Dennis Anderson
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Whether primarily for a love of kids, a love of ducks — or both — Woodie Camp lives, again.

The province in years past of the now defunct Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA), Woodie Camp was and remains a summer camp for kids who want to learn about waterfowl and waterfowling.

It's also a place where phalanxes of volunteers pass down skills such as duck calling, retriever training and shooting, while imbuing in young campers a lifetime conservation ethic.

This week at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center near Fergus Falls, 26 kids ages 13-15, including five girls, are attending Woodie Camp.

"We've been planning this for three years,'' said Brad Nylin, MWA's former executive director who, along with Tony Rondeau of Fergus Falls, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, is a lead organizer of the reconstituted Woodie Camp.

That the camp is being held at all is testament to the good will that exists among Minnesota waterfowlers. This is especially true at a time when COVID and its disruptive threat must be considered whenever people gather.

"We've got campers and volunteers in camp from ages 13 to 75,'' Nylin said. "Some volunteers just come for a day or two, some for longer. We test for COVID whenever anyone arrives in camp and keep an eye out for symptoms. We've had a great week, and a healthy one, so far.''

Tony Rondeau of Fergus Falls, left, and Brad Nylin of the Twin Cities, past executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, are leaders of the reconstituted Woodie Camp for youth, held near Fergus Falls.
Tony Rondeau of Fergus Falls, left, and Brad Nylin of the Twin Cities, past executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, are leaders of the reconstituted Woodie Camp for youth, held near Fergus Falls.

Matthew Smith, Special to the Star Tribune

The fear among many MWA members was that when their group folded in 2019 due to financial struggles that Woodie Camp would disappear, too.

From Minnesota's earliest days, the many physical skills that attend duck and goose hunting were passed down from parent to child.

But as society changed and more single-parent families have emerged, for example, these generational ties have frayed, putting at risk the future of waterfowling and other legacy outdoor activities.

Since its founding in 1989, Woodie Camp has helped hundreds of youngsters develop waterfowling skills, the acquisition of which often ignites among devotees a passion to spend time outdoors in autumn — and a passion also to conserve the aquatic habitats upon which ducks and geese and other wildlife depend.

"We had planned to have Woodie Camp in 2020,'' Nylin said. "Then the pandemic hit and we had to cancel. We canceled again in 2021, also because of COVID. Finally, now in 2022, we're having camp.''

The goal among Woodie Camp organizers always has been for kids to attend free of charge, or for a nominal cost. The one prerequisite for attendance is that kids must have their hunter safety certificate.

After MWA disbanded, the Fergus Falls Fish and Game Club, a 100-year-old organization, committed to be a major funder of Woodie Camp if it continued.

In the past 24 months, other sportsmen's clubs throughout the state also committed to help financially. The result: The 26 kids in camp this week, hailing from throughout Minnesota, from Owatonna to Moorhead, each had their $1,000 tuition paid, allowing them to attend free of charge.

"Our message to the kids about having their expenses paid for is our hope that when they go home they get involved in conservation locally,'' Nylin said.

Matthew Smith, 28, of Willmar first came to Woodie Camp in 2008 as a 14-year-old camper. Most years through 2019 he was back in camp, first as a counselor and more recently as an instructor.

He's on site again this week, taking a week's vacation from his pharmacist job to help out.

"It's an opportunity to spend a week with people who are passionate about ducks and duck hunting,'' Smith said, "with the goal of passing that on.''

From 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Woodie Camp is run on a tight schedule, because there's a lot to teach, and much to learn. In addition to duck calling, shooting and retriever training, outdoor photography is instructed, as is duck and goose identification.

Duck and goose calling are among skills taught at Woodie Camp. Once the province of the now-defunct Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Woodie Camp is now staffed with volunteers and funded by a variety of sportsmen’s clubs statewide.
Duck and goose calling are among skills taught at Woodie Camp. Once the province of the now-defunct Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Woodie Camp is now staffed with volunteers and funded by a variety of sportsmen’s clubs statewide.

Matthew Smith, Special to the Star Tribune

Understanding the important roles that aquatic plants and wetland invertebrates play in waterfowl survival is also part of the camp's curriculum, as are first aid, prairie ecology, field decoying, duck cleaning, outdoor technology, gun care and bird banding.

As many as 35 volunteer instructors offer their expertise at Woodie Camp.

"The cool thing about the camp is that the kids want to be here, and want to learn,'' Nylin said. "Most don't know anyone else when they arrive, but they quickly mingle with each other as the classes begin.''

An Advanced Woodie Camp for as many as 15 kids is planned for October over MEA Weekend.

"This camp will provide mentored hunts to those who attend and will give the kids a chance to practice in the field the waterfowling skills they've learned,'' Nylin said. "The cost will be $400, though we will have scholarships available. We put this camp on last year and had nine campers.''

More information about the two camps is at https://tinyurl.com/bdfkha55.