Welch, the president of the board of directors at the North Ottawa Rod and Gun Club in Grand Haven Township, answered his phone and listened in utter disbelief as he learned that bullets fired from the club’s outdoor range had rained down on the nearby Cutter Park subdivision, with one slug actually hitting a man in the arm.
“It took me a minute to appreciate that it actually had happened,” Welch said recently as he sat in the wood-fire heated clubhouse. “Even with the initial sketchy information that I had, it was true that I did not anticipate that we could have that sort of difficulty, especially with a group of certified police officers under the observation of certified safety officers.
“But it sunk in pretty quickly.”
The details were troubling, especially to members of the club who proudly boast a spotless safety record.
It turns out that members of the Grand Valley State University Public Safety Department were using the range that day for various training exercises. Welch explained that typically, when anyone is on the outdoor shooting range, a club range officer is on hand to ensure proper safety procedures are followed.
That’s not the case when public safety groups use the range.
“We defer to their judgment in terms of their organization and the conduct of their training,” Welch said. “And that was obviously misplaced.”
After the shooting
A lot has changed at the Rod and Gun Club since that fateful day more than 15 months ago. The outdoor range was immediately shut down by the club’s board of directors, and has yet to reopen. Several-dozen club members chose not to renew their memberships. That’s quite a blow to a club that enjoys a membership of more than 230 and relies on yearly membership fees to cover most expenses.
“If you’re a membership organization, you’re always concerned why people join and why they don’t renew,” Welch said.
Still, much remains the same at the club. On any given Saturday morning, you can find a handful of older gentlemen engaged in a spirited game of euchre. They bring snacks and soft drinks and sit around their favorite tables near the wood-burning stove during the colder months.
There’s never a shortage of stories to be told on the latest foray into the woods or the water.
And of course, there’s still plenty of shooting going on. Currently, winter trap and skeet leagues are being held, and the club’s highly-regarded 3-D archery course, which winds through the woods on the club’s 40-acre lot, draws plenty of traffic.
According to Thom Poel, there are between 100-125 people competing in the ongoing winter leagues.
“It ranges in age from 8 years old to maybe not quite 80, but close,” Poel said. “It’s a wide range of people that shoot — children, men, women, they’re all shooting in this league.”
The club has open winter league shooting on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, as well as Saturday and Sunday. There are five different divisions, varying from individuals to five-man teams.
A popular new addition, according to Poel, is called five-stand.
“We have seven throwers, and the birds come from every which way, like sitting out in a duck boat,” he said. “And we change it up every four weeks, so just when guys get accustomed to where the ducks are coming from, we change the flight pattern.”
Members and non-members alike are welcome to shoot in winter leagues, Poel said, and newcomers are always welcome.
“We’ve got five to six new people who just started shooting this past week,” he said. “We’re always looking for people interested in the shooting sports.”
In addition, youth programs teach youngsters to shoot BB guns, .22s, archery equipment and shotguns. There are frequent hunter safety courses offered in the spring and again in the fall, and Grand Haven High School's Outdoor Education class and 4-H groups also use the club.
Steve Woiteshek is a member of the board of directors and the hunter safety instructor at the club. He loves sharing his passion for the shooting sports with younger generations.
“For instance, we started a high school trap league, completely funded by the North Ottawa Rod and Gun Club Foundation,” Woiteshek said. “We had Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Mona Shores and West Ottawa all field five-man teams last year. These individuals wouldn’t get a chance to try shooting sports if it wasn’t for the rod and gun club.”
Woiteshek also assists with youth programs, including the high school outdoor classes.
“That’s a large class — about 125 kids each trimester,” Woiteshek said. “They do all their course work at school, then they come over for live fire at our place. We do it all one-on-one. We have conservation officers, Ottawa County sheriff’s deputies, and hunter safety instructors. It’s very hands-on.
“We watch some of these kids who have the natural ability, and it’s unbelievable.”
To read more of this story, see Saturday’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.