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Ryan Block takes aim from his stand at the Westby Memorial Shooting Clays Range Tuesday at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. He is serving in his second year as coordinator for the shooting sports program. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny1 / 2
Kevin Hodgson takes aim from the number one stand at the Westby Memorial Shooting Clays Range Tuesday. He was introduced to the shooting sports by his father, and now is introducing them to his 12-year-old daughter. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

SPICER -- Ryan Block's first encounter with Gary Westby was in a duck slough on the family farm, when the Minnesota Conservation Officer checked on the young Block and his hunting companions.

There were no violations and the routine check would have been nothing more, except that Westby wasn't going to pass up a teachable moment. Instead of moving on with his work, Westby spent some time with the young hunters to offer them some of his knowledge on waterfowl hunting.

Now Block has taken over the mantel of finding those teachable moments with young people as the coordinator for the Gary Westby Memorial Shooting Sports facility at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. Westby, 51, had been a conservation officer for 22 years and a leader in the creation of Prairie Woods ELC when he was killed in an accident on his way to his son's football game in October 1997.

"I saw his passion for teaching," said Block of his encounter with Westby years ago.

Dedicated in 2002, the range is seeing increasing use. Last year it hosted 1,200 users, said Block.

Activity at the five-stand shooting clays range this year is on a similar pace. The site also offers a 10-bench, .22 smallbore rifle range. Both are handicapped accessible.

This is the busiest time of the year as hunters prepare for the upcoming waterfowl and pheasant seasons. But Block said the range can see plenty of use in the spring and into the summer as well.

Many users are there to enjoy the sheer challenge of the sport itself. It attracts groups of competitive shooters from local companies, conservation groups and of course, friends.

Importantly, the range also serves as the place to give young people a safe and enjoyable introduction to the shooting sports and outdoors.

That's part of Block's role in his second year as coordinator for shooting sports at Prairie Woods ELC. The range is host to many events sponsored by conservation groups designed to introduce youth to hunting and the shooting sports. Block offers many of the lessons, emphasizing safety first of all to the young people. He moves on to teach them how to determine their dominant eye for shooting, and the correct foot placement, stance and techniques.

The instruction goes well beyond what matters at the range. He also focuses on the ethics of hunting and explains why it's the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors -- and not the harvest of animals -- that is really the focus of hunting.

And of course, he places lots of emphasis on the ethics and proper behavior of hunters. "How they handle themselves when they are in the field," said Block of the lessons.

He is by no means the only teacher at this range. It sees lots of use by family groups, including many with three generations together, said Block.

There are more boys than girls using the range, but Block said it appears that more girls are taking up shooting sports now than years ago.

He knows that many young people today are pulled away from discovering the outdoors by busy schedules and all of the electronic toys available.

Yet it's hard to imagine a video game or computer that could offer the challenges or excitement available on this range. It offers a full range of shooting tests. With the push of a button, Block can send a clay disk bouncing on the ground in front of the shooter like a bounding rabbit. Other radio-controlled launchers challenge hunters with vertical front shots, from behind flights, and left and right wing shots.

Shooters move through the five-stand lineup, taking on the different launches from new positions each time. "It's a game of angles," said Block.

"It's addicting," laughed Kevin Hodgson after he took on Block in friendly competition earlier this week. Hodgson said he was introduced to the shooting sports by his father, and now is passing on the favor. He was accompanied to the range by his 12-year-old daughter, Haylee. She kept score and pushed the launch buttons for the two shooters before taking up a shotgun and getting in the competition as well.

It was only the start of a busy night. Block will host anywhere from five to 15 shooters on nights when the range is in use. The range is available by calling Prairie Woods and scheduling a visit. A $16 fee per hunter includes the steel shot shells, and Block's assistance at the control of the launchers.

His Westby-like enthusiasm for finding the teachable moment is always a part of the package.

Tom Cherveny

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

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