For most of us, preparations for deer camp don’t require putting a team of welders to work.
But that’s been the case for three years running for the deer camp hosted by the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in Kandiyohi County.
The welders are only too happy to help.
They are students in the welding program at Ridgewater Community and Technical College in Willmar led by instructors Cody Sarsland and Jeremy Hall. This year’s students just built the third, specially designed trailer for a special hunt offered on the PWELC grounds.
Starting 21 years ago, a group of volunteers has made possible an annual deer hunt at PWELC for persons with physical disabilities. Most of the hunters use wheelchairs. For all of the hunters, mobility is a challenge.
That’s where the trailers come in: They are used to transport the hunters over bumpy trails to blinds strategically located in the PWELC’s woodlands.
A few years ago, Mike Oleson, one of the volunteers who got this deer camp started, approached Sarsland about the possibility of using student welders. At the time, the trailers being used to transport the hunters to blinds at PWELC were, in the assessment of Sarsland: “Pretty rigid, ragged looking. (They were) turning into a safety hazard.”
Truth is, a few of the hunters were even starting to worry if their wheelchairs would hold up during the trips on them.
Oleson asked if Sarsland’s students would be able to repair the old, cobbled together trailers. The Ridgewater instructor suggested it would be better to build new.
“Cool, I’m on it. I’ll get the materials,” Sarsland said Oleson told him.
He delivered. After visits to local businesses including Bergh’s Fabricating, Rockwell Surplus, Rohner’s Auto Parts, and Action Auto, Olseon returned with all the parts and materials needed, all of it donated.
Each year since, the welding students have been putting together one new trailer. Sarsland said they intend to make another trailer next year, as well as a separate trailer for moving the blinds around.
The student-built trailers are the Cadillac version of trailers, according to Dave Muetzel, who has been working with Oleson on making this special hunt possible since its start. They even look like they came right off the showroom floor, thanks to students in the Ridgewater Auto Body program. They helped out by painting the trailers.
Having a project like this offers the students an opportunity to learn, and to feel proud about what can be accomplished , noted Sarsland.
This year’s special hunt will be held Nov. 13 and 14. As always, the hunt is held on the second weekend of the firearm season to allow the volunteers an opportunity to hunt beforehand.
Things have come a long way since Mark Mertens, one of the hunt’s organizers and first participants, downed the first buck 21 years ago. Back then, stacks of hay bales served as blinds, noted Muetzel. This year’s hunters will be hidden away in blinds made of treated plywood and equipped with portable propane heaters.
This year’s hunt will include seven hunters, down from the usual 10 to 12 participants. Because of COVID concerns, each hunter must be accompanied in the blind by a family member, rather than a friend or other volunteer. This requirement, along with personal health concerns, has led some hunters not to participate this year.
Due to COVID, this year's hunt will not include a youth hunter. In past years, a 15-year-old youth who had completed the Forkhorns Camp at PWELC was invited to join the hunt. The camp could not be offered this year.
As always, the organizers will have as many volunteers as there are hunters ready to help out through the two days. The volunteers transport the hunters to and from the blinds, and help serve a lunch for a noon-time gathering.
Like any deer camp, it’s all about getting together, swapping stories and having a good time with friends.
These hunters generally see lots of deer, said Muetzel. And believe it or not, they really don’t have to tell tall stories at the end of the day. Most years, seven or eight out of every 10 hunters will harvest a deer, he said.