Adventure with KAMO

By Leah Call  

Studies show getting outside and into nature boosts creativity, improves memory and reduces stress. Kids involved in outdoor activities, such as hunting, fishing, boating, snowshoeing and hiking, develop a lifelong passion that will keep them healthier and happier.

The Coulee Region offers an abundance of outdoor recreation. But how can busy parents get their kids off the computer and into the great outdoors? KAMO, which stands for Kids and Mentors Outdoors, may be the answer. And the best part, it’s FREE.

“KAMO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to getting kids outdoors year-round, to give them an appreciation of nature; and, hopefully, they will become stewards of nature someday, and mentor kids in the future,” says Michael Brown, president of the Coulee chapter, which serves kids and families in La Crosse, Onalaska, West Salem and Holmen.

The Origin of KAMO

About 15 years ago, Madison-based outdoor adventure writer Mark Walters made an observation. “There weren’t as many kids on the water. There weren’t as many kids in the woods, or backpacking or canoeing,” he says.

That observation was the impetus for starting KAMO. In December 2006, Walters appealed to the readers of his column, “An Outdoorsman’s Journal,” which appears in more than 60 newspapers. “I said I will meet with the first three people that contact me from three different parts of the state, and we can talk about what we can do to change this.”

Ninety days later, he met with individuals from Ladysmith, Wisconsin Dells and Florence. They dubbed the group, Kids and Mentors Outdoors. “And we’ve experienced slow but steady growth ever since,” notes Walters. “I think in another 20 years it will be a very big thing in Wisconsin.”

Today, there are seven chapters of KAMO statewide. The Coulee chapter was launched in 2012 by Michael Brown, who had similar concerns about getting kids outdoors, particularly getting more kids interested in the river.

After seeing a KAMO bumper sticker, Brown did some research and attended a meeting in Ladysmith.

“I was really impressed with the passion and enthusiasm of the men and women sitting at the table there,” says Brown, who was determined to start a chapter in the La Crosse area. “So, I brought the idea back to some folks here … and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy gave us support to get the organization off the ground.”

The Coulee chapter holds numerous small and large group activities year-round with a growing number of youth and family participants.

Walters calls Brown the “most proactive member” of KAMO. “He keeps me going. He has so many ideas and people he wants me to meet and places he wants me to go.”

Outdoor Adventures for All

KAMO activities are free to area kids and are financed through the group’s own fundraising efforts along with donations from individuals and businesses. Roughly 50 kids attend KAMO events and activities annually.

In 2017, the group hosted more than 40 midsize and large group events dedicated to hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, canoeing, wildlife observation and more. The group also attended a Coulee Region Chill hockey game, visited the International Festival of Owls in Houston, Minnesota, and provided a helping hand at the Brice Prairie Conservation Association River Cleanup.

The time of year often dictates the type of activity. In January and February 2018, activities include outings to Winterfest at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, Kids Fishing Day at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, snowshoeing with the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, tubing, snow sculpting and more.

KAMO kids are typically 9-14 years old. Some younger kids attend events with families. Brown notes, “The kids that stick it out year after year are hooked on the outdoors and will often become mentors themselves.”

Meet the Petersons: A KAMO Family

Eight KAMO kids, ages 5-12, participated in the Genoa National Fish Hatchery Kids Ice Fishing Clinic last February. One of those participants was 10-year-old Zoelyn Peterson. Her mother, Rita Peterson, says, “We’d never gone ice fishing before until we went with KAMO, and Zoelyn caught the most fish. So now fishing is her thing.”

And what does Zoelyn enjoy most about fishing? Catching a fish, of course! She also learned to put on a lure. And she learned to shoot a gun for the first time at another KAMO event.

Hunting is the favorite KAMO activity for Zoelyn’s brother Zachary, age 14. Both kids say they learn a lot from the KAMO mentors, many of which are retired teachers, scientists and natural resources professionals.

Rita appreciates that expertise. “Zachary got to go duck hunting, and Larry and I have never gone duck hunting. Zachary got three ducks his first hunt. He was pretty excited about that.”

KAMO mentor Tim Hundt took Zachary out on Lake Onalaska to help him complete his boater safety. Zachary remembers, “He taught me what side of the river you are supposed to drive on if you are going up or down the river.”

Larry Peterson adds, “I like the kids to be able to do some of the things I can’t do, because I’m working on Saturdays. And these guys are experts and give all the pointers to be successful.”

When his work schedule allows it, Larry accompanies the kids to KAMO events. One memorable activity was a Paddle Picnic, which involved paddling kayaks for about an hour, then biking back for a picnic. Larry laughs, recalling his competitive daughter shouting, “Don’t let them win!” when she saw another family approaching in their kayak.

But it’s not all fun and games. KAMO kids give back by helping with various cleanup efforts, including a campground cleanup that culminated in a free night of camping. “It’s good for the kids to do a little work,” notes Larry.

The Petersons encourage other families and kids to get involved in KAMO. “It’s good to get the kids off the computers and get them outside,” says Larry. “They are missing out on life. This is fun stuff.”

Tony Dodge: Lifelong Outdoorsman

Sixteen-year-old Tony Dodge has been involved in KAMO since the Coulee chapter was formed in 2011. His experience with KAMO was enhanced by mentor Scott Linssen, a science teacher at Central High School. Through the years, the two have enjoyed numerous outdoor activities together, but mostly fishing. “They are both into fly fishing and fly tying,” says Tony’s mother Nancy Brewer. “They hit it off right away.”

In addition to fishing, Tony enjoys getting to know other kids at KAMO, as well as duck hunting, deer hunting and bird watching. After nearly seven years in KAMO, he can now help others and even shows the younger kids how to identify different bird species.

Tony’s involvement in KAMO—particularly a trout habitat restoration activity—has inspired him to consider a future career working in natural resources.

“I would recommend other kids get involved in KAMO because it is a very, very good experience,” says Tony. “They have options for kids that don’t want to kill animals or get dirty. They have hiking, boating, biking and camping. They have a lot of variety, which is something I really like.”

Nancy says Tony has always been a really outdoorsy kid, and KAMO allows him to stay active while learning from knowledgeable mentors. “And it’s another opportunity for him to have an adult connection with someone with similar interests who can kind of guide him through the teenage years,” she adds.

The Perfect Partnership

In 2017, KAMO began partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the 7 Rivers Region (BBBS). “We meet and discuss how we can share resources and ideas,” says Brown. “Our group is eligible to attend their outings and vice versa.”

The two organizations—one focused on group activities and one specializing in one-to-one mentoring—are a perfect blend. BBBS executive director Jason Larsen notes, “It is really exciting for us to have so many more opportunities to offer our youth.”

The groups will co-host a Gymnasium Activity Day at the La Crosse Wellness Center on Feb. 24. At that indoor event, KAMO mentors will teach kids fishing skills, including how to cast a fishing pole. The event offers something for those kids who want to “stay in the warm indoor environment, but also learn some real outdoor skills,” says Larsen. “In the winter months, we’ll also get out and do some snowshoeing with KAMO and other things they do outside.”

While the partnership enables both groups to grow their list of activities, they hope it will also grow the number of volunteer mentors. “When recruiting mentors for BBBS, we ask for a couple of hours two to four times a week for a year or two and beyond,” says Larsen. “If you want to get involved but that seems like a lot right now, you can start out by mentoring in a group mentoring fashion with KAMO. It gives a potential volunteer more ways to get involved.”

Volunteer Mentors Share Knowledge, Skills and Time

Whether helping kids catch their first fish, teaching them to safely handle a hunting rifle, or inspiring them for a career in natural resources, KAMO mentors play an important role in developing future outdoorsmen and women.

Tim Collins was involved with BBBS prior to becoming a KAMO mentor. He has been a KAMO mentor with the Coulee chapter since day one. “I had a little brother, and he and I did a lot of things outdoors—hunting, fishing, camping,” recalled Collins. “When I saw an article about KAMO in the paper, it sounded like a good fit.”

KAMO’s volunteer mentors share a passion for nature and outdoor activities. They also share a desire to pass that passion on to future generations. Mentors often form close bonds with their mentees. For Collins, one young participant named Roy felt like family.

“Roy was very interested in the outdoors. He was a foster kid and had gone through some hard times. He has since moved out of the area, but we still stay in touch.”

Collins took Roy on a turkey hunt where he shot his first turkey. “He was so excited,” recalls Collins. “Then I, along with another mentor, did a duck hunt and Roy shot his first duck.”

For the past three years, Collins has organized a pontoon ride on the Mississippi for kids involved in KAMO and BBBS. “A lot of people who live in La Crosse have never seen how beautiful the city is from the water,” adds Collins. “We had pretty close to 80 people [on the cruise] last year.”

Though retired after 31 years at Western Technical College, Collins still enjoys teaching others. “I get more out of it when I get someone else interested in fishing and see them get excited about catching a fish for the first time. I’m also a birder—it is always fun to take out people who are not familiar with birds.”

Collins is surprised there aren’t more kids interested in KAMO. “In all honesty, I find it amazing that we don’t have more takers. When I was a kid, if they had programs like this, I would have eaten that up.”

Then there’s Mike Hodgins, who wanted to find something to keep him busy when he retired. Since he enjoyed spending time outdoors, he contacted Brown about becoming a KAMO mentor. “Initially I tagged along to a couple of events and helped out. Now I try to make as many of the functions as I can.”

“I can relate to what the group is doing,” adds Hodgins. “I grew up in the city and my dad didn’t hunt or fish or spend much time outdoors. My grandfather was the person who introduced me to the outdoors. This feels almost the same. Getting the kids outdoors is very rewarding.”

While many of the KAMO mentors are outdoorsmen and have held careers in education and natural sciences, Hodgins, a former corporate manager, considers himself the opposite. And KAMO gives him the opportunity to make up for lost time. “I was the guy who worked 60, 70-hour weeks, never had time for everything. I missed opportunities with my own kids.”

Hodgins considers fishing his strength, but he also mentors group events involving hiking, hunting, boating and archery. “It’s about getting the kids exposed to this stuff and creating a lifelong passion, a lifelong enjoyment,” he says. “You have their full attention and you can see the retention. You know that kid is going to have a lifetime experience, a memory, and you got to be part of that.”

Seeking More Mentors

Like other nonprofits, KAMO is always looking for more volunteers. The group currently has about 15 mentors, down from past years. Mentors must be over 18 and pass a background check. Mentors also meet monthly to plan activities. Meetings are open to the public, and the dates and times are posted on the group’s website and Facebook page. Anyone interested in becoming a mentor can attend a meeting or contact Michael Brown.

A retired high school teacher who volunteers for other area nonprofits, Brown calls running KAMO a labor of love. “Now that I’m retired and I’m volunteering for all these organizations, I find myself happier than I’ve ever been in my life. It’s a myth that volunteering takes up all your time. You still have plenty of time to yourself.”

Find more information or make a donation at www.kamokids.org.