Humble Beginnings

My wife shooting her longbow at a 3D course.

The old buck approaches from the West and my heart races as I ready my bow to meet him. Leather-clad fingers meet waxed Dacron, as they search for smooth plastic. A cool morning breeze licks at my nose, chilling the sweat from the hike in. “So far so good.” I tell myself. “But you haven’t won anything yet, Nick.”

The old boy continues on at a strong November clip. His neck bulges with desire and purpose. My skin begins to goosebump. I count the yardage down by fives to keep my cool but know it is pointless. The antlers aren’t helping.

“Antlers…the old guys at the range told you not to look at those, Nick. They said you’d lose it if you did. Probably miss high.”

I chuckle at the advice, which is a bit like reminding someone not to look down while scaling a steep cliff. The thought takes the edge off, allowing me to gather myself in time to catch my target broadside near a patch of dogwood 15 yards away.

“Pick a spot, Nick. Thats what all the magazines say. Pick a spot, draw to anchor, and release. Its that simple.”

I find a crease behind the shoulder, focus on it, and begin to draw.

“Honey?! Are you still down there?”

The voice echoes down the stairwell and yanks me back to reality. It belongs to my wife Jessica who sounds less than enthusiastic about the track of time I’ve lost. I respond with a less than enthusiastic “yes”, as my fantasy buck dissipates into the basement walls. He wasn’t the first. He wouldn’t be the last.

This was a common interaction in 2009. I was obsessed with my new hobby but Jessica and I were living in a major city, which wasn’t supportive of it. Operating a weapon within city limits was against the law and my fences weren’t high enough to disguise the activity. Our 100-year-old home included a Michigan basement, which hardly qualified as such. It was basically a cellar and half of that space was an enormous furnace that looked and sounded like a monster when the lights were off. At 6’3″ I couldn’t stand or walk upright without hitting my head on the rafters, so shooting a bow was out of the question without adjustments. Since modifying the house was out of the question, I would need to adjust my shooting style.

I brought my longbow downstairs, knelt down on the cold concrete, and canted it just enough to clear the floor joists. It was awkward at first but I was comfortable enough to try an arrow after a few test draws. There were only seven yards from stairwell to target, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to drive 45 minutes to the nearest range multiple times a week and I couldn’t stop shooting my bow. I was committed to making it all work.

Some nights I crafted elaborate hunting scenarios like the one above. Others I concentrated on form and release — eyes closed in front of a cardboard box stuffed with an old blanket. There were nights I just read, learning everything I could from books, magazines, and forums. This was valuable time spent. All of it crucial to my bowhunting education.

I look back on those days with pride. They are proof that you can make something happen if you want it badly enough. But there is something else to glean from these humble beginnings and that is to remember what it is like to be new. This isn’t always easy to do for those of us who are now firmly entrenched in the archery lifestyle. We have a community around us. We have or know of places to shoot and land to hunt. We belong to organizations and have shooting events on our calendars that span the entire summer.

In short, we have it figured out.

There are many who have not and we need to be patient with these people. We need to reach out to them and find a way to share our knowledge without being spiteful or annoyed. Recognizing how overwhelming traditional archery/bowhunting can be is the first step. Understanding that no two paths are the same is the second.  I still shoot with a fairly drastic cant due to all of those hours spent flinging arrows in my basement. I snapshoot and anchor to the side of my face because chronic hand pain from years of football will no longer allow a deep hook to the jaw. These are but two examples of why I shoot the way I do and I know I’m not alone.

The traditional way is individualistic in nature. We each have our own way of doing things, which was shaped from the parameters of our reality. It would do us all some good to go back to the beginning, remember what it was like to be new, and learn from the trip. It will change your perspective and make you smile in the process.

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The Sights and Smells of Motivation — A Trip to the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo

Archers line up at the practice range at the 2018 Traditional Bowhunter's Expo.

Eager archer’s line up at the test range to try new bows at the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I recently celebrated the New Year and motivation is already the theme. It’s been a month since I’ve navigated this particular piece of the Web, but it feels a great deal longer.

I’ve been working on a book. Some know that. Many don’t. I have been for some time now, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so infrequent. It began as a collection of works cobbled together in chronological order. I had a couple handfuls of material saved in a folder on my desktop — both published and unpublished — and sifted through them until I’d pieced together something that made sense. I then opened them all, gave them a quick read, pasted them into one document, and left them there to marinate.

A week passed and I grew very excited. I couldn’t wait to slap on chapter numbers and send them off for editing, but it didn’t work out that way. Some of those stories hadn’t been read in years and had been penned by someone who thought he knew what he was doing, but obviously didn’t. Unraveling the tapestry of mixed tenses and inconsistent styles required far more labor than anticipated, but I discovered something between the threads that would change my perspective on the process — wonder. This younger Nick was a different man and his writing, while not as polished or experienced, was filled with wonder. He was seeing everything for the first time and with a passion, I had not felt in years. The realization upset me.

Was I falling out of love with the thing that had been the epicenter of my life for nearly a decade?

No. But I needed a reboot.

Fortunately, the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo would be the kerosene to keep the lantern lit. I had looked forward to the Expo with great anticipation since my first trip. It was a fantastic experience that left me in a state of euphoria several weeks afterward. There were few places in the world offering what the Expo offered; seminars, apparel, literature, arrows, and racks filled with custom bows. If you were a stir-crazy archer in January, you were attending the Expo at the end of the month. Period. Many considered it an archery holiday and would drive across the country to scratch whatever itch they had developed since hunting season.

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Traditional Bowhunter's Expo

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Expo is always bustling with activity.

Yet, there I was, less than an hour away and not that excited about attending. My intention was to work and nothing more. I’d promised to volunteer at the Michigan Longbow Association’s youth range and take a shift or two at the Expo’s test range, as well. I knew I’d enjoy both — working with the next generation of longbow enthusiasts in particular — but didn’t feel the way I used to as I crept down 131 South towards Kalamazoo.

A younger Nick would’ve risked a speeding ticket to gain another hour’s worth of thumbing through archery tackle with fellow toxophilites for creative ways to spend his paycheck. Present day Nick was planning to get out of there with a full wallet and didn’t plan on stringing a single bow. Times had changed. I was in a deep funk. A deep funk, indeed.

But something peculiar happened, as I pushed through the Expo Center’s glass doors and caught the familiar scents of wood, wax, leather, and glue. Nostalgia washed over me and my heart beat a touch faster as I navigated rows of vendors setting up their booths for the hustle and bustle of a busy Saturday. The rising heart rate continued, as I arrived at the MLA booth and into the warm embrace of my longbow family. The sound of the popping balloons and happy screeching of the young culprits responsible filled me with a pride too difficult to explain in words.

As the day progressed, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my reservations pre-arrival. “How could I have not been excited to be here?” I thought. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like this?”

I carried these thoughts with me throughout the day, which ended with my shift at the practice range. The job responsibilities were simple but of the utmost importance: usher people in and out of the range and make sure they were following the rules at all times. I’ll admit that standing on a line and watching other people shoot bows isn’t what most would consider an “enjoyable” experience but it was something I looked forward to year-after-year. I’ve never been able to figure out why but would guess it had something to do with the sounds of the activity. The gentle “swish” of a released string combined with the soft “thump” of an arrow connecting with foam was very pleasing to the ear and therapeutic when repeated. I was in an enlightened state by the time the 15-minute warning echoed over the loudspeaker. I was back on the highway and somewhere between Gun Lake and Grand Rapids by the time I snapped out of it. I was still calm, but there was a fire in my belly I hadn’t felt in weeks.

I knew then that the funk was over and I couldn’t wait to get home and shoot my longbow.

Have you ever lost interest or burned out on this wonderful sport? If so, what brought you back?