On a 6,300-acre wildlife preserve, summer campers hunt, fish, hike and swim throughout a diverse northern Minnesota landscape of forest, lakes, rivers and bogs.
Founded in 1973, the Deep Portage Learning Center in Hackensack is a nature preserve and conservation education center that opens its expansive grounds every summer to hundreds of young explorers, hunters and wilderness enthusiasts for camp.
While other summer camps focus on youth growth and development, Deep Portage Executive Director Dale Yerger said the focus of their camps is conservation education with a woods, water and wildlife theme.
“Here we really promote wise use of natural resources and that conservation ethic,” Yerger said.
Throughout the year, Deep Portage is open to the public and hosts school groups for mini-camps and learning opportunities. It’s accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools as a center for environmental education.
Deep Portage offers four different camps throughout the summer that focus on firearm safety and deer hunting; bird hunting; and conservation.
Looking to kill two birds with one stone so to speak? Campers can receive their Minnesota Department of Natural Resources firearms safety certificate as part of the reserve’s popular Forkhorn I camp sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Hunters’ Association.
Kids who already have their firearms certification can learn to hunt and cook game birds or complete advanced deer hunting camps.
Parents and grandparents can learn about sustainability, invasive species and natural resource planning alongside the kid campers during the Izaak Walton League camp — a partnership with the Minnesota division of the national conservation group.
For a taste of everything the memorial forest and wildlife preserve have to offer, Deep Portage hosts a condensed three-day camp.
Deep Portage usually has 50-60 campers for a session, Yerger said. Instead of small sleeping cabins, campers share large bedrooms in the main lodge — like “a bunch of little cabins under one roof,” Yerger said.
Between year-round staff and seasonal camp counselors, he said the camper to counselor ratio is about 3:1. The staff is always 50 percent female to create a comfortable environment for both boys and girls.
“It’s a great role model for so many of our instructors to be women — for girls to feel really good about what they are doing and what they’re entering into,” Yerger said.
Depending on the camp, children will have about two hours of more structured educational activities followed by time for different recreational activities like canoeing, fishing, hiking or climbing the indoor rock wall.
A new renewable focus
While the camp has always emphasized wildlife and natural resource conservation, Yerger said Deep Portage made a “big commitment” to energy conservation about five years ago.
Since 2009, they’ve installed wind turbines, wood-fired boilers and solar systems to heat buildings and generate electricity. After a nearly $870,000 investment, the preserve is now carbon neutral. For campers who are used to traditional energy sources at home, it’s yet another learning experience.
“When they come back to campus and take a shower, they realize the shower came from our solar hot water evacuated tubes,” Yerger said.
On a good day, the solar water system produces about 700 gallons of hot water, or 80 percent of the camp’s need.
“They really get to live with it,” Yerger said.
Deep Portage’s most popular Forkhorn I camp offers a unique opportunity for kids to get their state firearm safety certification and learn to be an ethical hunter.
“[There are] not so many camps where you can get an education on how to safely and ethically use a bolt-action rifle or a shotgun,” Yerger said.
The Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association partners with eight camps, including Deep Portage, to offer the training. Last year, about 60 percent of all campers throughout the state received a full or partial scholarship from local MDHA chapters.
Kim Nelson said the experience at the Forkhorn I camp is “above and beyond” typical firearm safety and education.
“It’s not just a normal firearms safety camp, it’s the master’s degree,” Nelson said.
Instead of learning online or in the classroom and being asked to apply knowledge on a field day with a DNR instructor, Nelson said the camps offer a more hands-on learning approach.
For example, students will be tested on different carrying positions for different types of weapons, she said.
“[At camp] they will have the students stand up and give them a stick that’s supposed to represent their gun,” she said. “The children will have to real-time show the teachers how that hold is on that gun.”
Beyond firearm safety, campers develop a deeper knowledge of their prey and hunting practices like compass orienteering and emergency procedures.
“We set the standard for youth education as far as hunting goes,” Yerger said.
More than 10,000 kids have learned to hunt at Deep Portage, he said. The Forkhorn I camp is open to kids and teens ages 11–16 and previous hunting experience is not required.
“Some kids have a chance through their families to be exposed to all of these things, but many kids do not have that opportunity,” Yerger said.
He said he hopes that young hunters go on to set a good example and be “ambassadors” for the sport.
“Very importantly for young hunters that we train, we want them to go out and represent hunting really well,” he said.