Connor Jones uses a traditional bow to hit a target.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The bow and arrow. Paleolithic hunters used them to hunt for food. Soldiers in the Middle Ages used them to kill their enemies. Modern athletes use them for Olympic sport. And on weekends in North Kenai, a few folks use them for recreation.
"Archery takes skill, it can be a little competitive, it keeps the hunters in the group tuned up, but mostly it's just fun," said Len Malmquist, president of the Kenai Peninsula Archers, in regard to what members in the archery club get out of the organization.
Started in 1989, the archery club has been in continuous operation and currently has more than 60 members, most of whom live locally, but quite a few are from Outside as well.
"The club has members in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Texas. They live down there in the winter and come up in the summer and they bring their bows with them," Malmquist said.
Andrew Paxson lines up on a target while shooting with other members of the Kenai Peninsula Archers Club earlier this month at First Baptist Church in Kenai. The group gives archers an opportunity to share camaraderie and skill.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The club currently uses a building behind First Baptist Church, along the Kenai Spur Highway, to practice their sport in fall and winter, and they maintain a 40-lane outdoor archery range located off of North Arc Loop Road for shooting in spring and summer.
The meetings behind the church take place at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and are largely for introducing people to the sport of archery, and teaching them the fundamentals of firing off arrows.
"We hold archery lessons for children, teens and adults, but anyone needing advice regarding learning about the sport of archery, having question about their archery equipment or maintaining their equipment, or just looking to improve their skills, is welcome to attend one of the Saturday morning sessions," Malmquist said.
While this may sound like a lot for aspiring archers to digest in just a few hours on the weekend, Malmquist said it really boils down to just a few key concepts, the first of which is a focus on safety.
"Archery is a very safe sport if you teach it correctly. The injuries are one one-hundredth what football has. So when people start out we teach them safety first," Malmquist said, and it is clear from attending any Saturday morning session that this is true.
All archers are spaced to not interfere or endanger anyone else with their shots, are focused on the task at hand, never pointing their bow and arrows anywhere other than down range, and they all stand behind a clearly designated line and do not cross that line to retrieve arrows from the far end of the shooting lane until an instructor yells "Clear!"
"After safety we start to harp on form, which has several pieces that come together to make a good archer," Malmquist said.
In regard to form, Malmquist said people are first taught how to hold the bow and to take the proper stance. Much like a house of cards needs a good foundation or it will topple as more layers are added, so too can standing with the feet too close together or too far apart affect the whole process of shooting an arrow and where it will eventually land.
"Standing side-on to the target, the feet should be squared for stability, about shoulder width apart, with the front foot at about a 45 degree angle in relation to the target," he said.
After archers develop their stance, Malmquist said they learn about finding an anchor point, which is a place on an archer's face where the hand is placed consistently while the bowstring is drawn all the way back. Proper and comfortable anchor points play a big part in an archer aiming and hitting the target with more accuracy.
"For some people, their anchor point is touching their thumb to their cheek bone, or the corner of their mouth, or their chin. It's different for everyone, but what matters is that they be consistent with an anchor point once they find their own," he said.
Archers are also taught to be conscious of their breathing habits. Without thinking, some novices will hold an inhale all the way through the draw, anchor, aim and release, which is a big no-no according to Malmquist.
"The amount of oxygen in the blood determines how long you can hold a draw pose, and the longer you hold it, the more you start to shake and not hold steady, and you end up not getting a clean shot off," he said.
So, rather than holding the breath from the beginning to end of a shot, archers instead are encouraged to take a deep cleansing breath before beginning, breath in while drawing the bow, a slight hold while aiming, and then a slow, steady exhale on the release.
Like all other aspects of proper form, the release is also not performed haphazardly. The proper stance, a consistent anchor point, and controlled breathing can all be for nothing if the release is jerky or spastic.
"If using their fingers, we recommend they just open them and let the arrow slide off, and if using a mechanical release just use back tension, this way there is no yanking on the trigger and spraying the arrow," Malmquist said.
Once archers have the mechanics of firing off a shot down pat, Malquist said their concentration becomes the next area of focus.
"Concentration is critical, and we want them to narrow their concentration to the smallest point possible," he said.
This is done in a variety of ways. During indoor target practice, novice archers may begin by shooting at targets the size of a garbage can lid or larger this way they can focus on all the other aspects of form and still be relatively successful at putting an arrow in the right place.
However, as an archer's form becomes more natural for them, requiring them to think less about it, target sizes may be reduced to hone their concentration more. Archers will gradually shoot at smaller targets, such as the size of a pie plate for intermediate archers and targets as small as a tea saucer for more advanced shooters. From there, instructors will also put out balloons in various positions around the target to ensure that archers are indeed hitting what they are aiming for, regardless of whether the object is located in the center of the target, or off to the side of it.
"We want them to aim for a spot on the target, not the target itself," Malmquist said.
Archers that master this concept, then have better success in the field, including practicing on the life-sized models of game during 3-D shooting at the club's outdoor range, and shooting at live animals while in the field bow hunting.
"As a bow hunter, it's the same thing, you want to find a small point to aim for. You're not just aiming in the general vicinity of the front shoulder. You want to be aiming at a small patch of hair sticking up right behind that shoulder," he said.
Not everyone that is a member of the archery club is an avid hunter, though. Some people, particularly the kids and young adults, just enjoy improving their field archery techniques and abilities.
"Most of the kids have different intensity levels. Some are here just to have fun, others will go on to competing around the state. We just try and encourage everyone based on their desires. We'll take them as far as they want to go," said Charlie Black, an archery instructor since 1960, and an archer himself since 1957.
Black said he likes teaching archery because of the personal challenge it affords those that pursue it. He said unlike some sports that kids may be interested in, but not big enough, tall enough or fast enough to play successfully in the eyes of a coach, archery is one of the few physical activities where a child can find success regardless of their physical size or athletic experience or social skills.
"It's not like football. The kids don't need to be six feet tall, and weigh 200 pounds. Any size kid can shoot arrows and get good at it," Black said.
Malmquist said kids get exercise and develop good hand-eye coordination from archery. Because it is such an individualized sport, where archers essentially compete against themselves to become better, it also has the ability to improve self-esteem and confidence in the participants.
"Archers earn confidence and self-worth as they develop their skills," he said.
Malmquist added that these qualities also positively spread into other areas of young people's lives.
"I've never known a young archer that wasn't a good student. That focus training from archery seems to bleed into their school work, and other areas of their lives," he said.
Andrew Paxson, an 18-year-old member of the archery club, expressed sentiments that support what Malmquist's. He said he has personally grown a lot in the six years he has taken archery lessons after being inspired by the character Legolas, the arrow-slinging elf, played by Orlando Bloom in the most recent film adaptation of "The Lords of the Rings."
"I like the self-development. It's fun constantly improving and always getting better. I also like the self-discipline. It has taught me to be more patient. You can't rush archery. You have to breath and concentrate, so it's taught me to be a lot more mellow. I've also gotten stronger over the last few years from pulling the bow," Paxson said.
Also, like the pointy-eared character that inspired him, Paxson has gotten quite good at hitting what he aims at after so many years of practicing. On a recent Saturday morning, he seemingly without effort let a flurry of feather-tailed shafts fly at a target 50 feet away, and while there were many places they could have landed on the colorful, concentric-ringed target, all five landed within a three-inch space in the yellow center.
"Nice grouping," Malmquist said, impressed.
Paxson said his interest and enthusiasm for archery was contagious. Over the years he has managed to introduce or re-introduce everyone in his family to the sport.
"First it was my older sister, then my father, then my younger sister and then my mom. Now they're all members. It's great. We all shoot together and can joke about it, and my dad and I can get pretty competitive. It's a good family sport," he said.
Another young adult, 16-year-old Sayde Ridling, has only been involved in the archery club for roughly a year, but already has no problem hitting bull's-eyes most of the time. Like Paxson, she said she has gained a lot more than good aim from her time in the club.
"If you work at it, it's very noticeable that you're getting better, and it's good to see yourself progressing. I like learning to control what I do. It's taught me to be calm, and to concentrate on the details," she said.
As good as she is at indoor archery, Sadling said she enjoys the outdoor 3-D archery the best.
"I like having a scenario, rather than just a staring at a target, and with the 3-D shoot, you have different shots, some are up some are down, and there's vegetation, and sunlight, and wind and leaves that can affect you vision. It's not as controlled, so it's a lot more challenging and fun," she said.
Malmquist said of the 40 lanes at their outdoor archery range, 11 are set up for 3-D shooting.
"It simulates shooting, and trying to get a killing shot through the trees. We usually have a minimum of 15 targets out. Deer, elk, bear, fox coyote they're all life-like animals set up in real hunting situations," he said.
However, unlike the indoor range where the focus is technique and precision, Malmquist said on the outdoor range ethics are also emphasized to archers.
"On the 3-D shoots, we teach how to pursue game ethically, by only taking ethical shots, clean shots," he said.
As an example, Malmquist said this past summer there was a life-like target set up in such a way that the only shot on the animal was from head-on, and without the possibility of hitting a vital area. This was done to emphasize, as in real hunting, sometimes the best shot is the one not taken.
"Anyone that took a shot, no matter where the arrow landed, they got a zero score for that station," Malmquist said.
Lindsay Lucking, a 10-year-old who has been involved in the archery club for a few weeks, said already the 3-D shoots are her favorite part of archery.
"They're fun because they're more real," she said.
Lucking knows about what is real, because her father, John, has been bow hunting for the past six years, and has found success on numerous occasions while hunting everything from grouse to moose with a bow and arrow.
"She's been hounding me to get into it," he said.
Apparently the apple didn't fall far from the tree either, since Lucking said she already has improved in the little bit of time she has been a member of the club.
"My first shots were off to the side a lot, but I got better the second week from practicing, and on the third week I went to the 3-D shoot and did pretty good," she said.
The senior Lucking said he enjoys being able to pursue a meaningful personal interest, while also having his daughter be a part of the experience.
"It's one of those good, clean, fun things to keep kids occupied in the appropriate ways, and it's great to spend time together, " he said.
The Kenai Peninsula Archers are always looking for new members, Malmquist said. Annual membership is $20 for individuals and $40 for a family membership. For more information contact the club by calling 262-7375.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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