New DNR program offers novices a chance to try campingby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
Afton, Minn. — Out in the woods, miles away from the sounds of televisions and air conditioners, it's easy to spot camping novices like Maxine Hall.
"Whoa, there's a really big spider there! Can you make sure it won't get in?" Hall asks a Conservation Corps Minnesota volunteer who shows her how to pitch her tent.
"That's a Daddy Long Legs," volunteer Brent Gerike replies. "They're harmless."
"Can we take bets to see if she makes it through the night?" another camping novice asks.
Such moments will be common at state parks across Minnesota this summer, as a new program teaches families the skills needed to enjoy one of the state's traditional pastimes. Among the list of activities on the two-day agenda: learning how to set up camp, identify poison ivy and start a campfire.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tested the program last year, and officials decided to launch an expanded version this summer. The goal is to introduce families to the outdoors in a supportive environment so they develop an appreciation for the state's natural areas and pass it on to younger generations.
During a recent "I Can Camp" session at Afton State Park, five families -- including Hall and her 5-year-old son Langston -- were eager to learn from Gerike and the other workshop leader, Brian Hubbard.
Among the participants were a mother and daughter, a dad and three kids taking Mom on her first-ever camping trip, and a family of six that shops at REI -- but only for certain things.
"We get water bottles and shoes there," said Samara Postuma, of St. Michael, who saw an ad for "I Can Camp" while at the outdoors store, which donated tents, stoves and air mattresses for the program.
Postuma had gone camping as a child, but her husband Jeff and four children ages 19 months to 11 years had never been camping before.
"We wanted to do something like this, but we didn't really have the courage before now," Jeff Postuma said.
Building confidence among parents is one of the program's goals, said Courtland Nelson, director of the DNR Parks and Trails Division.
"There's some fear of people being in the out-of-doors. It has to do with a new setting, it has to do with maybe some stories that have been embellished into urban legends over the years," Nelson said. "It's just new territory for people."
Pulling people with limited camping experience together makes the atmosphere less intimidating, Nelson said.
Participants pay a fee of $55 per family, which includes the use of equipment, a state park vehicle pass and an overnight stay in the park. It also includes camping instruction and activities like fishing and geocaching.
Attendance has ranged from two to about 40 during the first 10 sessions of the program, and DNR officials expect attendance will rise as more people hear about it. The program has 30 sets of camping gear with each set able to accommodate up to six people. There are 28 more workshops this summer, and many still have openings, Nelson said.
Besides the participant fees, funding for "I Can Camp" is raised through sales tax money from the Legacy Amendment.
As a new program, it's unclear whether it will be successful enough to become a permanent offering, especially as the state faces another budget deficit. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer has questioned whether tax dollars should go toward a similar program -- one that teaches women outdoors skills.
But Nelson said the program is worthwhile and expects the DNR will offer it again next year. Studies have shown young people are spending more time on the Internet or in front of a TV and less time outdoors -- a troubling trend for a state with long-held outdoors traditions.
"We are achieving what we hoped, which is new folks in the out-of-doors," he said.
Gerike said giving families a break from their busy routines can help them see the benefits of outdoor activities.
"When you get out and children have the opportunity to use their creativity and to use their imagination with the world around them, it's really quite a powerful thing," he said. "I think people see that and understand that when they get outside."
The program is also a chance for Gerike and other young college graduates to gain job and leadership experience. Gerike's involvement in the program is part of his Americorps volunteer year with the Conservation Corps.
He's enjoyed teaching others so that they might like camping as much as he does.
"Some of my fondest memories from childhood were camping with my family," Gerike said.
During the camping workshop at Afton, Gerike tells the novices they have nothing to fear.
"We're here to help guide you in your learning process," Gerike says. "Come to us with questions, even if it's the middle of the night."
Hall, of Belle Plaine, tells him she'll definitely have questions. She grew up in inner-city Detroit and has been camping twice. "But it didn't work," she said.
"I'm here with an open mind," Hall said, adding that Langston has been begging to go camping ever since his preschool had a "camping day" two years ago. "I'm all for my kid being well rounded."
Pam Kirchert of Mendota Heights was also excited about her first camping experience. Her children, ages 14, 12 and 9, helped pump up the air mattresses and husband Blaine pitched their tent easily.
"The idea of camping to me was always hard work, sleeping bags and no bathrooms," she said. "But all the new camping gear is easy to use."
"This is a great way for people to do something different with their kids," Kirchert added.
Afterward, Gerike reported that everyone made it through the night and had a great time. Hall even shared her experiences and photos on a blog for Minnesota moms.
"I had one of the most fabulous experiences of my life," she wrote.