Started a decade ago, the I Can! program is designed to increase participation in outdoor activities like camping, fishing and paddling.
ST. PAUL — Imagine that you’ve never been camping, and you want to see what it’s all about. Naturally, instead of investing a chunk of money in camping gear before you know if it’s for you, you’d instead call friends down the street. You know, that couple you met at the neighborhood block party who said they have a tent in the garage and you’re welcome to use it anytime?
Or you could contact Eric Pelto of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He’s got about 60 tents available for you to use, and two 16-foot trailers to haul them, pretty much any weekend you want to give camping a try.
As a special programs coordinator based in St. Paul, Pelto is in his tenth summer running the DNR’s popular I Can! program, which serves as the doorway to the outdoors for residents of the region who want to try different activities for the first time.
In an era where myriad people in the public and private sectors are trying to figure out why people are getting outside less, why fewer kids are hunting and fishing, why park visitation numbers are down, and how to reverse those trends, I Can! began as Minnesota’s well-researched attempt to make a change.
“We found things like people didn’t grow up doing it, they don’t have the equipment, or they’re nervous about being in the outdoors alone,” Pelto said. “We started to develop the program to address all of those things.”
For $60 a family of four can get a night of camping at a Minnesota state park, complete with all of the gear and instruction needed for first-timers to feel comfortable and safe. A two-night stay is $85. The programs are conducted at state parks throughout Minnesota every weekend in the summer.
But knowing that there’s much more than camping to do in the summer in Minnesota, the program is wide-ranging, with programming and gear and designed for people who want to try fishing (available in English and Spanish), paddling (canoeing, kayaking and sea kayaking on Lake Superior), mountain biking and archery. Their programming changes with the trends that come and go in outdoor recreation, with additions and subtractions happening regularly over the past decade.
“We did have a stand-up paddling program for a while. I think there’s been a saturation point in that market, but we did it for a couple years and ultimately decided that the private sector has that covered,” Pelto said. “We had a rock climbing program for a time, but we’re really focused on skills that people can do on their own once they leave the program.”
The participation numbers, and the feedback that Pelto and others in the program receive, show that it is working. For the summer of 2019 they had filled 85 percent of their available spots by the middle of June, and the feedback they get is mostly positive.
“I learned how to set up a tent, build a fire, use a propane camp stove, and cook over a fire,” one participant wrote. “I’m not sure what kind/brand of tent I’d buy, so I may be inclined to rent a tent again.”
For Pelto, it’s those success stories that make the effort worthwhile.
“I get some really cool emails from people who started in one of our programs and now are giving their kids camping gear for Christmas and have been to eight state parks and are headed to their first national park next summer,” he said. “To hear those stories is super encouraging.”