The Silver Arrow

“Group One approach the line!” A man shouts, and like a scene from a medieval battlefield, thirty men of various shapes, sizes, and colors respond – advancing from the masses around me – quivers and longbows in hand. They take their positions on the line and glare at the large, circular targets looming in the distance. Each of them sharing a love-hate relationship with the bright yellow, pie-plate size bullseye that is now the object of their obsession.

“Fire at will!”

The arrows whistle as each man takes his turn. Three arrows each unless he casts his arrow within the yellow on the first one or two. Those who miss with all three will fire their last and remove themselves from the field.

I’m at the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational (GLLI) in Hastings, Michigan and the 2011 Silver Arrow Competition has begun.

“Group Two take the line!”

Thats my cue, and I’m shaking like the day I saw my first deer. Its crowded, making shooting uncomfortable. Arrows whistle by, providing the ultimate distraction as they explode into the targets beyond in colorful bursts of fletching. The target is peppered by the time I nock my first arrow. Has my hesitation cost me? I focus on the bundle and release. My arrow disappears. I only need one in the yellow to advance, but I add two more to make certain.

I find all three where they need to be and breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve made it through the first round and will be competing with more than 60 archers in round two.

Group Two taking aim at GLLI.

They walk the target back to 20 yards. “Piece of cake,” I mumble, but quickly changed my tune as 1/3 of the first group miss their objective and reluctantly become spectators.

My nerves increase as I approach the line. What was only 20 yards now looks like 30. I slip an arrow from my quiver – a gold and black crested ash with blue and white parabolic fletching – one of the best to leave my bench. The ash shaft and leather glove pass my nose and the smell reminds me of baseball. My head clears and my stomach calms.

My first arrow skims the gold ring buries itself into the red ring above it. “You’re okay,” I tell myself. “You’re adjusting to the distance…bring it down a bit.” I lower my arm and am pleased with the results as the heavy ash burrows into the yellow approximately two inches from dead center. There was clearly no need for a third. I made it to round three.

The judges walk my target back another ten. I guesstimate it at 28 yards – but a “spot is a spot” no matter how far away it is. At least…that is what I tell myself. The groups are thinning out and the extra room is refreshing, but I can’t help but feel the additional eyes of my fallen comrades watching me. Its all I can muster to untie the knot that has formed in my stomach.

I miss low on my first shot as a result. I overcorrect on my second and miss that one as well. I’m down to my last arrow and can feel my hands shaking slightly as I slip it from my quiver. I examine it from nock to point and take several deep breaths to calm my nerves. The familiar scent of baseball fills my nostrils and my mind begins to clear. I draw, and can feel the muscles in my back tense as they store energy. I relax them and the arrow slips from my fingers into the center of the yellow beyond.

My final round.

A feeling of pride washes over me as I strut back to the line. I shoot a quick thumbs up to my Dad watching from the sidelines and am thrilled to discover that my friend Bernie has made it as well. He’s the one that talked me into this mess after all! I look around at the 25 remaining archers, recognizing several of them as exceptional shots. “I’m in good company here.” I think to myself.

I calculate the next shot at 38 yards. One of the longest I’d ever attempted and never in a competitive situation. I check my arrows, make a few mental adjustments, and ready myself for the signal. An amplified state of awareness suddenly hits me and my heart starts to beat faster as I take the line. The sun is out now, and I’m feeling every ounce of humidity a morning’s worth of rain can supply. My shirt is soaked. One part precipitation, two parts perspiration. I wipe my face with the bottom and it does little good. I curse myself for not remembering a towel. I’m rattled now. Not good.

My first shot falls short of the yellow and plunges into the red ring below it. The guy next to me misses his shot as well. His arrows are porpoising. I bet his string stretched a bit last round and his nock is now off. Observations such as this make getting my focus back nearly impossible. I draw but it doesn’t feel right. I let down and try again. Porpoise guy fires his second. It looks worse than his first. I notice how loud his bow is.

My second shot hits the target but I’m not sure where. The grouping of arrows is now much larger and my fletching isn’t bright enough to spot at this range. I’ll be changing that next year. Pink and blue all the way!

I’m jittery now, as if I’ve overdosed on caffeine, and am questioning my trajectory. So much of instinctive archery relies on the mental reference of your previous arrow. I have no idea where mine ended up. I depend on the day’s history and logic to figure it out. I know that my first shot was low, so I’m willing to bet I shot high on my second.

My neighbor, whom I’ve now dubbed “Porpoise Guy McNoisy Bow” sends a Hail Mary downrange for his last shot and I’m now one of the only guys with an arrow left. I bring my arm up, draw to anchor, and release. I will the arrow into the target, sending every ounce of mojo I’ve got left after it. I don’t think its enough. No amount of mojo can fix a jerky bow arm. The fat lady’s warming up her pipes. My goose is indeed cooked.

The walk downrange is absolutely wretched. I consider asking Bernie to pull my arrows. In my mind I KNOW I’d missed all three shots, but my heart was still clinging to the hope that I might have snuck that second or third arrow in. I didn’t. I was closer than expected (less than three inches from the yellow) but close doesn’t win competitions. I leave the field in disgust – a school of “I coulda…”, “I shoulda…”, and “I woulda…” swimming in my head like a school of demented minnows. I spot Dad waving at me from the sidelines.

“Didn’t put one in there huh?”

“Obviously not.” I think to myself. But I feel better knowing that Bernie’s going to round five. I noticed two of his arrows in the yellow as I was pulling mine. He’s shooting extremely well.

I’m hungry now. I want to grab lunch and beat the crowds but Dad is reluctant.

“Don’t you want to watch the rest of the competition?”

I turn to tell him I don’t care but catch the crowd around me as if seeing them for the first time. There are archers everywhere, cheering, laughing, talking, conversing, reenacting their shots, etc. Some of these guys were eliminated in round one but they are having fun! What was I doing?

I take my place on the sidelines with my fellow bowmen and realize I’m in good company here too. Damn good company. And I’d made it pretty far! More importantly…I’d entered. I could have watched. I could have nosed around the vendor tents or grabbed an early lunch. But I didn’t, and that’s one “coulda”, “woulda”, and “shoulda” I’ll never have.

Round five placed the targets at approximately 45 yards. There are only 15 archers left including Bernie. I watch him shoot his first, second, and final shot but am too far away to see the result. Judging by his body language, I can tell it isn’t good. He confirms it by bypassing the starting line and heading our direction. It doesn’t seem to bother him though. I spot a smile under the brim of his porkpie and can tell that he’s having the time of his life, which helps me to realize I had as well. In fact, this competition was the most fun I’d had at any rendezvous and it had been raining all day.

Imagine that!

Competition is healthy for any bowhunter. It creates confidence. If you can put it all on the line in front of a crowd, you can do it anywhere. So get out there, compete, and have fun! You’ll be all the better for it.