Throughout his life, Steve Rusk has relied on time outdoors to reset and break away from taxing everyday pressures.

In college, during his heyday as a standout wrestler at the University of Illinois, the Orion High School grad turned to hunting and fishing when he felt overwhelmed in class or on the mat.

These days, the deputy for the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office finds pleasure in teaching those pastimes to his two children.

“I think it’s a great stress reliever,” said Rusk, who also emphasized the importance of school and other extracurricular activities. “It keeps you whole.”

After school on Thursday, for example, Rusk and his 12-year-old daughter, Hanna, set aside time to fish before her evening volleyball game.

The duo stopped by the QCCA Outdoor Show in Rock Island and reeled in four trout from a small pool. Hanna later would help clean and cook the trout, Rusk said.

"I've been fishing since I was little," Hanna said, noting the "life lessons" she picks up with her family outdoors. "I love nature."

Proud of the youngsters who share Hanna Rusk's sentiments, some enthusiasts worry the general interest in the outdoors is steadily declining.

'Kids are missing out'

Just 20 minutes before the start of the annual four-day exhibition, Rob Junker, the QCCA show director, shared his concerns as he chowed down on a bowl of chili in his office. 

“Everything outdoors is slowing down,” said Junker, who introduced his sons to fishing at a young age. 

In 2016, the Outdoor Show, which the Quad-City Conservation Alliance runs, drew 17,000 people. But Junker stressed there is a major disparity between the number of youth and adult visitors.

"It’s amazing how many young people you don’t see at these events," said Junker, whose desk was littered with papers and remnants of the previous night's dinner. "Kids are missing out on the whole wide world of outdoors.”

In an effort to combat that trend, they charge children ages 6-15 just $1 to enter. 

Every year, the nonprofit organization uses proceeds from its season of shows to fund conservation work throughout the region.

Throughout the past 20 years, Rusk said the QCCA has granted more than $2 million for projects based within 90 miles of the Quad-Cities, including: 

• Development of the Wapsi River Environmental Education Center near Dixon, Iowa.

• Youth fishing clinics in Rock Island, Moline, Davenport and Galesburg.

• Waterfowl and raptor habitat enhancement projects along the Mississippi River.

• Wheelchair-accessible fishing docks at West Lake Park in Scott County.

“Our goal at the end of the day is not to get rich,” said Junker, who pinned a lack of interest in natural resources on indoor distractions, such as video games. “Our goal is to get people interested in the outdoor world.”

'I taught him all he knows'

A spin through the bustling "kids camp" this weekend at the expo center may contradict some people's pessimistic outlook on the current and future state of outdoor recreation and conservation.

Separate from the rifle raffles and vendors selling boats and fishing rods, the north hall features trout fishing, archery instruction and target practice with pellet and paintball guns.

Aiden Webb, 13, of Silvis, became the first to test his hand at each activity.

Between him and his grandfather, Jim Werner of East Moline, the duo hauled in at least 10 fish, which they planned to clean that night.

“Grandpa, look at this one,” a smiling Aiden shouted from across the pool, hoisting a 12- to 15-inch rainbow trout.

“Ever since he could walk he’s been here,” Werner said. “I taught him all he knows, and now he out-fishes me.”

While Aiden practiced his aim at the archery range, Werner shared that he helped raise his grandson, whose father is out of the picture.

"We’ve got a really tight bond," Werner said. "The outdoors is one of the best things you can show a child. It keeps them out of trouble."

A reserved Aiden, who sported a Cabela’s hat, camouflage boots and jeans, said his grandfather has instilled in him at least one lesson:

“Don’t break the rules,” he said with a grin, donning a mask at the paintball gun range.

When he finished, the teen pulled out his smartphone, but just for a minute.

Aiden, who looks forward to his next "peaceful" outing with his grandfather, slipped his phone back in his pocket before offering up his current motto: 

“If I had the choice, I’d rather be outside."


Jack Cullen uncovers different slices of life for the Quad-City Times. He previously covered the city of Bettendorf. When he's not reporting, Jack enjoys coaching tennis and exploring the outdoors.