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Groups' events try to keep kids connected to the natural world

Eight-year-old Jordan Martinelli carefully drew back the bow. He held it at full draw until he had the target in his sights. Then he let the arrow fly.

Natty Mallett
Natty Mallett, 9, draws back her bow and takes careful aim during the 2011 Youth Fall Outdoor Expo held Aug. 27 at the Duluth Retriever Club. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

Eight-year-old Jordan Martinelli carefully drew back the bow. He held it at full draw until he had the target in his sights. Then he let the arrow fly.

Some of his shots found their mark -- a target on a big bale -- and some sailed harmlessly over the backstop.

Next to Martinelli, across the shooting line at the Duluth Retriever Club on Aug. 27, several other young shooters let their arrows fly. The youths were among 72 who showed up for the club's annual Youth Fall Outdoor Expo, co-sponsored by the Izaak Walton League chapter in Duluth. They were able to touch a live rooster pheasant. They got to send Labs to retrieve dummies in a pond, and they felt the cool shower of water when the Labs returned and shook next to the kids.

Elsewhere, they listened to duck hunters call in an imaginary flight of mallards. They got a chance to shoot shotguns at clay targets.

My overriding impression, watching all of this, was how much fun the kids were having. They wore big smiles, and their eyes were wide open all day.

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The goal of the event was simple, said Izaak Walton League member Darrell Spencer: "To keep kids connected to outdoor traditions and the value of outdoor lifestyles."

The expo was just the most recent of several events designed to do much the same. The United Northern Sportsmen's Club and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association hosted a youth field day earlier in August that drew 80 youths.

MDHA has been teaching kids about the outdoors and deer hunting each summer for years at its Forkhorn Camp. The National Wild Turkey Federation sponsors mentored youth hunts. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with several conservation groups, is reaching kids with its annual mentored hunts and its "I Can Fish!" outings.

The work that volunteers and paid staffers put into these efforts is tremendous. They do it because they believe in the outdoor experience and Minnesota's hunting and fishing traditions, and they know that a lot of kids today wouldn't get that experience otherwise.

Numbers of duck hunters in Minnesota have dwindled to all-time lows. Grouse hunter numbers remain relatively low despite grouse being at or near the peak of their population cycle. Angler numbers, though still strong, are much lower than they were years ago as a percentage of the population. Deer hunting numbers seem to remain strong, and turkey hunting is growing in popularity.

It isn't that all kids are abandoning the outdoors. Some of those who aren't hunting or fishing are riding mountain bikes, paddling kayaks, rock-climbing or geocaching. They're still out in the woods or on the water.

But a lot of kids, for all kinds of reasons, simply aren't being immersed in the natural world. They aren't watching muskrats swim past duck blinds on October mornings. They're not out fishing, where they're apt to also learn something about eagles and ospreys and turtles. They are not walking through cattails trying to flush pheasants.

As a result, they aren't learning to sit quietly for long periods. They aren't learning that success often comes to those who are persistent. They aren't learning that in order for one creature to eat, another sometimes has to die.

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I hope we can stop this exodus from the outdoors. I hope the efforts of dedicated outdoors people and conservation groups that I saw last weekend can somehow do what parents and a rural lifestyle once did for kids.

I know this: Those kids at the Retriever Club a week ago were having all kinds of fun in the outdoors. Whether that will be enough to hook them for life remains to be seen.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com . Follow him on Twitter at "twitter.com/samcookoutdoors."

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