Last weekend my wife granted me a wonderful gift: a camping trip to Grayling Michigan with Dad while she stayed behind to watch our girls. It was a belated Father’s Day present, and a damn good one. The Michigan Traditional Bowhunter’s Jamboree is one of my favorite events. It brings people from all over Michigan and beyond back to Fred Bear’s back yard to socialize and shoot arrows.
For many, this is where bowhunting began and where the spirit resides. They have traveled here for many years and will continue to do so as long as they’re able. For others it is simply a place to gather for the pure enjoyment of watching arrows soar into foam targets. Whatever fire you sit at, Grayling is a special place and the Jamboree is a special shoot.
I hadn’t been for several years, often choosing the Compton shoot the weekend prior, due to its proximity to home and a busy family schedule. Likewise, Dad hardly ever misses it and always pesters me to make the trip. It didn’t take much convincing this year, but I suggested we camp this time. I discovered you cannot truly enjoy a traditional gathering unless you stay the weekend and sop it up properly. The flavor is in the camping, the quiet, and the people. You miss all that by showing up in the morning and leaving a few hours later. There’s nothing quite like soothing sore finger with a cold beer while chatting with your buddies by the fire. It’s a special feeling – relaxation, accomplishment, and belonging – with bows and arrows at the center.
Romanticism aside, the best part of camping is repetition. You can shoot and shoot and shoot, then take a break and shoot some more, and all at your own pace. That is exactly what we did. Dad and I shot round after round over our three-day stay and it was worth every penny of the $25 entrance fee (for members).
The courses were fantastic, but that was to be expected considering the location. “Grayling green” may have been coined by Bear Archery, but those who’ve been to the area know it has a meaning other than a shade of fiberglass. Grayling is green. Very green. And Hanson Hills is the greenest of the green. It is one of the lushest places I’ve ever encountered – a shining example of the gem Northern Michigan is.
Shooting felt more like roving through the script of a Robin Hood movie than flinging arrows at targets. We were taking our time and enjoying every shot, which beat cramming as many targets as possible into a five hour window. We were living by the bow – not for survival – but for the pure fulfillment of it. There is a difference between the two. A big difference. We cast well over 300 arrows on the 2D and 3D courses alone, though it didn’t seem like it. It was what we were there to do. No matter how tired, sweaty, sore, or sunburned we became, we were always eager to grab our quivers and head back to the trail head. In fact, the after effects of our labor weren’t at all noticeable until we grabbed a booth at the infamous “Bear’s Den Pizzeria” Saturday night. Even then the food was far too good to dwell on discomfort. The air conditioning also helped as it was fairly humid all weekend long.
And then there was the decor. For those of you who’ve never been, the Bear’s Den is Bear Archery themed and a one of a kind establishment. It is owned by the same gentleman who lives in Fred’s home and artifacts from the Grayling factory adorn every nook, right down to the place mats, which feature a chronological timeline of Fred’s achievements. People had been telling me to check the place out for years before I finally made an effort to go and it was worth the wait. I loved the vibe and the pizza was fantastic. Squeezing a round or two in afterwards wasn’t easy with a stomach full of pizza grease, but we managed. Shooting until the sun went down was the perfect ending to the perfect day.
Sunday morning arrived too soon, as is usually the case. Dad had to work at Noon so we packed up as quickly as stiff muscles and crankiness would allow, had a cup of coffee, and hit the courses bright and early for one last go – this time with our (much heavier) Hill-style longbows. I have no idea why we decided to save our heaviest bows for the last day at camp, but it made for quite the adventure. We shot extremely well considering. In fact, not a single vital was missed, which was good because my quiver was getting increasingly lighter by the day. My fancy stash of wood arrows had gone to war with every tree, hillside, and briar bush in the area it seemed, raising the question of why I’d even bothered to decorate them in the first place. The “fix me” pile in my trunk would’ve been comical had it not been so tragic.
By the time we cast our last arrows it was late morning and time for Dad to leave. Saying goodbye to him is never easy for me. In fact, if it were possible to pause life and replay our shooting/hunting adventures over and over again in one continuous loop without interruption, I would do so gladly and often. Obviously, this isn’t possible, but I find comfort in the fact these memories are logged away in my head and on paper so they can be revisited. When life is at its hardest, this is the place in which I retreat and in my list of favorite archery memories with my father, “Grayling Green” will always be near the top.
If you’ve never been, I suggest you make the trip. You’ll never forget it.