SPICER — They always found great adventures less than a mile’s walk from their home.

Dave Pederson and his two older brothers often trekked to what was then the largely undeveloped, wooded shoreline of Elkhorn Lake south of Spicer. They went to camp, hunt, build forts, cause simple mischief, and just plain poke around in the outdoors. “Hard to imagine places you can do that anymore,” said Pederson.

Except for one: The Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, where Pederson serves as its executive director. Since 1995 it’s been offering programming on its 400 acres of woodlands, prairie and wetlands aimed at introducing youth to the outdoors. It served some 800 people that year, counting those who attended the annual fall open house. This year it’s on track to serve more than 30,000 people, including youth who participate in off-site programming offered by Prairie Woods ELC in neighboring counties.

Getting young people into the outdoors is what motivates Pederson. Every so often, he’s on hand as kids with rosy cheeks from a day outside get on the bus at Prairie Woods ELC and he’ll hear some of them say: “I’ve never spent a whole day outside before.”

“This is so incredibly shocking and sad, but exciting at the same time,’’ said Pederson. If the kids get lit up on what the outdoors offer, that’s what matters to him, he explained.

Those youthful adventures, from the family farm place south of Spicer to the “Elkhorn Woods,” led Pederson a very long way. He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 1976, intent from the start of his studies on a career focused on providing experiential education to youth focused on the outdoors.

“I knew that I wanted to work with people and I knew that I wanted to be outdoors,” he said.

To prepare himself to lead youth in winter camping adventures, he spent a winter’s month alone in a tipi in the Chippewa National Forest as part of an Outward Bound Minnesota program offered through his college. He listened to the trees popping when the mercury sank to minus 45. He had no more than an open fire in the middle of his shelter to stay warm. Great training, he said, as well as a rare opportunity to have time to think, plan and experience being alone.

The year he graduated from college he went to work for a wilderness canoe base leading trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At summer’s end, Pederson and two co-workers built kayaks from kits and embarked on a two-month paddle down the entire length of the Mississippi River. They arrived in New Orleans, hoping to find work on the docks to have the money to make it back home.

The adventures only continued as Pederson pursued work leading youth and adults on outdoor trips. He worked with Outward Bound Canada in Northwest Ontario and later, a program for troubled youth along the Saint Croix River. He led the youth on extended canoe trips in the northern wilderness of Minnesota and Canada.

While at St. Croix, Dave and Ruth Fairchild, whom he had originally met at the Green Lake Bible College during high school, cemented their relationship. She took a job teaching girls at the camp and he led trips for boys. They married at age 28, and headed off to Alaska. He worked for an outdoor-focused, substance abuse program for native youth. The couple spent six years in Alaska and three years in Vermont.

Beautiful places, said Pederson, but he said he and Ruth wanted to raise their children closer to family. They returned to Minnesota in 1993, shortly after the birth of their first child. Ruth began her teaching career with Ridgewater Community College.

Return to familiar turf

Pederson served as the critical incident response coordinator at the college. Soon, he also put his experience in climbing and leading youth on challenge courses to work at Prairie Woods ELC, which installed its own challenge course.

His work at Prairie Woods placed Pederson on familiar turf for another reason: Some of the land that now comprises Prairie Woods was land that his mother’s grandfather had homesteaded.

Pederson soon stepped into the center’s leadership role. Prairie Woods has seen continued growth from its start, although in ways not always expected. The original hope was to operate as a residential environmental learning center. The available state funding to help Prairie Woods develop would not allow any residential projects.

“Probably the best thing that never happened,” said Pederson of the center's inability to develop a residential facility.

Focusing on non-residential services has allowed Prairie Woods to introduce many more people to the outdoors, explained Pederson. By essentially not having the expenses and obligations that come with operating a residential facility, it could devote its resources to a wider range of programming.

Pederson said he began his career in experiential education with an appreciation for the benefits that time in the environment can provide people. Through his work, he’s also become increasingly aware of the adverse effects we are having on the environment.

His response has been to make Prairie Woods a leader in renewable energy. The center has turned to wind, solar and biomass energy systems to zero out its carbon footprint. It produces as much energy as it uses. It also hosts the Youth Eco Solutions!, a program that works with high school students on renewable energy and environmental projects that benefit their communities.

Pederson said Prairie Woods ELC is well poised today to serve its role of introducing people to the outdoors. It has a talented staff which allows it to provide a wide range of programming on site and off. It has also assembled a wide range of gear from the Voyageur Canoe to snowshoes, cross country skis, canoes, kick sleds and yellow boats to provide a wide range of opportunities to introduce people to the outdoors.

Pederson has played a big role in making it all possible, according to Jim Tetzloff, chair of the Prairie Woods ELC board of directors. He said Pederson’s “even keel demeanor” is what has impressed him the most.

“Even when it gets absolutely crazy and nuts and going 80 directions he just keeps the ship straight,” said Tetzloff.

Obvious, too, is Pederson's passion for getting youth outdoors, “and giving them experiences,” said the board chair.

Providing hands-on, real encounters with the natural world and with other people is what Prairie Woods is all about, according to Pederson. "We're all about learning to live well with self, others and the environment,” he said. “It’s not complicated. We just want to connect kids to the outdoors.”