There was a time back in the 1990s when you could drive by the United Northern Sportsmen Club up on Island Lake and wonder if the place was closed. As in permanently.
The rifle range was often quiet, the campground was sometimes empty and not many folks were using the boat launch or picnic area.
But drive by the club’s well-manicured grounds today and you can sense something's happening. The staccato pop of gunfire is common on most days now, the campground and waterfront are bustling with campers, families and children. And membership in the venerable club is near all-time highs.
What had become for a while a quiet, old-guys’ club has seen a resurgence of younger folks and families thanks in large part to the explosion of interest in guns and RV camping. Gun sales and RV sales nationwide have been booming in recent years and people need a place to shoot and camp (not exactly the same place, of course).
The club, which saw memberships dip below 1,000 25 years ago, hit a modern high of 1,840 during the pandemic. Most members are from the Duluth area, but some hail from northern Wisconsin, the Iron Range and even the Twin Cities.
Membership “had been going up because of the shooting ranges and so many people shooting all year now,” said Tom Wasbotten, club president. “Then COVID hit and people wanted a place to camp close to home and here we are, 20 minutes north of Duluth, so now the campground is a big draw.”
In addition to the long-popular rifle range the club now offers a small-bore or pistol range, a shotgun trapshooting range and an archery range. Much of the growth in shooting has come from more people buying more handguns and AR-style semi-automatic rifles, said Lance Parthe, the club’s vice president.
“I'd say it’s 90% AR rifles now, at least among members’ use,” Parthe said. ”Ten years ago, it was mostly guys shooting. Now we’re seeing a lot more women and younger girls. It’s families coming up to shoot together. We even have couples shooting together.”
In addition to members, the ranges are often busy with local law enforcement agencies training and high school trapshooting teams practicing. So many people are using the gun ranges that the club collected 1,400 pounds of brass shell casings last year to be recycled. That increase in year-round target shooting has more than made up for a steady decline in the number of deer hunters sighting in their traditional rifles each fall.
“We’ve seen close to a 50% drop in deer hunters at the range over the past 10 years,” said Bob Kuettel, gun range safety officer for the club. That reflects the now rapid aging-out of older deer hunters and far fewer young hunters coming up through the ranks.
For the first pandemic summer, in 2020, the campground was mostly full. This year, it’s been a little less busy, but all 41 sites can still be full on popular weekends.
“It’s close to home for people who don’t have a long weekend or who are concerned about gas prices,” Wasbotten said.
The campground may have been a little too popular on some busy holiday weekends, leading club officers to tighten the rules on how many guests could be at any member’s campsite. Members get 14 free nights camping included with their annual dues. Some sites have electric hookups. The waterfront also includes a picnic area and eight docks for member’s boats.
It was the combination of gun range access, a free boat launch on a good fishing lake and camping that attracted Lance Haavisto to join United Northern Sportsmen when he moved to the area in 2010. The Michigan transplant, who now lives in Two Harbors, said the club offered a welcoming, outdoor-oriented community that fits his family’s interests.
“Growing up in Michigan I was always at the local gun club. … I’m very active in shooting and hunting, so this (club) was a natural fit,” he said.
Haavisto, 33, already has become active in the club, serving on the board, and is just what longtime members are hoping for as they try to pass the baton to a new generation. He brings his wife and 2-year-old daughter camping in their hard-sided RV as well as fishing.
“The boat launch is great. It’s a great place to camp. The shooting ranges are really nice and about the only ones around, so it was a natural for me to join,” Haavisto said. “When we get past the COVID issues, I’d like to see more events — I guess you’d call them community-building events — especially for kids. I think that’s the future of the club.”
75 years: A history of activism
The club was officially incorporated as a nonprofit on May 14, 1946, with 13 members meeting at first in the Merritt Field House in Duluth. There’s no formal record of when the club moved to the current 40 acres of woods and Island Lake waterfront, but it was sometime in the early 1950s.
The first big event was an ice fishing contest that started in 1954. It was held every winter on Island Lake through 2020 and remained the club's biggest fundraiser. This year it was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, but club leaders say it will be back in 2022. The club’s popular summer walleye fishing contest, canceled in 2020, returned this year, albeit later, over Labor Day weekend, and using a virtual, app-based format.
The club has a history of conservation activism dating back a half-century. In 1952, the club helped push passage of a youth firearms safety requirement at the Minnesota Legislature. In 1958, it was club fundraising that helped the St. Louis County Rescue Squad buy its first truck. The club helped raise money to build the Long Lake Conservation Center near McGregor and helped promote passage of some of Minnesota’s first serious pollution regulation laws in the early 1960s, many of which were eventually mimicked at the federal level and which had important local impacts, like cleaning up the St. Louis River.
In recent years, the club has opened its doors to the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program, as well as youth clubs, school groups and organizations. Each fall, until COVID hit, the club sponsored a popular youth field day. There was also a youth fishing day each summer that drew up to 80 kids.
“That’s our future, I think, is getting more youth involved in the outdoors,” Parthe said. “That will be our big contribution to conservation.”
Club leaders are anxious to get back to more in-person events, especially youth-oriented events, after most have been canceled during the pandemic. Wasbotten wants conservation, not just fun, to be the club's focus.
“It’s going to be a big transition to gear back up to do these events again. We are an all-volunteer operation,” Wasbotten said. “But I think it’s important we get back to those youth events and focus on conservation. I don’t want this to be just a campground and shooting range. We’re a conservation club and we have to get back to that when we can.”
Open to anyone, but you have to join
United Northern Sportsmen is a private club. Except for occasional public events, like the fall deer-rifle sight-in, you must be a dues-paying member or registered guest to use any of the club’s facilities, including the shooting ranges, boat launch and campground.
You must be approved and have paid for your membership before using any facilities. Self-issued memberships are no longer offered at the club grounds. The club has installed video cameras to keep track of the ranges and grounds.
“We had a big problem of people coming up here, not seeing anyone around, and using the facilities and leaving without ever being a member,” Wasbotten said. “This is a private club, We run it off our membership fees. It’s not a free place for the public to shoot.”
Memberships are $35 per person or $62 per family, per year, good for one year from date membership begins. Membership includes free use of all ranges and 14 nights free camping. The annual fee also includes a membership in the Minnesota Conservation Federation.
Public deer rifle sight-in
The United Northern Sportsmen rifle range is open to the public for deer rifle sight-in on several October weekends and the entire week before deer season. The cost is $5 per gun. Hours are from 8 a.m. to a half-hour before sunset. The sight-in will be held Oct. 16-17, 23-24, 30-31 and Nov. 1-5. Firearms deer season starts Nov. 6.
About United Northern Sportsmen Club
Address: 7229 Rice Lake Road, Duluth. Located on Island Lake, about 20 miles north of Duluth, along St. Louis County Highway 4.
Conservation pledge: “I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully defend from waste the natural resources of my country — it's air, soil, and minerals, its forests, waters and wildlife.”