Greybeards and green ribbons: A first-timer reflects on OWAA’s conference in Knoxville, Tennessee

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With Knoxville, Tennessee, in my rearview mirror, my first OWAA Conference was done. Our car aimed north on I-81. As my bride and guide dozed, the Tennessee map on her lap, I had time for reflection. I’d been a member of OWAA for several years, but never attended a conference until this year. Why, I wondered, did it take so long for me to attend my first OWAA Conference? After all, I’m into my 70s — so old that I felt embarrassed to have that first-timer green ribbon on my name badge.
But I was glad I attended. Old friends like Bill Brassard with the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Terry Brady with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spoke at the “Becoming an Outdoors Communicator” workshop. That first workshop alone was worth the price of admission. At other sessions outdoor communicators discussed ethics in the field and climate change, drones and launching your own book tour. Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, gave an inspiring keynote address on the upcoming 100th birthday of his agency.
At Breakout Day, I shot an AR-15, a Crossman air rifle and a 50 caliber pistol. (My elbow is still sore from the recoil.) I learned about places where I could find story ideas and websites that could offer me professional help. I rode in a Porta-A-Boat and was amazed at the stability. Most importantly, I met some very fine folks, including some editors who were receptive to my story ideas.
Before I left for Knoxville, OWAA staff paired me with a conference mentor, Pat Wray. Wray reached out to me via email beforehand to introduce himself.
“Don’t expect a young stud. I am quite aged for a first-timer,” I responded. “Just look for the white hair.”
For whatever reason I didn’t get involved in professional outdoor writing groups until I retired from education. I’d dabbled in outdoor writing, publishing a few stories. I joined my state organization, the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association less than 12 years ago, but I jumped in. I hosted a 5-day conference and served on the Board of Directors. The organization elected me president at the last conference.
I suppose I am the poster boy for other outdoor communicators who discover their passion later in life. But if someone had approached me about becoming involved in the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, or OWAA years earlier, I would have been become a much more prolific writer. Who knows? I coulda been famous like Pat Wray, someone I saw win Excellence in Craft Contests, receive the Circle of Chiefs award and I now count as a friend.
That’s my message. Contact young writers and photographers and invite them to join hands with long-time pros. Many of our outdoor sports like hunting, fishing, hiking and canoeing are tilted toward a timeworn fellowship of guys approaching geezer status. A number of states, including Pennsylvania, started mentored youth hunting and fishing programs in the hope that younger hunters and anglers, once introduced to the outdoors, will restock the sporting community. We can learn from those state early hunter/angler programs. OWAA — as well as state and regional outdoor communicators organizations — needs to reach out to young folks before they hit old age.
The description for the Becoming an Outdoors Communicator workshop in Knoxville said it all, “Invite young communicators; attend yourself; break into new fields.”
If you see someone from your state who might qualify for membership, talk to them about it. Invite them to a conference. Ask other organization members to meet the young writer, blogger or photographer. We all should be actively recruiting our replacements and then some. We, as a professional association, have something good to sell. And, as would have been the case with me some 30 years ago, it might be an easy sale ♦
– Retired teacher, principal, coach and life-long sportsman, Don Knaus is an award-winning outdoor writer and author of several books that deal with hunting, fishing and the outdoors. He is a life-long outdoorsman and he has written about hunting and fishing for years. His book, “Of Woods and Wild Things” is a volume of short stories dealing with hunting, fishing and the outdoors.”

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