When it comes to summer camp, you’ll only find one that invites campers to improve their aim with a shotgun, snuggle with puppies, and learn the nuances of being a respectful and ethical hunter in today’s world.
That’s Upland Bird Camp, held each summer at Deep Portage Learning Center in northern Minnesota.
Deep Portage is familiar to many families in the North Metro. Several local schools send students off on field trips to this remote spot to develop survival skills, strengthen teamwork and enjoy the wonders of nature.
In the summertime, Deep Portage runs several camps, many of them focused on hunting and firearm safety skills. Upland Bird Camp is one of the most unique. Sponsored by the Ruffed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever, this camp allows campers between the ages of 12 and 16 who have already received their firearm safety certification advanced instruction in hunting upland game birds such as pheasant, grouse, partridge and woodcock. Campers get a chance to hone their shooting skills with daily practice shoots on the Deep Portage sporting clays course and learn about the biology, habitat and behavior of Minnesota’s upland bird species.
The camp also provides more typical summer camp activities, such as canoeing, archery and developing skills to survive in the outdoors.
Upland Bird Camp culminates in a field trip to Pine Shadows Kennel in Brainerd. Pine Shadows breeds and trains English springer spaniels for hunting. Campers get to handle and help train the dogs on-site, and watch expert hunting dogs perform their abilities in the field.
Somewhere amidst all this excitement, campers also get to spend time with experienced mentors who share personal stories of hunting successes and failures, as well as advice that extends far beyond the field of hunting.
Among the many who have made their way to Deep Portage over the years is Norm Moody, a conservationist and sportsman originally from the Scandia/Forest Lake area. Moody graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1966 and went to school for forestry. He came to Deep Portage as Cass County land commissioner in 1992 and has stuck around ever since.
Today, Moody lives near Hackensack, the closest town to Deep Portage. He serves as a member of the learning center’s board and helps to educate the hunters and conservationists of the future.
“We put an emphasis on ethics both in terms of teaching and also letting them know someone is always observing,” Moody said. “They’re asking themselves if they are the person someone else would want to take bird hunting or allow on their land.”
Moody is one of several experienced hunters who provide guidance and encouragement to the Upland Bird campers each summer. Moody emphasizes the value of being knowledgeable and respectful in every occasion.
One story he shares with campers is from when he was stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea with the U.S. Army. He credits his confidence in how to clean fresh game with a follow invitation to join a hunt for pheasant and quail inside the Demilitarized Zone—a very rare opportunity. He encourages campers to start a little smaller.
“When the kids first get there, I tell them they have a job: to make sure every other camper has a good experience at camp,” he said. “You don’t disrespect or treat anybody poorly. It’s all about good manners—that’s probably one of the most important things they can learn here.”
Moody said that upland bird hunting is very different for youth today than it was in the past. One of the reasons is that a lot of hunting land is privately owned, and it can be a challenge to secure permission to hunt. That’s why one of the skills Moody works on with campers is developing a familiarity with the idea of approaching landowners to ask permission.
Every year, Moody is impressed by the campers’ skill, respect, and openness to learning.
“It’s fun to watch them improve their shooting skills and gun safety,” Moody said.
Values of conservation are also extremely important for the future of upland bird hunting, Moody added
“The kids don’t realize they have an undivided share of public lands.,” Moody said. “They’re owners, and you want to instill that in them.”
As someone with a lifelong career in forest management, Moody considers environmental responsibility extremely important at Deep Portage. Even the camp itself provides a model of environmental responsibility to campers. Using solar and wood gasification, the Deep Portage facilities produce net-zero harmful emissions.
“This is how we educate the kids that it can be done,” Moody said.
Learn more about Upland Bird Camp and the other camp experiences at Deep Portage at deep-portage.org.