They’ll be there this week, just like they have every October for the past 50 years.
They’ll camp, and they’ll hunt—ruffed grouse, mostly, and deer for those who have an archery tag—but mainly, they’ll converge on a campground in Beltrami Island State Forest to be together as a family.
The Gerdes Nation, they call themselves, and they’ve been coming as a family to this remote part of northwest Minnesota near Norris Camp, headquarters of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, since 1967.
They’ll laugh, they’ll share stories and they’ll shed the inevitable tear as they remember Harley Gerdes, the family patriarch who started it all and made his last trip to the forest in October 1995, knowing the trip would be his last.
Gerdes, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., died of cancer less than two months later.
He was 66 years old.
How it started
According to Amy Bodine, Harley’s daughter, the tradition began in 1967 when their dad took the whole family—two girls and seven boys—up to the forest over the long weekend that marks the annual October teachers’ convention.
Harley first had come to the Norris Camp area in 1965 at the invitation of a friend and liked it so much he brought “four or five” of the boys up the next year, Bodine, of Big Lake, Minn., recalls.
Since then, the whole family and the generations that followed, kids and grandkids and other extended family, has made the trip. It was hard that first year after Harley died, Bodine says, but all of the Gerdes Nation knew they had to keep the tradition going.
And keep it going they have. Harley will be there in spirit, as will brother Tim Gerdes, who died in 2008.
Their ashes are sprinkled in the forest, Bodine says.
“We’ve just never stopped going,” she said. “It’s pretty emotional for all of us. After Dad passed, it was pretty tough, but we knew we had to do it because it’s what Pop would have wanted. It was his special place, and it’s our special place. We don’t miss it.
“We’ve had kids up there as young as 6 weeks old,” she added. “It doesn’t stop just because you had a baby. You still bring them—you still go. … We have to keep going back.”
At noon Saturday, Oct. 21, the Gerdes Nation is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration at the Norris Camp Picnic Shelter for family members and all of the friends they’ve made in the forest over the years.
They’ll do their traditional shotgun salute to Harley and Tim beforehand, and then they’ll host a turkey dinner—”complete with the whole shebang: stuffing, potatoes, vegetables and bars”—for anybody that wants to come, Bodine says.
After dinner, there’ll be a slide show of the last 50 years at Norris Camp along with a presentation and a chance for family and friends to tell stories and laugh and joke around.
At least 40 members of the Gerdes Nation are camping at Norris Camp Picnic Shelter Campground this week—the same place they’ve camped since the 1960s—and there could be upwards of 75 people at Saturday’s celebration if everyone in the family is able to attend, Bodine says.
From Middle River to New Ulm, Minn., and most points in-between, they’ll be there.
“We’re planning for 100, but we have no idea how many for sure are coming,” she said. “We have the invites out there to everybody. I mean, if it’s just our family alone, there’d be over 75 people.”
Just as she has every year, mother Louanne, the family’s matriarch, will be on hand, as well. Everyone brings their own accommodations, Bodine says, whether it’s fifth-wheel campers, tents or pop-up campers.
Bodine and her sister, Greta, also of Big Lake, do all the meal planning and grocery shopping, but everyone gets a say in the menu.
“It’s fun,” Bodine said. “The kids enjoy it, they build forts in the woods, and we’ve played nighttime wiffle ball with glow-in-the-dark bat and ball and glow-in-the-dark bases. The kids have glow sticks they run with, play flashlight tag and they just have a blast.”
It’s a good family tradition, she says
“We’re teaching the younger kids now the things they need to do so my sister and I can step aside and let the younger kids take over, and they can continue on with the next generation,” Bodine said. “Family was always the most important thing.”
Always will be.