Shootin’ with Harley
“What kind of guns you shot before?” Harley asks me mere moments after I exit the car. He approaches me in his half-camo, half-fluorescent-orange fleece jacket looking like something in-between a serious hunter and a traffic cone. He’s older than I envisioned when we talked on the phone and as his tall, lanky frame walks in my direction it dawns on me that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m slightly terrified. I’ve never shot a gun before. In fact, I would chalk up my shooting experience to hitting soda cans with BB guns in the backyard of a friend’s ski house in Idaho. So here I am, twenty minutes late and a rookie: great first impression.
Seconds after admitting to my lack of shooting qualifications, my heart skips a beat when I hear an extremely loud gunshot that seems to be coming from inside Harley’s house. I follow Harley around to the side of the house and meet Danielle, a special collections librarian at Middlebury College who also happens to be a pretty good shot. I can tell within moments she’s a no-nonsense, down-to-earth kind of woman and her lime green pants allude to her spunky nature. Danielle’s personality comes alive as I shake her hand with a smile and suddenly my nervousness begins to evaporate. We walk about thirty feet to the piece of paper she just shot at: two overlapping bullet holes look like a Ven diagram only millimeters away from the bulls eye.
Yet, I’m not just here to shoot guns. I’m here to learn about the winter sport that Harley competes in each year, the primitive biathlon. It’s a nostalgic winter competition that involves shooting at targets, snowshoeing on wooden snowshoes, and dressing in period clothing.
“Should we shoot the jug?” Harley looks at Danielle with an impish smile spread across his weathered face.
“Sure,” Danielle replies, returning Harley’s look with a similar one. Harley grabs onto a very large jug of water with a two-inch-by-two-inch apple sticker on it. He trots down the little hill in his backyard and places the jug about fifty feet away. I can now only barely see its one distinguishing figure: the apple sticker.
“Hit the apple,” he commands Danielle as she loads her front-loading rifle with the precision and concentration of an expert. Harley and I back up a couple of steps as she raises the rifle to her shoulder and positions her petite body in an authoritative stance. Feet apart, upper body straight and leaning slightly forward, her slender fingers reach for the trigger. As I anticipate the gunshot, I remind myself not to flinch. Straining to keep my eyes open extra wide, Danielle shoots and the jug explodes in an aquatic flurry. No one has any idea if she hit the apple or not. Harley chuckles. I feel tinges of a smile creep onto my face.
Moments later, Harley heads into his basement and comes out with a rifle and what look like red headphones, they’re my “ear protection.”
“Well, put ‘em on,” Harley says. I look and feel like a complete poser, yet I obediently follow Harley and Danielle across the road and into the woods to begin shooting on the course that Harley has set up in the multiple acres of land in his own backyard, mimicking the course of a primitive biathlon.
My plans are to learn the ropes of shooting from Harley and then follow him to the first primitive biathlon of the season, which happens to be the oldest one, the Smuggler’s Notch Primitive Biathlon. A competition started seventeen years ago, the primitive biathlon quickly has become a beloved winter tradition amongst New Englanders enthusiastic about shooting, the outdoors, and tradition.
The idea is simple in nature. There is a two-mile course with four shooting stations. Each participant gets two shots at the first three stations and three at the last one. Between the stations participants run, jog or walk on wooden snowshoes on a course that seems to be straight off a Vermont postcard. Competitors in these biathlons are encouraged to dress in period clothing to create a scene steeped in tradition and nostalgia. At one of the main competitions held every year in Jeffersonville, Vermont, the idyllic snowy peak of Smuggler’s Notch looms grandly in the distance, while the competitors run alongside a frozen pond and through the serenity of Vermont woods in the wintertime. This peacefulness often becomes interrupted by the hallowing noises of gunshots that ring through your ears and the trees.
As I cross the road with Harley and Danielle, I have no idea what a primitive biathlon entails, nor have I even shot a gun yet. But in a few weeks we will all venture together to Jeffersonville, snow or no snow, to partake in the Smuggler’s Notch Primitive Biathlon.
“There’s a lot of people who would pay money to come shoot on this kind of course,” Danielle states as we cross the road into Harley’s “backyard” in which he’s set up a shooting course similar to those of a primitive biathlon. At this point, I’m not really sure if I’ll ever be one of these people.
“I’ve been shootin’ real guns for sixty-six years,” Harley tells me as we trample over stumps in the acres of woods behind his house. Harley knows what he’s doing, at least that’s clear. He’s straight-forward and doesn’t tolerate nonsense or bad shooters, as I would come to learn in my many failed shots. He hunts, he shoots, and does well in primitive biathlons, all in his tried and true Vermont spirit.
Harley was born in the house across the street from where he lives now. He was raised learning to hunt and run a farm. He raised his two oldest daughters in the same way, teaching them how to milk cows and hunt buck. Harley’s history gives insight into his love for the outdoors and shooting. It’s in his blood.
As we’re out in the woods, I see why the primitive biathlon has gained momentum in the last decade. Using obsolete guns and wooden snowshoes in a competition based more on accuracy than speed, Harley brings history alive with each shot he makes.
“If you miss a shot you’re gonna have to run wicked fast,” says Harley’s daughter Wendy to me a couple of days later.
“We always joke about how fast wicked fast is.” Wendy, Harley’s oldest daughter, works in the language school program at Middlebury College. She has the poise and wit of an eldest sibling and talks gracefully about what growing up with Harley was like. While most little girls get dolls for Christmas, Wendy got guns, and not to her dismay either. Harley instilled in both his eldest girls a love for the sport early on that continues to thrive today. In fact, Wendy loves both shooting and hunting and is in the Colorado record books for an elk she shot a few years back. I see her beam as she recalls the memory, knowing she made her father proud.
“Alrighty, you ready?” Harley asks me as we arrive at the first station on his shooting course. Harley’s round glasses peek out from under the bill of his hat and accentuate his big blue eyes and snow-white hair. I am tempted to ask Harley how old he is, but if he’s been shooting real guns for sixty-six years, he’s at least sixty-eight.
After missing the target three times in a row, I see Harley look at me with an amused look and ask, “Are you closing your eyes when you shoot?”
“Well you can’t shoot a damn thing if your eyes are shut. I can tell you that much.”
As I get a little better at positioning and holding a rifle, I don’t get any better at hitting targets. At this point, I can tell that Harley is frustrated. He wants me to hit a target and I’m not doing well. I feel badly and I’m trying my best. I don’t want to disappoint Harley, but he’s determined to make me hit something.
So we move on to the moose. A metal moose situated in an open field becomes my next target. It’s clear from the many bullet holes around the eye and the heart where you’re supposed to aim. After my first shot, I hear a big belly laugh escape from Harley. Aiming for the heart, I hit the moose in the hind leg. As waves of relief wash over me, Harley says, “At least you hit it. That’s all I’m gonna say.” Harley’s smiling though, so I don’t care. As he loads the next shot in the rifle he looks at me, and says, “You better do better this time or I’m going to be disappointed,” Harley’s words are slightly encouraging, slightly imposing. I don’t want to muck this up. And I hit it. I hit the moose pretty close to the heart and a huge grin spreads across my numb face in the winter cold. I feel weirdly accomplished and excited and didn’t even hit the bulls-eye.
As I sit in Harley’s kitchen once we’ve cleaned our guns and are done shooting for the day, I realize one thing; Harley is never as happy as he is when he’s holding a gun up to his shoulder eyeing his next target or even a buck. Photos of Harley hunting and with his kids line the kitchen walls as a testament to a man proud of his life and his family. As I talk with Harley’s daughter, Wendy, she relays stories of her childhood shooting and hunting adventures with her dad.
“He’s really a man’s man and had no idea what to do with daughters. I probably got my first gun at age one,” Wendy laughs at her father’s enthusiasm for a sport that really became a family affair. Now Wendy and her husband Randy compete in primitive biathlons alongside her father. Wendy talks about her initial aversion to her father’s idea of a winter adventure, going winter camping and living for weeks on end in the woods without showers or heat.
“At the end of the day I just want to go home and shower.” I understand. Biathlons seemed to be the perfect sport for the family to get excited about: a way to put their handy shooting skills to good use, but also a sport that lets you experience the “primitiveness” of the Vermont woods, but also go home at the end of the day. And so a family tradition began.
Two weeks after my initial shooting adventure with Harley and Danielle, I’m waking up at 5:45 in the morning to accompany the two of them to the first primitive biathlon of the season. I talk to Harley on the phone the day before and he tells me, “If you’re not at the house at 6:30 I will leave without you. I don’t wait for anyone.” Not being a morning person, I’m already fretting that I won’t wake up on time for Danielle to pick me up to go to Harley’s house. I cannot disappoint Harley, and I don’t doubt him that he won’t wait for me.
So, as my alarm beeps in my ear at what seems like the most ungodly hour of the day, I bolt up out of bed and hurry to put on warm clothes, get my camera equipment together, and stuff my backpack with what my groggy mind seems to think are the essentials. I hurry down the stairs of my building in my pink down coat. Was pink a bad choice? Does it even matter?
I see Danielle waiting for me, hurriedly jump in the car, and we’re off. I can’t really manage to form any sort of cohesive conversation because I’m pretty sure I’m still asleep, but I can tell Danielle’s excited. I can see it oozing through her smiles and fast-paced dialogue; it’s her first primitive biathlon. And if there’s one thing I know about Danielle, it’s that she’s quite the competitor.
As we pull into Harley’s driveway, I glance at the clock in Danielle’s car: 6:23, I say my quiet “thank you” to the powers that be that we’re not getting left behind. We exit the car and look around for Harley, but all the lights are off in his house and he definitely isn’t in the garage. Then, moments later, he comes bounding across the road a little too sprightly for a man of his age. In the soft quiet of Vermont dawn I can barely make out his slender form. He’s ready. Now we have to wait for Tom, the last of our carpool to arrive.
Tom pulls up in his big red truck and we start to pack Danielle’s new Subaru. “My car has never been this clean before and I don’t think it will ever be again,” muses Danielle as Tom and Harley load snowshoes and rifles into the trunk. I can tell from the delicate manner with which Harley places his rifle into the trunk how much it means to him. I also know how expensive it is. Harley’s respect for his weapons never ceases to amaze me. His daughter Wendy tells me, “I wasn’t even allowed to have a BB gun as a child. Harley wanted us to learn to respect and safely use a real gun. Safety and respect were huge for him.” Harley brings out a pillow to sit on in the front seat and we’re off. Within mere minutes of being in the car I’m fast asleep. Before I know it, we’ve arrived at the scenic Smuggler’s Notch course and we’re quickly getting ready. Danielle has the quick, energetic moves of someone nervous, yet excited. Harley readies himself methodically, with the purpose and precision of an expert.
As we walk from the car to the registration desk, I slowly realize Harley’s popularity in the world of primitive biathlons. Everyone knows him. Every car or person we pass acknowledges Harley with great enthusiasm. I’m in the presence of a celebrity. Or at least that’s how I feel. Harley’s not here to socialize right now though. The reason why we left so early and arrive at eight o’clock on the dot is because Harley wants to get on that course, fast.
After checking in with the registration desk, Harley’s daughters greet him with sweet smiles and make sure he’s all ready to go. I’m enamored as I watch his daughter Penny put on his snowshoes for him. So far, I had only seen the more serious, shooting enthusiast side of Harley, but as I watch his daughter fasten his wooden snowshoes for him I sense the pride and love Harley has for his family and can’t help but smile. The camel-colored wood of his oval-shaped snowshoes stand out in the bright white of the snow. The wooden snowshoes are reminiscent of another era, yet today they’re everywhere because you can’t win the biathlon without them.
Harley removes his coat in preparation to get out on the course, the same neon-orange and camo coat he was wearing when I first met him. He drapes the coat around my shoulders in a touching gesture. Although Harley wants nothing more than to get out onto the course he never fails to be a great host, introducing me to everyone that talks to him. “This is Stephanie,” he’ll say, “tell them what you’re doing here.”
He introduces me to Ray, the man who started the primitive biathlon seventeen years ago and who’s the boss of this whole operation. Ray’s a gruff looking man of about sixty with wild blue eyes that elicit soft chills. His bushy beard parts to unveil a knowing smile as Harley talks to him. “She can go on the course with me, right?” Harley asks. Ray nods. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
“Five, four, three, two, one,” Ray counts down the time until Harley can start. Suddenly, I’m chasing Harley off into the bushes. Harley might be many years my senior and carrying a rifle and wearing wooden snowshoes, but he sure can move when he wants to. The staggering beauty of the course hits me as we round the first corner and see the frozen pond stretch before us. Harley’s seen this view before though, so there’s little time to enjoy it.
It seems to take forever to get to the first shooting station. At this point, Harley already has enlisted me as his Sherpa; I’m carrying his vest and hat. The Vermont sun seems to be warming up the course quicker than we’re moving around it. At the first station, the two men attending the station have built a fire and the scent of the fire brings back memories of summer. These memories quickly disappear as Harley’s first gunshot rings out. “Beautiful.” The attendant beams as Harley nails his first shot and then a second. Everyone knows Harley.
By the third station I can tell from his panting and slightly slower pace that Harley’s tired. I’m tired too. It’s all about hitting the targets though. Every target a competitor hits takes five minutes off their score. Harley loads the rifle carefully, pushing the bullet down until the stick bounces. Harley Grice doesn’t misfire. The station attendants here know Harley too. They’ve been watching him hit these same targets for years on end. As I daydream about the legends Harley inspires in the primitive biathlon world, I hear the satisfying clink of a target being hit. We’re five for five right now. I feel oddly proud. I try to give Harley my most encouraging smile.
Reality comes crashing in on itself when Harley misses his next shot. I’m a bit shocked, but Harley turns to me, gives me a little shoulder shrug, and we’re off again in pursuit of the final shooting station. In this final walk through the woods on the course, I understand why people love doing this. I understand why Harley loves doing this. There’s something about being in the woods using snowshoes used hundreds of years ago that makes it seem as though you’re a little closer to nature. During the primitive biathlon, the competitors carry with them everything that a man a hundred years ago would carry to go procure his dinner. I have this feeling that if Harley were to see a buck in the distance he would shoot it most definitely.
The final shooting station looms in the distance and I’m excited. Harley exchanges niceties with the man next to him who he clearly knows and begins the final process of loading his gun. He makes the first two shots easily. I’m beginning to notice the grace with which Harley shoots a gun. Some men look angry as they close one eye and aim for the target. Others look uneasy or constantly surprised. Harley just looks at peace. His shoulders relax beneath his black turtleneck and he wipes the fog off his glasses.
As he raises his gun I say a little prayer that he makes the shot. And he does. I feel silly, like I did when I first met Harley and was praying to hit any part of the damn moose in his backyard, but now the roles are reversed. I’m feeling silly because I’m praying for Harley to do what he does best. “Okay,” says Harley, “this is the part where we run to be all dramatic at the end.” I follow his lead and mimic his fast-paced jog across the finish line and into the horde of his family and friends waiting for him. As everyone interrogates Harley about how he did he smiles and says, “I got all of ‘em except one.” Eight out of nine shots made. Harley ends up placing second in the Elder division of the biathlon and dedicating his score to his late wife Marilyn, an obvious gesture.
As I reflect back on the last three weeks with Harley, I realize how different my adventure has been than I thought it would be. I anticipated learning to shoot with a couple of Vermonters and that being the end of the story. Yet, more than learning a skill, I made a friend. Harley Grice is one of the most genuinely caring and wonderful people I know. I don’t know where our friendship will lead, but I do know that I plan on making it last as long as possible.