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Pedaling optimism around the state of Minn.

A team of Let's Go Fishing volunteers from the Duluth chapter are pedaling a 1,460-mile route around the state to visit all 27 chapters, and raise funds and public awareness on behalf of the organization. They reached Willmar on Tuesday, when local representatives Sue Ripley and Roger Benson were on hand to greet them. From left are: Ripley, Chuck Wollack, Dr. Dave Spoelhof, M.D., Benson, Clarence Nylund, Sue Nylund, Nancy Saari, Dave Carlson and Dennis Hoelscher. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

WILLMAR -- Duluth Mayor Don Ness was on hand to wish them well, and 400 balloons were released as friends cheered their departure.

Yet what's really etched in their memory is what greeted the team of bicyclists on the road: ''40 degrees and a driving rain at the start,'' said Clarence Nylund, describing their May 5 start from Duluth.

Five days later, and Nylund and the bicyclists reached Willmar via a route that included Hinckley, White Bear Lake, Fairmont, and Marshall.

The temperature was popping thermometers at 88 degrees as they rolled into the Day's Inn on East Highway 12 in Willmar on Tuesday afternoon.

"They haven't gotten to the half way point yet,'' said Roger Benson. He was on hand to greet the bicyclists as president of the Willmar chapter of Let's Go Fishing with Seniors of Minnesota.

Welcome to the "Joy Ride,'' as the members of the Duluth chapter are calling their jaunt around the state.

They are pedaling around the state to visit all 27 Let's Go Fishing chapters. They will have covered 1,460 miles by the time they return home on May 17.

Every mile will be worth it, the hot and tired bicyclists maintained at their stop in Willmar.

The benefits that seniors realize by enjoying time on the water are that great, and so too are the rewards they feel as volunteers, they explained.

The ride is both an opportunity to raise awareness about Let's Go Fishing and to raise funds to buy a second pontoon boat for their chapter. The chapter organized in 2009 and took 550 people on outings on the St. Louis River. Last year the volunteers took 1,100 people on outings.

The chapter's pontoon boat is booked five days a week, twice a day through the summer, according to chapter president Chuck Wollack.

The bicyclists range in age from 48 to 67, and advocate the importance of physical activity for people of all ages. Among the eight team members is Dr. David Spoelhof, M.D., a specialist in geriatric medicine. He has written to public officials and others about the mental and physical benefits that seniors have derived from time on the water with Let's Go Fishing.

The public awareness the group is raising is very important to the organization, according to founder and president Joe Holm of Willmar.

Let's Go Fishing chapters across the state are seeing growing interest like that being experienced in Duluth. Yet as the interest and value of Let's Go Fishing is being discovered by more, so too are the challenges facing the organization.

It recently made the decision to end its role in charitable gambling, which provided nearly a quarter of its overall revenues. Now, the state's budget problems are being felt too. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has frozen some of the grant funding awarded the organization.

The organization depends more than ever on the financial support of private supporters and volunteers. Holm said he is hoping that support will grow to match the challenges as the organization moves ahead.

Seeing the determination of the bicycle riders from Duluth as they kept pushing themselves in last Monday's heat made him feel very optimistic.

To learn more or support Let's Go Fishing, visit:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335