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Faces of Expo

Pedaling through the land of cotton and sawmills.

By Ernie Gammage
Photography by Earl Nottingham

The day before had been cool and misty, but then the October sun had warmed the grounds of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department headquarters. It was late in the afternoon at the Texas Wildlife Expo, and my 9-year old son, his friend and I had fished, mountain biked, and gone eyeball-to-eyeball with an alligator. Now my boy wanted to hoist a 20-gauge and try his skill at sporting clays.

This is where I learned the secret of the Texas Wildlife Expo: the folks who volunteer for the event.

In its 13th year, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Expo (yes, it has a new name) is the biggest outdoor event of its kind in the nation. During the past 12 years, almost 500,000 people attending this free event have had a chance to “try out” the outdoors and along the way learn that taking care of it is everyone’s responsibility.

After we’d taken the mandatory shooting-safety session, my son was ready to fire. As he waited in line, I looked around the sporting clay stands at the men and women who were instructing adults and kids on how to hold, point and lead with a 20-gauge. Clad in hunter orange, they were quite an assortment of folks, but they all had one thing in common: They were enjoying themselves.

In due time, my son stepped forward to be taken under the wing of a certified Hunter Education Instructor, who walked my boy out to the shooting cage, got down on one knee and pointed out the parts of the firearm. His arm swung out over the level field as he pointed where the clay pigeons would soon fly. I couldn’t hear a word of what was said, but it looked like a grandfather showing a treasured arrowhead collection to a favored grandson.

It was hot, and this man had probably walked 250 people through that shooting stand, but it looked — and felt — as if it were the first time for teacher and student. My boy stepped into the box, the clay pigeon sailed away and — wham! — was blasted into bits. Talk about smiling faces! My son learned something that day and had an experience he has never forgotten. And it was all due to one man, a volunteer who loves what he does and gives his time so that someone else will learn to love it too.

Here are some of the many special volunteers who make Expo happen.

Patti Carothers:

Paddling the Wet Zone

In 1995, the Wet Zone became a fixture at Expo, and paddling instructor Patti Carothers came along with it. The Wet Zone is a huge kayaking pond where kids and adults learn the basics of paddlesports and paddlesport safety and try their hands at kayaking. Last year, almost 5,000 kids and adults paddled around the big 90-foot by 90-foot pond.

A brainstorming session about an additional “fun and exciting activity at Expo” led to the creation of the giant tank eight years ago. Modeling their design on a tank created in California, Patti and her husband, James Graham, “Texas-sized” it, increasing the capacity from three boats to 20. The tank is constructed of nine highway concrete transportation construction barriers, with a sturdy liner and 150,000 gallons of water inside.

“The first year of its inception, kayaking showed up as the third most popular activity on the visitors’ survey at Expo,” says Patti. “We knew we’d created a winner.”

“I’m usually on the dock, loading kids into kayaks after they’ve taken a quick boater-safety orientation,” says Carothers. A former nurse, she was introduced to the sport by a fellow nurse in 1985. She’s now co-owner of SouthWest PaddleSports, a Houston-area kayaking and canoe shop. What do the kids and adults who enter the Wet Zone get out of it? “Families are learning that kayaking is safe and fun, and that anyone can do it. I keep coming back to Expo to share a sport that can become a life-long activity. I think the Wet Zone will be around for a very long time.”

These faces and thousands more make Expo the exciting event that it is. Whether you’re an old hand or would just like to see what the outdoors might have in store for you, there’s something for everyone. Who knows, you might wind up being a volunteer at Expo yourself.

Leon Measures:

Master Shotgun Teacher

Leon Measures, an Expo regular since 1993, has taught hundreds of young people to shoot shotguns. “One hundred thousand BBs. That’s about how many we shoot in two days,” says Measures. He and his wife Frillie have offered his instinctive shooting technique at every Expo for the last 10 years. “It’s one of the high points of our year,” he says.

Measures developed an instinctive approach to shooting as a kid after receiving a BB gun that was missing a sight. “I had to learn to shoot by watching the BB in the air,” he says. “By the time I was 13, adults were asking me to show them how to shoot a shotgun like I did.”

He parlayed the training technique that grew out of his early experience into a life-long vocation. Today, Shoot Where You Looksm books and videos are sold worldwide and Measures is in demand across the country as a shooting instructor.

Reaching kids and introducing them to shooting has been Measures’ motivation for more than 50 years. “The Texas Wildlife Expo and the new Alabama Conservation Expo that’s modeled on the Texas event are two places we offer this training for free,” Measures says. “It’s our contribution to the future of the shooting sports. Expo is a great opportunity to reach kids. We do more good for the shooting sports in these two days than in a year of teaching classes.” Children are easier to train than adults, Measures says, “but we want adults to experience this technique, too.”

What’s Leon’s favorite part of Expo? “Kids, and our great volunteers; we have people come from all over Texas to help out. Best of all, ‘kids’ we had 12 years ago are coming to help, and bringing their kids!”

Savage Bobwhite Sam:

Gary Rackley Sporting Dogs

This familiar face at Expo is a fuzzy one. Savage Bobwhite Sam is a German shorthair Pointer that has been part of Expo from its beginning, in 1992. “Sam,” as he’s called by owner/trainer, Gary Rackley, started his career as a year-and-a-half-old youngster in the original pointing dog demonstrations at Expo. Last year Sam, now 13 years old, graduated to a new position: being petted by the children who flock to see him. “Sam is one of the friendliest dogs I’ve worked with and just loves kids. He always likes performing, but this suits him just fine,” says Rackley.

Rackley says that when he read that the first Expo was to take place, he contacted friend and neighbor, Steve Hall, TPWD Education Director, to see if he could help set up the pointing dog demonstrations. Nearby sporting dog clubs stepped in as well and pretty soon the sporting dog demo arena was born. Bonniesue Porter, from Cibolo Creek Kennels, put together the initial pointer demonstrations and emcee’d them with Gary and his wife, Maryann. “Sporting dogs are an important part of the hunting tradition,” states Rackley. “I enjoy watching them perform at Expo, doing a good job at what they do.”

What keeps Gary Rackley and Savage Bobwhite Sam coming back? “It’s the kids! Expo’s for the kids,” says Rackley. “When we started, we were in a field all by ourselves. We even parked in the lot where the Exhibitor tents are today. Over the years, we’ve been surrounded by all the other Expo activities, but the kids keep coming back. Most of them have never seen a dog point and retrieve or work with its owner like they do at Expo.” And who was the best at doing that?

”Why Sam, of course!”

Al Biegert:

Master Casting Instructor

San Antonio resident Al Biegert has been teaching kids at Expo to spin-cast since Expo’s second year, in 1993. “Our bass club, the Hill Country Casting Club, was invited to come to Expo to teach the kids how to cast,” Biegert says. “It was the first year that fishing and aquatic education was featured, and they needed volunteers. I’ve been coming ever since.”

At 81, Al, a retired photographer, counts Expo as one of the highlights of his busy year. “It’s the Parks and Wildlife personnel and other volunteers that keep me coming back,” he says. They’re just such nice people.” Al comes to Austin Friday night before Expo opens on Saturday, and is out on the grounds at first light on Saturday. “I think I was the first to show up at the casting tent this past year.”

“We show the kids the right way to cast, over the shoulder, front to back,” Biegert says. “Girls are better at accepting instruction; boys want to do it their way!” Why else does Al show up, year after year? “I’ll work for food,” he says. “That barbeque on Saturday night for the volunteers and staff is always good and it’s a great time to see friends.”

One other tip from Al: his wife made him a special bandana that he knots with a turquoise ring to put around his neck to keep the sun off. “That sun can get pretty hot, but those kids are worth it. Expo is a great way for them to learn appreciation for the outdoors. I wouldn’t miss it.”

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