High Drama in the High Desert

posted on January 2, 2014

For 25 years, adventure has had a name: the NRA Whittington Center's Adventure Camp. There's nothing in America-maybe nothing in the world-quite like it. Each summer, the NRA Whittington Center holds two 2-week Adventure Camp sessions, hosting 56 teens per session for an experience they'll never forget...and can't wait to repeat. In fact, so many campers apply to come back as counselors and counselors-in-training that the Whittington Center has had to introduce a special application process. They spread the word to family and friends, so that their younger brothers and sisters can enjoy the excitement when it comes their turn. What makes the Adventure Camp so special? Click here to find out!

The NRA Whittington Center is a vast 33,000-acre outdoorsman's paradise, located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just outside of Raton, N.M. Although the Center is home to 17 different shooting ranges that serve just about every shooting sport you can imagine (and some you can't), the majority of the Center is given over to wilderness. Here roam herds of mule deer and pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys, black bears, coyotes and-yes-even a few mountain lions!

For the first 10 days of their Adventure, campers stay in cozy, sturdy log cabins convenient to the Center's ranges, cafeteria, visitor's center, gift shop and museum. Because elevations range from 6,100 to 8,300 feet and the average humidity hovers around 10 percent, it's important to remember to use plenty of sunblock (the sun is stronger at higher altitudes), and to stay hydrated. Counselors ensure there's always lots of water and sports drinks available, so make sure you drink at least a gallon a day!

Imagine waking up on your first real day of camp as the pink-and-orange dawn illuminates this ruggedly beautiful view from your front step. Step outside, and let the perfectly clean air fill your lungs with the scent of piñon and sage. Listen closely as the dawn unfolds, and maybe you'll hear the clucking and purring of wild turkeys...or just the soft sigh of the wind through the mountains as the rising sun heats the chilly morning air. Your stomach rumbles, anticipating the delicious hot breakfast you'll be soon be having with your new friends.

After breakfast, you'll split up to begin your education in everything outdoors. Campers aren't required to have any prior knowledge of firearms; top-notch instructors will walk you carefully through gun safety, techniques and everything else you need to know. All firearms are provided by the Center, too! Here, a camper gets started on one of the Center's trap ranges.

Of course, the shooting instruction goes way beyond shotgun. Here, Severin Donnelly displays what appears to be a perfect bullseye earned on the smallbore pistol range. Explains Severin, “I also shot the white buffalo three times!" What's the white buffalo? Well, that brings us to another of the Whittington Center's awesome attractions...

... the 1,000-yard range. Here, with the help of rifle instructor Scott Henninger, a camper prepares to send a .50-cal BMG down to a target too far away to be visible in this photograph. Just beyond the targets lies the famous “white buffalo," a 6-by-10-foot aiming point 1,123 yards away. Hitting it is a true feather in the cap of any marksman, but it's even more impressive when you've only ever shot any gun a few times before-as was the case with many campers! Instructor Burt Goodfellow concurs. “From a marksmanship perspective, this (2013) may be the best group we've ever had."

Of course, marksmanship training is only the beginning when it comes to an outdoors adventure. Campers also have the chance to take a wilderness-survival course with Karen Niall of the Wilderness Institute of Survival Education (www.wisesurvival.com), as well as compass and orienteering training, cooking outdoors, and even basic instruction on how to raise a tent.

What's the ultimate goal of all of this? Well, the last three days of the camp are when things get really exciting. The campers head out to a remote part of the Center, known as Coal Canyon in honor of the coal-mining that used to support the local economy. These days, there's nothing there but wilderness...and the campers!

Here, they must raise their own shelters and cooking tents, make their own food, and prepare for the final challenges of their summer adventure.

One of these challenges is the “Hunter Walk." In teams of two, the campers follow a trail through some fairly challenging terrain-steep hills, heavy brush and thick tree cover-to a series of targets. Before they leave, they're given a “hunting license" that allows them to take some kinds of game, but not others. Not only must they spot the game, they must then decide if they can legally take it, and if the shot is ethical. Here, Jacob Riley and Billy Hayn are learning why this isn't as easy as it sounds.

Take a good look at this target. Would you consider this an ethical shot? The rear antelope's vital area is mostly obscured by the front antelope, but shooting the front antelope might result in the rear antelope being wounded as well. But if the campers make all the right choices and pass their test (which is graded on the spot by a counselor), they qualify for a hunting license offered by the state of New Mexico. The camper who does the best also wins a prize-this year, it was a Trijicon Accupoint scope!

In fact, prizes are awarded to the campers who score the highest in each of the disciplines-this year, it was a Bear compound bow for archery, a Lyman Plainsman rifle for blackpowder, a Walther P22 for pistol, a Mossberg for shotgun and a Savage .22 for rifle.

As cool as the prizes are, they probably won't be your favorite souvenir of Adventure Camp-instead, that will be the new memories you'll treasure and the friends you'll make. Agrees camper Lauren Schapel, “Camping out is really exciting, and the weather's been great. I've made lots of friends, and I'm definitely interested in coming back as a counselor. That would be even more fun!"

Speaking of the weather, it's important to remember that the Whittington Center Adventure Camp is a real wilderness experience, complete with little “surprises" from nature, like this sudden hailstorm that struck on the last day of the 2013 Session 1 camp-out. (Don't worry; the savvy campers and counselors already knew how to shelter through the storm!) Or like the black bear that wandered into camp, probably following the scent of that morning's pancake breakfast. (It left quickly with a little “encouragement" from the counselors.) Knowing that you're not in a theme park is what makes the Camp a true adventure that you'll never forget.

Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? 


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