Morgan Bohanon knew from an early age she wanted a career that took her outdoors.
“I’m not at all a desk person,” she said emphatically. “That would be torture.”
Bohanon grew up on 4 acres, in a little farm house outside of Waconia, southwest of Minneapolis. In the early 1990s, her parents bought land in Moose Lake. Both venues piqued her interest in nature and outdoors recreation. “When I was little, I didn’t have video games, tons of TV time, or phones and electronics in my face,” she said. “I had the outdoors.”
But when she got to high school and began thinking about her future, Bohanon said she wasn’t sure a job in an outdoors field was even possible. That all changed when she joined the Waconia High School Conservation Club.
“It changed my life, joining the club and participating in its many outdoors activities,” said Bohanon, 20, who graduated in 2013 and who last spring earned an associate degree in wild land wildlife law enforcement from Vermilion Community College in Ely. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without what I learned from being in the club.”
Established during the 2006-07 school year, the Waconia High School Conservation Club is specifically designed for students who enjoy nature and want to learn more about it. The club’s motto: “Explore, Expand and Protect Our Natural Resources.” No experience is required.
“The club is about outdoors education, land and water stewardship, and hands-on outdoor activities,” said Wayne Trapp, a popular high school biology teacher who co-founded the club and now is one of its advisers. “When kids get to experience nature, they appreciate it more. And when they appreciate it more, they want to take good care of it. If you connect with it, it will connect with you.”
The club runs year-round and gets its main financial support from donations (its budget is roughly $6,000 for this school year), most of which come from area businesses and citizens. The club meets weekly during the school year. Trapp, who teaches several natural resources classes, said club members can earn a varsity letter (the same as an athletics letter), assuming they meet certain participation and attendance requirements. Roughly 250 students are club members for this school year.
“It started with a handful of students, and has gotten larger and larger over the years,” said Trapp, who is an avid outdoorsman. “For some students, it’s their only activity. For others, they play sports or participate in other activities. I think being in the club gives the kids something to do and learn and to take pride in as part of a student body. We have a lot of fun.”
The club’s activities revolve around service projects (for example, tree plantings, habitat restorations, highway and lake cleanups) and outdoor recreation (ice fishing, camping, trap shooting, pheasant hunting, bird banding). There even are tailgate parties before football games where wild game is prepared and eaten. Trapp said many students have little more than a theoretical knowledge of nature, and the outdoor activities allow them to “get their hands dirty and to move out of their comfort zone.”
“Today’s kids are hooked on the wired culture and social media, so the club is quite a departure from that,” he said. “We take a Boundary Waters camping trip during the summer, and phones aren’t allowed. It’s surprising, though, how quickly kids adapt. It doesn’t take long before they get interested in what’s going on around them. It can be as simple as roasting marshmallows over an open fire or canoeing or fishing or watching the stars. Pretty soon they’re fully immersed in nature and actually enjoying it. It’s gratifying to see the light bulb go on.”
Last weekend, 45 club members went on an overnight camping trip to Lake Maria State Park in Monticello. Trapp said roughly 20 tents were assembled, with varying degrees of proficiency, and a fire was started and maintained throughout the night. Club members hiked, canoed, played games, and swapped stories around the fire. Sleeping on the ground was a first for some.
“It was super fun, but really, really cold,” said ninth-grader Autumn Sander, 14. “I’ve camped out a couple of times, but this was my first time in a tent. I thought it might hurt my back a little, but it didn’t.”
Sander is no stranger to the outdoors. In fact, with her father last year, she took her first deer with a 20-gauge shotgun. Though, she admitted, she let her dad field-dress the animal. “I watched, but I did eat some of it,” she said, laughing. “We made barbecue sandwiches out of the heart. It was great.”
Sander said she enjoys being in the club. “I like the service projects and giving back. It’s just fun to be involved.”
Senior Ryan Kruchten, 18, a club member since ninth grade, said the camping trip was cold but enjoyable. “I was dressed in layers, so I was fine,” he said. “I like the idea of camping at a state park and knowing this place is going to be here forever.”
Kruchten said he’s grateful for the conservation club because he doesn’t come from an “outdoorsy” family. “I’ve gotten opportunities to experience things that I likely wouldn’t have had,” he said. “My experiences in the conservation club have given me a greater appreciation for the outdoors and what it takes to preserve it. That’s something I’m going to take seriously for the rest of my life.”
As for conservation club graduate Bohanon, she currently is working toward a seasonal park law enforcement ranger training certificate in Ely. The program is sponsored by the National Park Service.
Once she’s completed the 15-week academy, the avid camper, hunter and angler said she’ll likely pursue a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement. After that, she wouldn’t mind becoming a conservation officer with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s possible,” said Bohanon, who was club president in 2013. “The only thing I know for certain is that I don’t want to be behind a desk.”
Tori J. McCormick is freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.