Illinois family retreat becomes state-of-the-art youth waterfowl hunting camp
HULL, Ill. — Tucked away off the back roads of Pike County is a new destination for area youth looking for mentoring and the thrill of the hunt.
Gardner Camp, in rural Hull, now occupies the former country retreat of the late J.W. Gardner II and his family. Upon Gardner’s 2012 death, the family’s 330 acres of former wetland, an oasis for waterfowl and deer, was donated to be made into a camp. In 1859, Gardner’s ancestors founded what would become Gardner Denver Inc. in Quincy.
“For many generations, the Gardner family had this property,” said Gardner Camp Executive Director Amy Lefringhouse. “We’re down here in the river bottoms of the Mississippi. Ducks are plentiful down here.”
Several miles of levees and canals were built into the property. Three deep wells were dug, allowing the former wetlands to be flooded to mimic the natural dynamics of the land. The flooded cornfields and pastures of Gardner Camp have an almost magnetic draw that brings birds, deer and several other species out from hiding. Renewed vegetation, reignited into growth by the return of long-absent water, offers food and compels animals to spend more time within the camp.
“He (Gardner) wanted it to be a resource for nonprofit agencies and the youth of Adams, Pike and the surrounding counties,” Lefringhouse said. “It’s really unique, and it’s a really great opportunity for kids. We don’t have anything like it.”
In March 2016, Lefringhouse was hired to coordinate year-round youth programming. The first program offered at the camp was mentored youth hunting.
“It’s pretty state-of-the-art waterfowl hunting,” Lefringhouse said. “The amount of resources we put into managing the habitat, we know we can hold ducks here. That’s going to help us and the kids have a successful hunt.”
Lefringhouse described the two hunting blinds on the property as “far from the average blinds.”
“They have heat. They have electricity that can run a microwave, a full-sized stove and oven,” Lefringhouse said. “It’s almost the comforts of home.”
The amenities were included with the intention of easing the young hunters into the outdoors. One of the two blinds is underground, buried below a mound in a flooded field. The result is a view, when looking through the shooting station, that is on the same level as the water.
“I get message after message from parents. `We think he has got the bug now. That’s all he has talked about since he got home,'” Lefringhouse said. “It makes me so appreciative of Mr. Gardner’s generosity. To get to see the looks on these kids’ faces every weekend is pretty priceless.”
Gardner Camp has hosted five youth waterfowl hunting weeks and two youth deer hunting seasons this year. To facilitate each excursion, the camp worked with nonprofit organizations such as the Boy Scouts, 4-H and others.
“Now we’re looking at offering outdoor education programming over Christmas break,” Lefringhouse said.
On Dec. 28 and 29, Gardner Camp was to host Winter in the Wild, during which the World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis will offer a live show with flying raptors. If weather permits, youth also will be able to scan the camp’s grounds for tracks, among other activities. Between adults and children, more than 250 have registered.
“The possibilities here are endless,” Lefringhouse said of future programming being considered. “Hopefully we can enhance the programming of nonprofits in the area with the end goal of reaching those kids’ lives and giving them experiences they’ve never had before.”