodie Camp, which costs about $30,000 to conduct annually, is free of charge to the campers, thanks to contributions from Minnesota Waterfowl Association members, partners and others. But each year there are about 20 more camp applicants than spots available. So, attendees are selected based on a why–I–want–to–go–to–Woodie–Camp essay.

The 35 to 40 instructors who volunteer each year are vital to the camp’s success and low cost, says waterfowl association executive director Brad Nylin. “Some are there to teach one class one day,” he says. “Many are there the entire week and help with everything.”

The main role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to host the camp at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center’s dorm facilities, says Conner. The Minnesota Waterfowl Association “arrives with the camp planned and executes the week with military precision.”

While precise conservation lessons and messages are hallmarks of Woodie Camp, so is fun. The week includes a competitive team tournament in which skills are tested, scavenger hunts, orienteering, decoy painting, campfires, conservation quizzes and even a wild game cooking contest a la the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” series.

Still, waterfowl hunting is at the camp’s core, says visitor services manager Conner, who is an instructor each summer.

“Hunting is a passion,” he says. “Like any passion, it can’t always be scientifically explained. When asked ‘Why do you hunt?’ some hunters are compelled to speak about population management or economic impacts of hunting. But what I hope Woodie Campers learn is it is okay to be honest with themselves and others as to why they are hunters. When the alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m., and it is sleeting outside with 20 mph winds, we don’t think to ourselves, ‘I need to do my part for species management and economic stimulus.’ We think to ourselves, ‘The ducks will be flying today!’ ”

photo of Jenna Sypnieski
Last updated: March 2, 2013