The sound of gunfire echoed across the fields as I pulled off highway 74 near St. Charles and got out of my car. An occasional shotgun blast was interrupted by the staccato cracks of a .22 rimfire.
As I walked over to a temporary shelter, set up as a shield against the pouring rain, I noticed a line of young hunters walking through the tall, wet grass. Dressed in blaze orange, they marched in a straight line with their firearms at ready, pausing once to make the guns safe and pass them to companions on the other side of a fence.
No, it wasn’t the opening day of the small game season. Nor was it an attempt to rid the countryside of the striped gopher population.
Rather, this group was participating in a final exam that most hunters must take at some point in their lives — the Firearms Safety Field Day.
The field day is the culmination of more than 15 hours of classroom time and numerous hours of home reading assignments that students are required to complete in order to become certified hunters.
More than 40 kids and adults attended this weeklong course, which was taught by St. Charles area resident John Brogan and a cadre of long-time instructors whose combined teaching experience totals over 100 years. Firearms safety instructors are a dedicated lot, volunteering their time, knowledge, expertise, and enthusiasm while training novice hunters to hunt safely and ethically.
In addition to the instructors, volunteer speakers visited the class to talk about a variety of topics, such as hunting accidents and wilderness first aid, and local Conservation Officer Mitch Boyum performed the impossible, keeping the attention of 11- and 12-year-old students for more than an hour while he taught them about the state game laws.
I stood under the shelter, watching the waterlogged students as they completed the exam, which consisted of five different stations at which they demonstrated their skills and safe handling of a rifle, shotgun, and archery tackle. Students were also required to prepare a small survival kit, made from household items, and explain to instructors how they would use each of the components in an emergency situation.
As they finished, the students returned to the shelter, where instructor Terry Garteski, who has been teaching firearms safety for more than 40 years, was grilling choice pieces of venison, elk, and pronghorn for everyone to taste.
The scene brought back memories of my youth, when I too participated in the course, setting the stage for a lifetime of exploits in the great outdoors. As an adult, I took the Advanced Hunter Safety course, which provided an old dog like me with an excellent refresher on the fine points of safe hunting and a reminder that it is important not to become complacent.
In Minnesota, firearm safety certification is required for anyone born after December 31, 1979. But it’s not just a requirement. It makes sense that anyone who wants to hunt, or lives in a household with firearms, should be trained to handle them safely.
Indeed, when each of my kids turned 11, I informed them that they would be required to take a firearm safety class. But they were allowed to choose whether or not they wanted to hunt. In the end, both my daughter and my son chose to go hunting, and the time we’ve spent together in the woods has been immensely rewarding.
With the 2011 hunting season approaching rapidly, the DNR-sponsored certification classes are being held at numerous locations across the state, and an online course has been established that provides students with all but the field day, which can be undertaken separately.
From Winona County in the south to St. Louis County in the north, young hunters are learning not only to be safe in the field, but also how to be ethical outdoorsmen and women.