“So, I understand you’re an archery expert.” The voice on the phone belonged to the director of the local YMCA camp, and he was only half-serious. I was expecting his call because a friend had asked me if I would be interested in running an archery range for a school field trip, but his words took me aback for a moment.
“I’ve been a 4-H archery instructor for a few years,” I said. “But I wouldn’t say I’m an expert.” That was good enough for him, and after a brief conversation we agreed that I should come over to the camp and check out the range.
I’m certainly no archery expert, by any definition of that term. However, I do have a passion for archery. Growing up in Detroit, I didn’t know anyone who hunted or shot bows. My family went camping in northern Michigan each summer: seven kids and a dog in a big canvas tent. We canoed some rivers and caught a few fish, but Dad was not a hunter, and probably hadn’t shot a gun since his time in the Korean War. Still, those camping trips in the north woods planted a seed in my soul. Even as a kid I knew that someday I would leave the city. Later, I met a girl who was of the same mind, and we planned to finish college, get married, and move to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; we didn’t make it to the U.P., but we found a little piece of God’s country in southwest Michigan.
Barry County has three hundred lakes and tens of thousands of acres of public land, most of it open to hunting. Upon moving here in 1995 I knew nothing about hunting, but within a year I was sitting in a treestand with a bow across my lap. I shot a compound bow for the first few years, but then I tried a Brackenbury recurve, and the traditional archery bug bit hard. I bought a St. Joe River recurve made by Michigan bowyer Craig Potter, and I killed a few deer with it. I’ve been shooting longbows for several years now, and have crafted a few myself. My kids participate in 4H shooting sports, and I became a certified instructor. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and watching kids learn archery in a fun and safe environment, and occasionally I am asked to supervise archery activities outside of 4-H events.
On the day of the field trip, I arrived at the YMCA camp early to prepare the range. It was a beautiful September morning: clear and cool with the rising sun filtering through the hardwoods. The local Canada geese called plaintively as they made their morning rounds of Algonquin Lake. I strung the bows, adjusted the arm guards, and sorted out a dozen decent arrows. I tacked a few big balloons to the targets because balloons are much more fun to hit than paper circles. Then I waited, and the usual questions crept into my mind: How will I ensure a safe shooting range? How will I deal with an unruly child? What about an interfering parent?
I sat contemplating these issues in the quiet of the morning woods until a stream of vehicles rumbled into the parking lot carrying about seventy-five excited children and their parent drivers and chaperones. They all met the camp director who explained the schedule and divided them into five groups. Each of the five groups would rotate through the five activity stations, spending about 50 minutes at each station. These were third, fourth, and fifth graders from Grand Rapids. They were not rural Barry County kids like my 4-H shooters, and some were younger than nine, which is the required age for 4-H shooting sports. I glanced across to my comrade at the BB gun range, and we wished each other luck. It was like the calm before the storm.
They came running and whooping down the trail to the shooting range as their parent chaperones tried in vain to calm them down. I met them at the entrance to the range and tried to get them organized, using my loud-but-friendly instructor voice. “Half of you go to BB guns over there, and half of you go to Archery over here!” This was a mistake because it seemed that all of them wanted to shoot the bows, so my opening instruction caused some frowns, confusion, and comments such as ” I don’t want to shoot the stupid BB guns.”
After a few minutes I was able to make them understand that everyone would have a turn shooting both the BB guns and the bows, and I took the nearest seven kids and sent the other eight over to the BB gun range. I had to get the group organized. I would have only about twenty-five minutes with each group of seven or eight kids, so I had to hurry.
I had three right-handed bows and one left-handed bow. “Is anyone here left-handed?” I asked. But that was another mistake because even the experienced kids didn’t take my meaning. So I demonstrated how a right-handed shooter holds the bow with his left hand, and draws the bowstring with his right. “Oh, I get it!” shouted an enthusiastic boy. “I get it now! I am definitely left-handed!” he asserted. “OK, great,” I said, and I put him in my first line with three right-handed shooters. I would have liked to discuss eye dominance, but there was just no time. My goal was for each child to shoot two rounds of three arrows.
They were very excited to shoot, and there was a lot of nervous chattering and fidgeting as they tried to strap on their arm guards. And there were questions — lots of questions.
“Which arm does this go on?”
“Can I use THAT bow?”
“How fast can that bow shoot?”
“How far do the arrows go?”
“What are those arrows made out of?”
“Are you going to show us how to do it?”
“Is there a bathroom here?”
It was a bit overwhelming, but I told them that most of their questions would be answered by watching my brief demonstration–and I mean very brief. My teaching method is 10% explanation, 25% demonstration, and 65% participation. So I explained what I was doing as I did it. This is how you stand at the line. This is how you hold the bow. This is how you nock the arrow. This is how you aim and draw and release.
They were impressed to see my arrow fly straight to the mark, and they actually clapped and cheered. I take shooting for granted, but I realized that some of these kids have never witnessed an archery shot before. It was only an eight-yard shot, but I admit I felt a little like an archery expert at that moment.
“OK, the first four shooters can step to the line, but don’t touch your bows yet,” I said. “Stand sideways. Straddle the line. No, the other way.” I was a little abrupt in my teaching style, but the clock was ticking and my definite left-hander was facing the wrong direction. I told them to pick up their bows, and I saw right away that my demonstration hadn’t made much of an impression on them. This was a recurring theme throughout the day. Some of the bows were upside-down. Some were backwards. Some were held in the wrong hand. My enthusiastic left-hander cheerfully held the left-handed bow in his left hand. We fixed everyone’s grip and stance, and only then did I place three arrows in each of the ground quivers, while saying several times “Don’t touch your arrows yet!”
I took a step back and asked the shooters if they were ready. They were. “OK,” I said. “Begin shooting!” Many of them had trouble nocking their arrows, and some placed the arrow on the wrong side of the bow. Many wanted to grip the bowstring deeply in clenched fingers, which usually caused string torque as they drew, and the arrow to fall off the flipper rest. There was a lot to learn, and not much time to learn it. I watched from behind the line, and stepped in where help was most needed. Soon the arrows began to fly, and the fun began. The shots were short, high, left, and right, but almost everyone was smiling and doing his best. A few of the arrows hit the target backers, but none came near the balloons. The three kids who sat waiting for their turn cheered on their classmates with “Nice shot!” and “Awesome!” Some of the girls called each other “Katniss,” a reference to the archer heroine of the Hunger Games movie.
When the range was clear I sent the shooters out to find the arrows and bring them back to me. “Control the ammunition” is my motto, even if the ammunition is roundish-tipped arrows. The kids’ young eyes were much sharper and closer to the ground than mine, and soon they found all the black-shafted fiberglass arrows in the weeds and leaf duff of the forest floor. I showed them how to safely remove arrows from the target backers, and they were appropriately shocked when I explained how an arrow nock can poke an eye out. We gave the arm-guards to the next line of shooters, and they stepped to the line.
The second line of shooters had been watching the first, and they quickly nocked their arrows and sent them flying down range. They made some of the same mistakes, but their confidence grew with each shot. With only half the arrows finding the backers, we spent a lot of time looking for arrows. While two rounds of three arrows is not much, it was enough for the kids to experience the thrill of archery and to show some real improvement.
Just as the shooters were finding their comfort zones, my colleague at the BB gun range informed me that it was time to switch the groups. I started from scratch with seven or eight new kids, refining my routine and trying to pack as much fun and instruction as possible into our twenty-five minute session.
That’s how it went for the rest of the day. I divided the groups into a first line and a second line, and I tried to have everyone shoot two rounds of three arrows. It didn’t always work out that way, usually because of time lost while searching for arrows, but we did our best to move things along. If I could do it again, I would want to have more arrows on hand and another right-handed bow.
When it was all over I put away the gear and breathed a sigh of relief. There had been a few kids who just weren’t strong enough to draw the fifteen-pound bows, and a few who became frustrated and angry. There was one shy little girl who was afraid to try it. But those were very few, and the great majority of the kids left with smiles on their faces and good stories to tell. Most of them improved after just a few shots, and several of them broke balloons. The kids had followed the range rules, and we’d had no safety issues at all. The parent-chaperones had been helpful and appreciative.
As I drove home I wondered why I enjoy teaching archery, and decided that there are several reasons. Traditional archery is a simple and satisfying departure from our crazy world and high-tech culture. I never tire of watching the arc of my arrow in flight, and sometimes hitting exactly where I am looking. Teaching archery allows me to see a child experience that same thrill for the first time, and to see him cheer when his arrow pops a balloon. Archery can give them a reason to get outside and away from their screens for a while, and to experience a real activity as opposed to a cyber-activity.
Like those kids from Grand Rapids, I grew up in a city. Unlike them, I’d never had the opportunity to shoot a bow when I was young. I am happy to help provide that opportunity to other kids. I hope that some of them will catch the traditional archery bug as I did, and that they will find ways to continue shooting. That’s not always easy when you live in a city, I can tell you that.
So if the camp director calls me again asking for an archery expert, I’ll be ready for him. I’ll remember the five-hour time commitment, the mediocre equipment, and the large group of young kids. And I’ll say to him “Sure, I’d be happy to.”
The author never had an archery lesson, and learned how to shoot by reading G. Fred Asbell’s Instinctive Shooting. His shooting style in no way resembles that of an Olympic target archer. This is his second article for TBM.