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Thompson wins instructor award

Gary Thompson was awarded the Volunteer Instructor of the Year for the state because of the work he does with youth ATV safety. PIPPI MAYFIELD/TRIBUNE

Saturday was slated to be a typical youth ATV safety training session for Gary Thompson.

He’s been an instructor for the Woods and Wheels ATV Club-sponsored classes for several years, and the basement of the VFW in Detroit Lakes held youth waiting to be certified to ride their ATVs.

But, to his surprise, Thompson was awarded with the state’s Volunteer Instructor of the Year award through the Department of Natural Resources. He had no idea he was receiving the award, let alone that Lt. Leland Owens would be presenting him with a plaque for his work.

“The Minnesota DNR relies on thousands of volunteers to deliver our youth safety training classes,” said Owens, DNR recreational vehicle coordinator.

That includes volunteers for the snowmobile, ATV and firearms training classes.

Each year the DNR asks for nominations for instructors who go above and beyond. There are about 1,000 ATV instructors throughout Minnesota, and Thompson was chosen for his efforts in this area.

In 2005, Thompson was certified as an instructor. By the end of 2013 — the club hosts two training sessions each year — he will have instructed close to 500 students since he started. And those kids come from all over the northern part of the state, not just Becker County.

“Gary has a strong desire for promoting positive public image for safety to all youth and adults for ATV operations,” the Woods and Wheels ATV Club nomination form says about Thompson.

Thompson, a charter member of the Woods and Wheels ATV Club, said he got involved with ATV safety education because “there was a need. There were a lot of accidents happening, especially with youth out there, and the state has a program, so we looked into it.”

State law requires anybody between the ages of 12 and 15 to take this safety class to be allowed to ride on public land.

“I think we have some of the largest classes in the state because of the timeframe we’re doing it in, and we have such a great crew of instructors, we’re able to accommodate that many kids in a class,” Thompson said.

They hold a class in May (the most popular because it’s right before the ATV season begins) and September. They have anywhere from six or seven kids to 50-plus kids in the classes.

Most accidents, he said, happen to kids 13-15 years of age, so the state came up with the training program to help curb that statistic.

It’s a group effort

Even though it says “Gary Thompson” on the plaque, he said that he’s accepting the award on behalf of the entire Woods and Wheels Club.

“It’s an honor,” he said of receiving the award. “I was very surprised because it was a first time (he was nominated) but it was a great honor to get it.

“It wasn’t me alone,” he added. “If it wasn’t for the club, I wouldn’t have this, because the other ones show that we can put something like this on and put it on efficiently and effectively because it’s not a one-person deal. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten the award.”

Thompson, who owns Tri-State Diving in Detroit Lakes, takes care of the classroom time with the kids, and other members of the club set up the course the kids have to drive later that day. They use the old city dump site for the course because it’s grassy there and not paved, Thompson said.

The members of the ATV club may have dwindled since it was first chartered, but Thompson said they all work hard to educate kids and their parents, and get trails ready for visitors.

“We’re working hard to get a good state trail system.”

Some of the closest designated trails are in the Smokey Hills area and Two Inlets area.

Trail ambassador

Thompson has also gone through the training to become a certified trail ambassador for the state.

“They are the eyes and ears on the trails, but more importantly, they meet and greet other trail users,” Owens said.

Though trail ambassadors don’t have any enforcement authority, they provide any assistance that’s needed to trail users like give directions, provide First Aid and educate people on what the rules and regulations are for ATV trails in the state.

“If people get lost out there, don’t know where they’re at, we can give them maps. Also just making sure people are riding properly,” Thompson said is part of the trail ambassador job.

He said the biggest violations he sees are too many people riding on an ATV and kids without helmets or without supervision.

“Most parents don’t realize that those kids out there riding by themselves, if they get stopped by a DNR officer or a law enforcement officer, they get slapped on the hand, but the parents get the ticket.”

Though it’s a volunteer opportunity, it’s one that Thompson takes seriously and with a passion.

“It’s an honor to be able to go out there and work those trails and help the DNR and make sure people are riding safely out there,” he said.


Owens said Thompson’s Volunteer Instructor of the Year nomination stood out because of his “deep involvement with promoting the local community. He has given countless hours of volunteer time.”

He also noted Thompson’s good demeanor with the kids he educates.

He said since it’s a state agency, there’s not much compensation that comes along with the award, but there is plenty of appreciation.

“He stands head and shoulders above everyone. It’s a team process, but every team needs a leader,” Owens said.

Thompson was awarded a small plaque for himself, and then a larger plaque hangs at the Camp Ripley DNR with each year’s winner’s name engraved on it.

The letters of recommendation for Thompson’s nomination included comments from Marsha Watland with the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District and the Becker County Cooperative Weed Management Area committee and Pat Petermann with the Boys and Girls Club of Detroit Lakes.

“Gary has brought his skill of working with others, experience with invasive weed identification and willingness to learn more about weed management on the trails to the CWMA meetings,” Watland wrote.

Thompson has been a part of the Boys and Girls Club for about eight years, including serving as president of the board for two years. He also helps with the Polar Plunge each year.

“Gary has recruited new volunteers and spreads the good word of our mission to others in our community. He attends the functions held by the club and he is always willing to lend a helping hand,” Petermann wrote.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.