As the smell of burgers and brats sizzling over charcoal drifted through the valley, sounds of tent stakes being set and dozens of volunteers rushing to make final preparation about echoed between …
As the smell of burgers and brats sizzling over charcoal drifted through the valley, sounds of tent stakes being set and dozens of volunteers rushing to make final preparation about echoed between the golden cliffs of Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site.
Seventy-six children from around the Big Horn Basin would arrive the following morning for the 2019 Kids Outdoor Day, but not even a passing storm sent the volunteers into panic mode. In one form or another, Kids Day has been running for more than 20 years. Prep work is the easy part.
“The toughest part is getting the kids involved,” said Matt Lentsch, Worland area game warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “You try your best to reach out, but there are so many other things going on.”
For thousands of years, families have come here to camp near Medicine Lodge Creek outside of Hyattsville. Lined with cottonwoods and wildflowers, about 40,000 visitors a year still come to what is now a pristine park. But times are changing. Children have busy schedules. Cellphones and social media, often introduced to kids at a young age, now captivate the imaginations of youth. It has resulted in fewer kids wanting to be immersed in the beauty of Mother Nature. Especially wild places where Wi-Fi is unavailable.
“You have a lot of kids living in this great area — a place that people from all over the world travel to — and they can’t take advantage of our resources because they’ve never been introduced to [outdoor sports],” Lentsch said.
He wanted to inspire children to discover the outdoors. About 20 years ago, he dedicated much of his free time to mentoring children in outdoor sports. It wasn’t his job — it’s his passion.
Lentsch joined the Hunter Stewardship Council and started by training area kids in gun safety and participating in habitat projects. At the end of the program mentors took the youngsters on an elk hunt. Lentsch has been volunteering his time so long, he now sees children brought to Kids Day by those he once mentored.
Over the years the program has evolved and grown. Kids are now mentored in many outdoor disciplines, including archery, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, archaeology, bird watching, prospecting, rock hounding and basic camping skills. This year, older age kids investigated a wildlife crime scene with professionals from the Game and Fish Forensics Lab in Laramie and learned how to use GPS and hunting with atlatls. Little Explorers — those under age 7 — got a chance to learn animal tracking skills.
Lentsch is still involved, but Game and Fish, Wyoming State Parks and generous sponsors have combined to lead the effort.
“This is a great opportunity to help inspire the next generation. The program sparks awareness and cultivates a conservation ethic,” said Tara Hodges, Cody region information and education specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Boys still outnumber girls at the annual event. But that, too, is changing quickly thanks to new attitudes. Toni Casdorph of Worland brought her 8-year-old twin daughters, Autumn and Victoria, to the event. When Victoria was struggling in the archery workshop, instructor Dan Smith stepped in to help. Smith is the Cody region wildlife manager for Game and Fish. The look on Victoria’s face when she hit a bullseye with a compound bow for the first time thrilled her mom. “They are so excited,” she said with a broad smile on her face.
Casdorph didn’t have the opportunity to get involved in outdoor sports while growing up. She wanted more for her girls. The twins have been fishing with their dad, Myron, and will get opportunities to hunt in the future, but she wanted to give them experience in several disciplines to help define their interests. “They love this, so why would we want to hold them back?” Casdorph said.
The solution to dwindling outdoors interest in today’s youth isn’t as simple as teaching kids for a day, Hodges said. “It goes beyond that, but it’s a good place to start,” she said.
Kids Outdoor Days provide opportunities to try out new things, she said, and “we need others to help carry [outdoor sports] forward, so having mentors is important for kids to carry that experience forward.”
Representatives from Trout Unlimited, Walleyes Unlimited, Big Horn County Search and Rescue, State Parks employees and volunteers, Game and Fish employees and even parents turned out to volunteer for this year’s event. There were 36 volunteers, not including several parents who stepped up to be group leaders. In return they got to see happy children learning to respect and love outdoor pursuits, as well as safety with hunting gear.
And there’s something even more important, Lentsch said. “They aren’t all going to be fly fishermen or take up archery. But they are the future stewards of this land.”