Ken Polhamus, a volunteer with the Illinois chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, helps young hunters assemble box turkey calls. Photos by Chris Young.
Young hunters come first at Torstenson Family Youth Conservation Education Center
The State Journal-Register
A broken foot wasn’t going to keep 13-year-old Gage White on the sidelines during turkey-hunting season.
Rainy weather couldn’t dampen his spirits, either.
Instead, he wrapped a garbage bag around his cast, pulled on his camouflage clothes and set out with a guide to find his assigned blind on a dark and rainy late-April morning.
Gage was participating in a series of youth hunts held each weekend of the spring wild turkey hunting season at the Torstenson Family Youth Conservation Education Center near Pecatonica in northern Illinois. The 750-acre property, owned and managed by the Illinois Conservation Foundation, is just a few miles west of Rockford.
The property, acquired from the Max McGraw Foundation in 2010, has since become the foundation’s centerpiece, a facility dedicated to primarily to youths.
With its woodlands, wetlands, prairies and location adjacent to the Pecatonica River, the Torstenson Center is a hunting, fishing and birding paradise.
But don’t get in a big rush, because here, the kids come first.
“That’s our whole goal,” says Mike Polhamus, the site’s caretaker. “Ninety percent or better (of the events held) are for youth hunting. It’s all kids.”
Science classes from area schools such as Rockford and Pecatonica also come out to the site, as do local FFA members who help plant food plots and other crops.
Adults serve as mentors or attend fundraisers, but mostly the grownups play a supporting role.
Kids come from all over the state for dove, deer, duck, turkey or pheasant hunts — about 1,000 kids so far.
“We’ve had kids from southern Illinois and all the way up,” Polhamus says.
Finding a home
Illinois Conservation Foundation executive director Mark Spangler says he wants to raise the profile of the foundation. He says few people even know the foundation exists or what it does.
“People think we are the state. We’re not,” he says. “We are connected to the state, but we are a private, 501(c)(3)” nonprofit group, he says. “All of our funds are held in private accounts, and the ICF is the only entity that can spend that money.”
The ICF does support DNR initiatives, such as efforts to provide more and varied opportunities for kids.
“When I first interviewed with Marc Miller (director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and chair of the ICF board), I mentioned there was one condition I wanted to put on my acceptance of the position,” Spangler said. “I said I’d like to find 10-15 acres owned by DNR that I could put a youth education and conservation center.”
A call came a few months later from Charlie Potter, chief executive officer of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, wanting to know if ICF would be interested in the Torstenson property.
“It took us some time to figure out if we could even handle it,” Spangler says. “We don’t have a big staff — there is Mike and myself — and it has been a big job getting the equipment up to snuff and figuring out what the place is about and what we can do.”
The property also has its own hunting lodge, a house hewn out of enormous pine logs.
During the youth turkey hunts, kids stayed at the log house, which features two-story windows looking out over an oxbow lake where herons, teal, wood ducks and Canada geese can be seen.
There is a full kitchen, a boardroom for meetings and a well-equipped mudroom where hunting clothes are kept and dogs can be kenneled temporarily.
Spangler said the foundation relies heavily on conservation groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and Pheasants Forever to help run youth hunts. Polhamus’ parents Ken and Marcia are statewide Jakes coordinators for the Illinois chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. They are at the site nearly every weekend of turkey season hosting five young hunters each time. Marcia also is helping with a “Women in the Outdoors” event May 19.
‘The best-kept secret’
Kids come to the site with parents or another adult.
Gage’s grandmother, Donna Missman of Dixon, brought him when his parents’ schedules conflicted. She passed the time knitting in the great room of the log house, and says she doesn’t mind the wait.
“As I didn’t have to go out and hunt turkeys,” she says with a laugh.
“The best thing someone can do to support the ICF is to bring a kid to one of our hunts,” Spangler says.
In the end it wasn’t a broken foot or rainy weather that kept Gage from bagging a turkey. It was just a case of bad luck.
“There were seven gobbling and then four came in … and then I missed,” he says.
Saturday afternoon, the young hunters made their own box turkey calls under Ken’s direction.
Then it was off to the archery range, if the weather cleared, or other activities before turning in early to try again Sunday.
“It’s like the best-kept secret,” says Marcia Polhamus of the Torstenson Center. “The Pecatonica people don’t even know about it, because nobody has ever been allowed back here before.
“Now it’s all the kids,” she says. “We like doing this.”
Illinois Conservation Foundation
Board of directors: 13 board members appointed by the governor and four legislative leaders, chaired by the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Programs and events: annual Outdoor Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony, Sportsmen Against Hunger Program, Schoolyard Habitat Action Grants, Under Illinois Skies: A Camping Experience for Youth