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ATV class graduates 32 safer riders

Dick Knutson gives a rider some last minute instructions before the Class of 2009 begins the skills test of a recent youth ATV class. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The jean-clad graduates of the Class of 2009 didn't wear caps and gowns.

Instead, they strapped on helmets and gloves and donned windbreakers for their final exam.

The 32 graduates rode their ATVs through three separate courses, using proper hand signals to turn, stop and execute other maneuvers. To date the Forest Riders ATV Club has graduated 188 students in the last five years.

The commencement address theme: Let's be safe out there.

"Headlights on! Headlights on!" yelled Dick Knutson as the parade of kids, aged 12-16, rode by. They couldn't hear him above the rumble, so he pointed to their headlights.

"We have kids here from both Dakotas, Detroit Lakes, Bemidji and the Twin Cities," he said.

"These kids want to learn to drive carefully, their parents, too," he said. "The parents sat through the class with their kids. What does that tell you?"

The students get a course from the DNR on signage, safety, the ATV laws and the basics. They learn first aid from an EMT. They learn driving basics from another instructor.

"These are very dangerous machines," cautioned instructor Ron Jensen. "They're not toys."

Officially the kids can't ride until they're 12 but many showed up for class with varying amounts of experience.

Rochelle Braun, 14, got her ATV license at the class. She's from Cottage Grove but has a lake cabin near Akeley. She said she came because there's not many classes in the Twin Cities area.

"I'm a dirt bike rider," she said. "I've been riding since I was 8. I learned how to stay safe, basic first aid, where you can ride, what you do if you're in trouble."

Kurt Lehmann of Vergas monitored the class. His two sons, ages 12 and 14, were students. "They come up here an go four-wheelin' with Grandpa," he said. "Hopefully they'll be licensed. We missed the class last year and my oldest was really mad. We don't have any classes down there."

And, most importantly, the class learned to ride with a buddy. "Buddy systems are good," Knutson said.

No handshakes. Just high fives for the grads.