Dennis Anderson
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Though about 80% of Minnesotans are of European descent, the state from its earliest days attracted people of various ethnicities, many of whom depended on the region's game and other resources for their survival, and livelihoods.

The state's first settlement, Camp Coldwater — so named by soldiers and settlers for the bountiful freshwater springs located near Fort Snelling — had long been believed by Dakota Indians to be the home of Unkethi, their god of waters. The site had also been visited by generations of Ojibwe Indians.

Which explains why, from its origin, Camp Coldwater was inhabited by a mixture of Native Americans and whites. Intermarriage among the villagers was common, and by 1838, when Coldwater had swelled to 500 inhabitants, many kids in the encampment, spoke "Sioux, Chippewa, French and English," according to a missionary's diary.

Though some residents of this diverse settlement were shopkeepers and blacksmiths, most fed their families by trading furs, timbering, shooting game or catching fish — the same types of natural resource-centric activities that still today interest and sustain many Minnesotans,

This is particularly true now, in September. On Thursday, hunting seasons opened for doves and bear, and other seasons for geese, grouse, ducks and deer (by archery) will begin in coming days and weeks.

In this historical context, the outdoors passions of Mohammad El-Sawaf — the son of another type of Minnesota "settler'' — aren't so unusual.

"My parents came from Egypt to Minnesota in 1980 to complete their doctorates at the U,'' Mohammad said. "My dad's was in psychology and my mom's was in chemistry.''

That Mohammad is Muslim and speaks Arabic makes him different from most hunters and anglers who will be afield this fall in Minnesota.

But ultimately, the difference is inconsequential.

Mohammad, 38, is the oldest of three kids in his family. The youngest is a sister, Iman, and the middle sibling is a brother, Khaled.

From his earliest years, Mohammad was fascinated by the woods, waters and fields that surrounded him, even if only those near his home in Minneapolis, and he wanted to immerse himself in them.

Mohammad's dad, Hamdy, and mother, Asmaa, were eager to nurture these interests. Though Egyptians have no camping traditions, in Minnesota they regularly packed up their kids and headed to the North Shore to spend a few nights in a tent, under the stars.

In Egypt, Mohammad's dad fished in the Mediterranean, as well as in the Nile River. So for him, transitioning to walleye, bluegill and crappie angling wasn't a big deal.

But hunting?

"There is very little hunting in Egypt,'' Mohammad said. "For one thing, other than doves, there are no animals — Egypt is basically a big desert. Also, it's almost impossible to get a gun. So my father had no background in hunting,''

Muslims' social groups often are centered around their mosques, and a friend from Mohammad's mosque who had immigrated to Minnesota from war-torn Lebanon taught young Mohammad and his brother and sister how to hunt.

"His name was Mohamed Bakri, and one day he told my brother, sister and me to jump into his Suburban,'' Mohammad said. "He said, 'We're going to the Horse and Hunt Club in Prior Lake to earn your firearms safety certificates.' ''

That willingness to tutor young people is critical to sustaining hunter numbers at something near historical levels, experts say.

The urbanization of America, together with an increased emphasis on high-school team sports and a growing number of households headed by single parents have contributed to a decline in hunter numbers, particularly on the East and West coasts.

As the nation becomes more diverse — minorities make up 37% of Minneapolis, for example, and 45% of St. Paul — and is increasingly populated by people who have no background in hunting (or fishing, for that matter), participation in these legacy outdoor activities could spiral down even further.

Particularly threatened in this scenario is professional natural resource management, which is funded almost entirely by fishing and hunting license sales.

"Maybe we should look at the 'Mohammads' of Minnesota as the solution,'' said Tom Hexum, a lifelong Rochester resident and hunting partner of Mohammad's.

"We've lost a couple generations of young outdoors people to phones and other electronics,'' Hexum said. "Now here come new residents of Minnesota, whether they're Hmong or, as in Mohammad's case, Muslim. I can guarantee you no one loves the outdoors more than Mohammad. He's proof that everyone can be engaged in conservation, and we need to encourage it.''

As important as hunting deer, grouse, ducks and geese are to Mohammad, more important to him and his wife, Nicole, is ensuring that their two young sons, Kian and Kaden, are taught about Minnesota wildlife and the habitat they need to survive.

"We try to do things the right way, and we want our kids to do them the right way, too,'' Mohammad said. "We process and eat all the game that we shoot or catch and when we're hunting or fishing or camping and we see garbage in the woods, we pick it up. I don't know what paths might open up for our sons by exposing them to the outdoors. But at least they'll have a proper background.''

Mohammad, by his nature, treats people respectfully, and in return he usually is treated similarly.

One exception occurred a while back at a gun range, where his name initially drew suspicion from the manager.

Ultimately, the manager was won over, and said to Mohammad, "You seem like a good one.''

"Actually,'' Mohammad said. "We're all good.''