A Day in Grayling – The MTB Jamboree


"Grayling Shadows" Photo by Bernie Eng.

I must confess that in the 29 years of my existence I never thought much of Grayling, Michigan. Then again, I wasn’t a bowhunter for 26 of those years.

I was born a proud Cheboyganite approximately 75 miles North (just below the bridge). For the majority of my life Grayling was simply a green exit sign on I-75 South. A place you may stop on your way to Traverse City or Cadillac. If I hadn’t wrestled in high school I’d never known it existed at all.  Even then, I hadn’t seen anything beyond the grounds of Grayling High School.

Grayling, like most towns in the Northern Lower Peninsula, has a chameleon-esque way of blending in to the area around it. Why? Because we’re surrounded by trees, water, and state parks. I would challenge anyone traveling 75 North (from Cadillac on) to determine one county from the next. This makes it easy for places like Grayling and Cheboygan to remain somewhat hidden from attraction seeking tourists. And while Cheboygan edges out Grayling to the average out-of-stater due to its proximity to the Mackinac Bridge, you’d be hard pressed to meet any bowhunter who hasn’t heard of Grayling or the man who made it famous.

Prior to 2009 my knowledge of Fred Bear was limited to the Ted Nugent song we used as background music on our varsity football highlight tapes. I knew very little of the man it immortalized or his importance to the bowhunting community. Even then the song sent a primal chill down my spine and Fred’s voice at the end speaks volumes to me now that I’m familiar with the owner.

Learning about Grayling, Fred Bear, and Bear Archery the past couple years has been a surreal experience for me. Like reading about a house fire in your own neighborhood the day after it happens. I’ve since dubbed Grayling the “Graceland” for all traditional bowhunters and promised myself I would make it to the MTB Jamboree with my father after hearing him speak of it on several occasions.

Yet, despite all of my efforts, life intervened and I nearly broke that promise only days before jamboree weekend. My wife and I had recently purchased our first home, our one-year-old began yet another teething cycle, and my wife suffered a minor car accident that more than inconvenienced us functionally and financially. I was suddenly feeling the pressure of a father, husband, and a homeowner in one anxiety-filled instance. Staying home suddenly seemed like the moral thing to do. I was ready to cancel the trip I’d been planning for over a year and gave Dad a call to break the news. After weathering his ornery “why’s” and “why nots” he settled down and gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget:

“One of the things I’ve learned in life is that your opportunities for doing things like this are limited and the memories will stay with you forever. Money is money, they’ll make more of it and so will you.”

I suddenly felt guilty for even entertaining the thought of staying home. It was an opportunity to spend a whole day shooting bows with Dad in Fred Bear’s backyard. I couldn’t miss that.

I was up at 7:00 the next morning, guzzling the first caffeinated beverage I could get my hands on and traveling down southbound 131 to Hansen Hills Recreational Area. The sun was shining, the windows were down, and the radio was blaring. I couldn’t have picked a better day to shoot my bow. The anticipation was building with every passing mile marker and I was antsy by the time I hit Cadillac. I had made the right decision.

I pulled into the gravel drive at 9:30 to find Dad pulling his longbow from the cab of his pickup. I could tell he was excited. He’d briefed me with his body language before I could get out of the car.

“Registration is in there!” he said, pointing to a green shack by the target range. “Forty dollars if you want to join MTB and shoot for the weekend. That’s what I’d do if I were you.”

He swung his quiver over his back and I could see that it was already packed for a week’s worth of shooting. A brightly-fletched assortment of cedar and chundoo pine shafts appeared above his left shoulder. His signature assortment. Nobody builds arrows like my old man. While the majority of us strive for a set of cosmetically identical arrows, he prefers variety. No two arrows appear alike and he knows how every single one of them shoots!

Some of Dad's arrows. His "best batch" so far.

“The vendor tents are by the lodge. I’ve already visited Larry over at Lost Nation,” he grinned, holding up a plastic bag full of cedar dowels, points, nocks, and fletching.

“We ought to buy some of that stalker stain he sells for our next batch of arrows!”

After registering and making a few purchases of my own, I grabbed my bow, strapped on my quiver, and joined Dad at the practice range to warm up for the day’s festivities. We were soon joined by Bernie Eng; a friend we connected with via the Traditional Bowhunter forum one year ago. Fortunately for us, in addition to being great company, Bernie is also a photographer and contributed all of this article’s photography.

Dad creeps in for a shot at a standing Bear.

This year the Jamboree included three different courses: a 3D, a beautifully painted 2D, and another 2D course that you could shoot via canoe. We decided to shoot the 3D first and I was immediately impressed by the layout. The majority of the targets were positioned on the side of a large, wooded slope, which truly captured the essence of hunting in Northern Michigan. I’m not ashamed to admit that my heart was pumping on several shots as my mind drifted in and out of the different hunting fantasies I had fabricated. I could tell Dad was doing the same, the age was practically melting off his face.

Yep...I miss. Pine isn't the toughest of shafts.

We flew through the course with several misses but only one casualty – one of my orange-stained German pine shafts – the victim of a careless shot at a 3D buck that drifted far too close to a suspended sapling than I intended. The definitive “crack” and the laughter that followed were well worth my miscalculation. Only shards remained where my arrow lay: my gift to the Grayling woods. Dad and I followed suit on targets 23 and 24, sending shaft-after-shaft over and under a turkey and deer combo and into the the slope beyond. This posed quite the conundrum as we were both able to connect at 30 yards on a Wapiti target only minutes before – a difficult shot for any archer. But that, as they say, is the way it works.

Bernie was shooting extremely well with his 35# Bear Minuteman – though I suspect the name on the bow had something to do with it.

“Isn’t it some kind of sin or at least wrong to shoot anything but a Bear bow while in Grayling?” he joked.

I couldn’t help but wonder if he was right. Maybe a glass-backed Grayling green Kodiak would’ve been the more appropriate choice. Maybe, but I’ve never owned a Bear bow and decided to pay Fred my respects by wearing my brown Fedora for the remainder of the day instead. At the very least it would save my neck from a nasty sunburn.

Bernie (center) insisted we pose after every successful group.

Unfortunately, Bernie wasn’t able to get a shot of my new headwear or witness the mojo it seemed to summon. He was scheduled to rendezvous with friends back at camp. We wanted to keep shooting and continued on to the 2D course while everyone was waiting for lunch. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of 2D courses but this one was different. I was expecting a few hastily sketched deer with stick antlers and got a whole lot more than I anticipated. I would have been lucky to have any one of those targets decorating the walls of my new home. It almost seemed a shame to shoot them at times but we soon realized that every painting looked a little bit better with a cedar shaft in the vitals. We were more than happy to oblige.

Naturally, we grew tired as the day progressed and the June sun continued to beat down. Shooting and pulling arrows can take a lot out of you and we’d shot both courses twice by 3:00 p.m. without much of a break. But we hadn’t shot the “hill” yet as it looked rather daunting from the shaded trails surrounding the rest of the 2D. Dad was less than optimistic at the thought.

“I climbed that thing last year,” Dad muttered. “I’m not walking it again. Not for a a few targets.”

But I couldn’t let it go. They were targets I hadn’t shot and mountain goats at that. I was forced to lay down the gauntlet and get Dad up that hill.

“You mean to tell me we aren’t going to shoot at mountain goats on the slope of a steep hill? C’mon, it doesn’t get any cooler than that!”

Dad agreed (albeit reluctantly) and we hastily crossed the patch of sand at the base of the hill and began our ascension to the adventure above. We may have been in Grayling but my mind was on a plane to British Columbia. The first goat appeared and I sprang into action – hitting a knee and sending a cedar shaft through its lungs. Dad followed suit, putting one into its boilermaker.

The 2D targets were great. You can't see it here but there was a really thick wall of foam behind the vitals of this target. ONLY the vitals though. lol We found that out the hard way.

The next shot found us at the top of the hill and face-to-face with a second pair of goats. We dispatched them both, pulled our arrows, and decided to stop and enjoy the view before shooting the targets on the way down. Another MTB member happened to be doing the same. A strange looking bow sat next to him and we immediately struck up a conversation to find out what it was. I could tell it was a self-bow and became immediately interested. I’ve always wanted to build one.

It was indeed a self-bow; created from the snakiest and most knotted piece of osage orange I had ever seen. It was absolutely beautiful – akin to the old static recurves of the 50s with some interesting additions that made it instantly identifiable. Obviously the uniqueness of the wood was a dead giveaway but the limbs were backed with the beard of a turkey and the grip and rest were authentic beaver tail. “Big Tom” was scripted beautifully on the bottom limb. This gentleman was obviously a turkey hunter and this was a very special bow. Details he was more than happy to share with us in the shade of a large group of oaks.

John Hess's selfbow. A true work of art and heart.

A few minutes later we knew all about him, the bow, and how traditional archery rekindled a love for bowhunting he thought lost indefinitely. It was a great story and hearing it was worth more than a soaked shirt and a pair of burning legs.  Maybe after reading this he’ll decide to write it himself. I’ll leave that up to him.

It was well after five by the time we wrapped up our conversation and headed back down the hill. Despite the pain that was now creeping into our fingers, shoulders, and backs we knuckled down and worked our way through the remainder of the 2D course with nothing but the love of shooting our bows to drive us on. And, as our final arrows hit their mark, it was clearly time to go home. A fitting end to a perfect day.

Out of all of the traditional archery gatherings in Michigan, the jamboree is definitely my favorite. I’d like to thank everyone at MTB who made it possible and can’t wait to return to Grayling in 2012. This time as a member.

If you’re planning on going, we’ll see you next year!