Jessica Dowler is living her dream these days.
She has a husband who shares her passion for the outdoors. She has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife biologist, and now is a soil conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And the 35-year-old lives in a part of the United States — Britton, S.D. — where it's easy for her to scratch the itch of her waterfowl passion.
Dowler, who grew up in Benson, Minn., traces the genesis for all those things back more than two decades, when as a 13-year-old she attended Woodie Camp, a free, weeklong summer camp put on by the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
"It has been a catalyst for a lot of the good things that have happened in my life," she said.
First held in 1989, Woodie Camp has been held every year since. This year's version, which included 38 teenagers, concluded Aug. 6. The kids who attend Woodie Camp — it's open to those ages 13 to 15 who have completed firearms safety — come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are avid hunters. Some never have picked up a gun. Some leave with an intense passion for waterfowl hunting, while others take more joy from painting decoys, photography, or simply being able to identify the ducks they see winging overhead.
"Basically, we want to expose them to waterfowl in everything," said Brad Nylin, MWA executive director. "My only hope, really, is that something will click with each of them."
Anyone at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls during the week of camp is treated to a cacophony of sounds as kids hone their shotgun-shooting skills and practice their duck and goose calling. There is mostly silence as they learn about waterfowl ecology, cooking wild game, keeping hunting or outdoor journals, and first aid in the field. They learn how the money that duck hunters spend on gear, licenses and stamps goes into restoring and protecting waterfowl habitat. And one of the highlights for many campers is holding ducks, putting identification bands on their legs, and then setting them free.
"We want them to appreciate waterfowl, and understand that it's bigger than just (the duck-hunting season)," Nylin said.
By the time he attended Woodie Camp as a 13-year-old, Andy Fondrick, a self-proclaimed "duck nut" was no stranger to ducks and duck hunting. He'd grown up in Detroit Lakes, and family members had been taking him along on their hunts since he was 4 or 5 years old.
"I'd been raised to appreciate the duck blind," said Fondrick, 24. "But to think about all the things you can do year-round to make yourself a better hunter or better conservationist is pretty eye-opening."
For Dowler and Fondrick, Woodie Camp was a springboard into a conservation career. Once they turned 18, both returned to camp multiple times to work as counselors. Today, Dowler is one of many volunteer instructors, teaching campersabout waterfowl ecology and banding. Fondrick was a counselor for three years, and now goes back to camp by virtue of his position as MWA's development coordinator.
Nylin said one of the camp's goals is to impress on young people and counselors that they can make a living in the realm of conservation.
"I wouldn't be working in the outdoors if it wasn't for Woodie Camp," said Fondrick, a communications major in college who works with MWA chapters on fundraising.
The outdoors backgrounds of Woodie Camp volunteers are as diverse as the backgrounds of the kids who attend. There are professional biologists, enforcement officers and technicians from such agencies as the Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota DNR. Others simply are waterfowl enthusiasts who are retired or take a week off work to lend a hand. Dowler took advantage of the connections she made to land her first jobs in the conservation field, including at the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. There, she met her future husband, who is a conservation officer in South Dakota.
"When I came back as a counselor, I never expected it to open as many doors as it did for me … doors that I never knew existed," she said. "I see a lot of kids coming back now as counselors, and saying they're going for careers in fish and wildlife. So I think we're still making that same connection with kids."
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Woodie Camp and the application process online at mnwaterfowl.com. Next year’s camp is July 31-Aug. 6. Also find photos and blog posts.
Campers who have attended Woodie Camp are eligible to participate in “advanced” Woodie Camp, which involves a mentored hunt in the fall.