A Walk in the Woods
Just a month earlier, I had never held a gun before. Nor had I ever seen black powder outside of a cartoon. I had never even gone snowshoeing. But There I was, snowshoeing through an old Vermont forest, blanketed by snow, rifle clutched firmly in one hand, the other clinging fiercely to the hand-warmer stuffed inside my jacket pocket. The crunching of my snowshoes provided the walk’s soundtrack as each step broke up the icy ground, insufficiently shielded by last night’s dusting of fresh powder. The snowshoes were large, and unfamiliar and I moved awkwardly over rocks and roots, doing my best to reach the shooting station I saw on top of the next hill. Already there and loading his first shot was my guide for the past month, Harley Grice.
A Vermont lifer, Harley grew up in Middlebury and has lived there all of his life. He is in his seventies now, but you could never tell it by the way that he moves. Quiet and graceful, Harley moves through nature as efficiently as one can. His stride is steady and confident; his body perfectly relaxed. The concentrated effort of my movement is made all the more apparent beside Harley.
Bang! In a split-second, the quiet of the woods was shattered as Harley’s first shot found its target. He held steady for a second, while the target, previously dormant, was awoken into a violent pendulum, Harley’s shot swinging it on its line.
I clamored into the station and begun to load. All of the objects, that until this point on the course had only served to slow me down, now came into play. I ripped open a pre-load, and poured the black powder down my barrel. I pulled out a block, lined with five metal balls, all tucked delicately into cotton pouches. The wooden starter came next. Just a mallet really, it’s used to knock the ball into the barrel. The range rod— cold, steel and strong—follows the starter. I jammed it down the barrel, pushing the ball firmly to the bottom. I paused and looked up. The targets hung stoically, orange disks contrasting sharply against the snow covered hill that faced us from across a small streambed. The orange metal was dull, and riddled with the marking of previous competitors’ successes.
I pointed the gun downrange, pulled back the hammer and put the copper cap on its nipple. It was now ready to fire.
I lifted the gun to my shoulder. It was heavier than I remember. I had never shot it before after running. I pressed my cheek to the gun, staring down the barrel through the steam that rises where my perspiring face meets the wood. I clicked the set-trigger into place, removing the last of the constraints on my shot. I slid my finger along the cold instrument before settling lightly on the hairpin trigger. I breathed.
I am about as far from an outdoorsman as you can possibly be. I am a 20-year-old college student, born and raised in New York City. I wear a lot of skinny jeans, thoroughly enjoy sushi, and most of my hiking experience has come from Central Park. In my life, guns have only ever accompanied bad news. Guns have meant people shooting each other. Hunting has always been a foreign concept to me, and before this month began I was fully content with never shooting a gun in my life. I didn’t know anyone who personally owned a gun, and did not think I wanted to. In my eyes, gun owners were close-minded conservatives. I was entirely uninterested in getting to know any of them.
But an interesting comment from a close friend got me thinking. A few of us were out to dinner at a local restaurant with one of our parents, visiting for the weekend. All of us students at the table were from New York City, and one of the parents jokingly asked if we were only friends with other kids from the city. After a brief laugh, my friend, Phil, pointed out the irony “It’s funny, I think we all get along so well because we are pretty similar, open-minded dudes. But so we only hang out with each other…which, I guess, isn’t so open minded.”
I pride myself on seeing the world from a variety of perspectives, and it would be a gross exaggeration to say that all of my friends are from New York City. But, for the most part, the kids at I go to school with are pretty similar. Just how different is the perspective of a 19-year-old economics major from Boston than that of a 20-year-old history major from Connecticut? I had come to college in Vermont to experience what it was like living in a rural area, outside of my comfort zone, and had hardly ventured off campus. I knew next to nothing about the nature or local people of Vermont. I had gone on two small hikes in my three years at school and didn’t have a single townsperson I could call a friend.
I wanted to get out there. I wanted to explore the woods and trails of this Green Mountain State. I wanted to understand the people who actually call this place home, not who just come here for four years of college and then leave. At the urging of a Professor, I set out on an adventure into one of Vermont’s more unique communities. For the next month I would get to know the people and nature of Vermont by training for and competing in a primitive biathlon. I had no idea what I was getting into.
A primitive biathlon, as its name suggests, is modeled after an Olympic style biathlon, only primitive. Instead of cross-country skis competitors use wooden snowshoes and instead of shooting high-powered rifles, they shoot black powder muzzle-loaders. The courses are typically around two miles in length and have four different shooting stations with nine different targets. For each target a competitor hits, his or her overall time is reduced by five minutes. The fastest time wins, and is often a negative number, because the champion hit enough targets for their time reduction to be greater than the time it took for them to finish the course. It’s pretty simple: you want to run fast, and you don’t want to miss.
Ray Saloomi, created the first primitive biathlon at Smuggler’s Notch, in Jeffersonville, Vermont. This was anywhere from 17 to 19 years ago, depending on who you ask, but either way it’s been happening ever since. Loretta Cruz, an experienced primitive biathlon competitor and volunteer for the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (or the NMLRA for those of you who really love acronyms), described the Smuggler’s Notch Biathlon as “the granddaddy of them all” when I sat down with her. This year, the event was scheduled for January 26th. It was already January 10th and I had never shot a gun or snow shoed. I needed some help.
“Harley is just so generous.”
This is the first thing Danielle Rougeau says when I ask her about the man who has offered to serve as my guide for the next few weeks. “When I was first interested in learning about primitive biathlons, I didn’t have what I needed to even start….he was the first one to say ‘I’ve got a rifle you can borrow.’ He gave me one of his rifles!”
Danielle is the first person I have met who has actually competed in a primitive biathlon. We met at her office in the Middlebury College library basement, an area I avoid like the plague; a place where sunshine goes to die and happiness is a distant memory. I had been told that Danielle was the person to talk to if I wanted to try my hand at primitive biathlons and so I ventured boldly downstairs. The special collections unit was locked but the sign on the door said to ring the bell if it was normal business hours. Thursday at 3 pm sounded right to me, so I pressed the bell and waited. I pictured the sound reverberating through canyons of bookshelves and archives, but was surprised when a brunette woman bounded quickly around the corner and opened the door mere seconds after I rang.
This was not the first time Danielle would surprise me. You see, Danielle is not your typical librarian; not even close.
For starters, she has about as much energy as an entire third grade class at recess. Ask Danielle for help finding something in the library and she exclaims “sure hon’” slapping you on the back and taking you racing off on a quest into the Middlebury College Library Special Collections vault.
What Danielle likes to do when she’s not in the library is what really distinguishes her from your archetypal quilting librarian. Among many other things, Danielle is a log-rolling coach, a long distance horse racer, an expert taxidermist, a Nordic skier, a shotgun enthusiast, and a primitive biathlon champion.
“Hi…are you Danielle?” I mumbled anxiously. She had yet to stop smiling, or moving, and I did no longer doubt any of the anecdotes I had heard describing Danielle as “a pistol” or “a bit energetic.”
“Sure am! What can I do for ya?”
I played my trump card, “I’m here to talk to you about primitive biathlons.”
And with that, we were off.
Danielle whisked me into her office and spent the next thirty minutes chatting with me about her life, my life, and the coolest hobby I had ever heard of. Her voice was sharp but caring. Words seemed to spill out of her, rapid-fire and within 30 seconds of meeting her, I think she had dropped more G’s than an ostentatious rapper at a…well let’s just say she was more of a talkin’ kind of person than a talking one. She had the beginnings of wrinkles on her face and blue-grey eyes that reminded me of a wolf. A really friendly wolf. Her brown hair was kept back in a ponytail and streaked with gray. She was fluid and wiry in her movements, muscles honed by weekends spent snowshoeing through the woods or teaching college students that art of log-rolling.
The “Harley’ to whom Danielle referred is Harley Grice, the most well known primitive biathlon competitor in Vermont. The next day, I was scheduled to go to Harley’s house for the first time and shoot with him. Not wanting me to appear entirely clueless—although I was —Danielle offered to teach me a little bit about marksmanship with the Civil War period rifles in the Special Collection Unit. Drawing a target on a blank piece of computer paper, she walked me through the principles of “sight aperture” and “sight picture.” She was clearly not only an experienced markswoman, but an intelligent one as well.
When I first watched Danielle aim a rifle I nearly gasped at the grace with which she aims. Pulling her spine upwards, and keeping elbows high she struck lines of a classical dancer with the steeled jaw of a seasoned shooter. She was decidedly in her element, and it was beautiful to watch. A few minutes later it was my turn. Even unloaded, holding a gun was an exceedingly weird sensation for me. It was hard not to feel somewhat absurd standing in the basement of a college library and aiming this unloaded gun at a home-made paper target ten feet away. The last time this gun was actually used was the Civil War. It was used to kill men so that a nation might heal itself, or at least preserve its unity. The next day, I would shoot a real gun. I was excited about that, but saying it felt like a confession. Holding this gun felt good. I don’t know why, but it did.
Harley lives just ten minutes outside of Middlebury. The first thing I saw when I pulled into his driveway was an animal carcass hanging on a tree outside his garage. It had been stripped clean, and just the bones remained. Later, I would learn that it was a buck Harley took down. To my untrained eyes, it was as likely to have once been a cow as a deer.
I arrived with two other would-be shooters: Eric, an economics professor, and Rebecca, a librarian. Harley greeted us quickly before leading the way downstairs. His handshake was firm and his gaze singular. Harley’s stare is a paradox: it manages to be both deeply penetrating and entirely disarming. He brought us down to his basement, which takes the word “mancave” to a whole new level. Instead of a fridge full of miller-lite, and enough sports memorabilia to start a store, Harley’s basement is a shrine to outdoorsmen. There are mounts everywhere of animals that Harley or his family has killed. Wooden snowshoes hang from the ceiling, too numerous to count, and each pair seemingly older than the last. In one corner, a handful of rifles lean against the wall. Even in the dimly lit room, they were stunning. I never thought I would use the word “beautiful” to describe a gun, but these rifles changed all that, instantly. The wood was rich and polished, ringed along the barrel. I later learned that this striped appearance helped earn the wood its name: Tiger Maple. Etchings, engraving, and metal designs litter the guns. They all tell a story. They are art.
This basement tells the story of Harley’s life in many ways. In his seventies now, Harley grew up in Middlebury. His lives on the same street he did as a child. He has been hunting as long as he can remember and shot his first gun when he was eight years old, around the same time my time was being evenly divided between chess club and pokemon trading. He competed in his first primitive biathlon “around twelve years ago” and has been hooked ever since.
Harley’s entire network is involved in the primitive biathlon community. His two eldest daughters, Wendy and Penny both compete frequently. Their husbands and sons also compete. Harley’s late wife, Marilyn competed as well. The trophy given to the overall champion at Smuggler’s Notch is named the Marilyn Grice Memorial Trophy in her honor. A strong, loving woman, Marilyn married Harley before either of them had turned twenty. They were partners for life, and primitive biathlons were one of the many interests they shared.
Marilyn was a fierce competitor and a gifted shooter. When I ask Harley to describe the most special biathlon he ever competed in, he tells me about the last competition that he did with Marilyn. “It was in October, and we went to Dalton, and I carried her rifle for her because she had ovarian cancer and she’d been fighting it for seven years. It was special. My girls were all there and my boys were there. And she passed away that December…but she hit all the targets. It was good.”
Harley started me off shooting a .22 caliber rifle. It was light, and easy to shoot—open the camber, put in the bullet, close the chamber, turn the safety off, and pull the trigger. He set up paper targets 15 yards away on the side of a massive woodpile. Rebecca and I took turns shooting. I fired six times. They all found the target, and 2 even make the bull’s-eye. I might have felt cocky, but Rebecca did even better. I noticed Eric, off to the side, shooting a muzzleloader at a much farther target. The .22 was just our warm-up.
The difference between the muzzleloader and the .22 is like the difference between a Prius and a Hummer. The recoil from the .22 feels like a kitten play fully slapping you away, while the muzzleloader kicks like an angry donkey. After enough time on the .22, Harley decided that I should try out the muzzleloader. If the differences in size and sound didn’t illustrate just how incomparable these guns were, the steps required to load each gun did. To shoot a muzzleloader cap-lock (as opposed to a flint-lock, whose intricacies are better left for a true expert) you must complete the following steps:
1) Pour a measure of black powder down the barrel.
2) Knock the ball and pouch to the bottom of the barrel using your starter and ramrod
3) Pull back the hammer
4) Place the copper cap on the nipple
5) Pull the set trigger
6) Squeeze the trigger
Somewhere in there, you are also advised to aim.
For my first shot, Eric loaded and primed the gun for me. I took it in my hands and walked up to the shooting line. 30 yards away, there was a metal gate 6 inches off the ground with an orange circle attached on top. This was where Eric was shooting. I almost laughed at how small the target looked. Danielle had cautioned me thoroughly about the recoil from a muzzleloader. I thought about how mercilessly my friends would make fun of me if I hurt myself shooting, and pulled the gun tightly against my shoulder, bracing for impact. The gun was wobbling all over the place. The target was lined up, and then suddenly it wasn’t, I tried to time my vibrations, and pulled the trigger when I thought I was covering the circle. Bang! The target didn’t move, but neither did I. I had missed, but the gun was much less violent than I feared. The kick was mostly bark and no bite, louder than anything else. It definitely made me jerk the gun upwards, but the nightmarish vision I had of ending up on the ground ten yards away was happily discredited. I removed the newly crisped cap and rejoined Eric. As we loaded the next shot together, I felt my breath return to it’s slow, regular cadence. There was something hypnotic about the ritual of loading for each shot. I don’t work with my hands very often but I liked it. It made me appreciate each shot even more so. When I sent the target spinning on my next shot I knew it: I was hooked.
Over the next two weeks I would venture to Harley’s as often as my schedule (and ability to bum a ride) allowed. We shot at the assortment of targets behind his house the first few times I went, but then we ventured into his private primitive biathlon course. A while back Harley and his friend Ernie had constructed a simulated primitive biathlon course on his woods. As Harley and I trekked through the woods, I finally developed an understanding of why Harley loves this sport so much.
To shoot well, you need stillness. If you are tense, or uncomfortable, you won’t hit. It’s that simple. When I watch Harley shoot, I think I understand more fully what it means to be at home. Harley’s home is out on the course, and his competitors are his family. He belongs there; as much at home as the snow he stands on, or the trees off of which his shots echo. You get the feeling that when Harley shoots, the world around him fades away. He is somewhere else: a familiar place, with a familiar friend, facing a familiar target. Everything is exactly as it should be. It is just another winter weekend in the woods, and Harley Grice is out shooting.
After two weeks of training, I was beginning to feel at home in the woods too. The quiet no longer made me self-conscious, the snowshoeing began to feel somewhat more natural, albeit I was still moving around less like a wide receiver and more like an drunken elephant, and my cheek no longer felt out of place pressed against the rifle that I had begun to use exclusively. Two days before the biathlon, Harley and I went out for a final practice round in the woods. I hit my first ten shots, missing only when we moved on to targets smaller and farther than those we would see in the competition. Harley and I laughed together as we woke up the woods with our shots. When we were done, we sat down for a venison steak. Harley had killed the buck himself last fall. Harley’s eleven year-old Beagle, Lucky, joined us for the meal. The tenderness with which Harley cared for his dog reminded me of the same way he cared for his rifles, cleaning them all by hand after each round. Before leaving Harley’s that afternoon, we made plans for the morning of the competition. It would be an early wake-up call, but that was fine with me. I could not wait to get out there on Saturday and compete. I was admittedly naïve, but I thought if I shot well, I had a chance to win a medal. After all that Harley had done for me, the joy he would get out of that would be the best way to thank him.
The morning of the biathlon was cold, even by Vermont standards. My iPhone said -4°F and my body certainly did not think it was any warmer. I was up at 5:30 and over to Harley’s at 6:30. Sandwiches made the night before lined my bag, and I had enough hand-warmers to thoroughly cook a turkey.
When we arrived at Smuggler’s Notch, the sun had just finished coming over the mountains. The early silence was shattered by occasional gun shots echoing from off the mountain where the even earlier competitors had already begun traversing the course. Everywhere we walked, people recognized Harley. As he had told me before, for him, primitive biathlons are “a social thing.” He runs into people “he hasn’t seen for over half a year” and gets together “to shoot and visit.” Harley advised me that he wanted to get out on the course quickly, and so we loaded up our gear, strapped on our snowshoes and headed over to the starting line. My snowshoes were stiff, the leather straps hardened by nature’s chill. I struggled to pull them tight.
We got up to the line and took off to cheers from the handful of Grice family members already there. Harley began at a brisk march, significantly faster than any pace we had set on our practice runs. The first station was around a mile away, and we did not see any other competitors on this first leg. We passed over streams, walked alongside frozen lakes, and across snow-encrusted meadows. By the time we reach the first station I had worked up a substantial sweat, and was grateful for the temporary reprieve. When we arrived into the station I turned my focus to controlling my breath once more.
Bang! I held my follow through for a second, a smile slowing creeping across my face as I saw my first target swinging in the distance. Okay, you can do this. You can shoot.
Loading proved more troublesome, and Harley was well on his way to the second station by the time I fired my second shot. Bang! Two for two. The scorekeeper congratulated me and sent me on my way, chasing after Harley’s distant figure. I took off at a run, becoming a source of amusement for every competitor I pass. My legs flew everywhere, the metal balls hanging on my neck clung together loudly, I had a scarf tied around my thigh, because I began to overheat approximately 20 seconds into the race, and I was breathing like a rhino.
By the second station, I have caught Harley. He isn’t even sweating and I look like I’ve just finished the NYC marathon. Miraculously, my next two shots found their intended marks as well. Harley told me to run ahead, he has already missed two shots and fears that he will be slowing me down. I told him that I would rather stay with him. What I didn’tt say is that there is no way I could possibly outrun him right now if I tried.
The third station sat on top of a ridge. The targets were long, orange hanging metal rectangles. No more than 3 inches wide, and around 30 yards away, I didn’tt expect to hit any. Bang! My first shot sent the target swaying back and forth violently. It came to a rest as I reload, and I aim for the same target. Bang! My shot sent it back into chaotic motion. The scorekeeper handed me my card and wished me luck; he was as astonished as I at the perfect mark I had so far.
Now Harley and I really moved. The last station was close; we could hear the shooters there already. The last station was across a small clearing from the finish line. As I stumbled into the station, the crowd waiting at the finish line came into view. Just three shots, and a 30-second sprint separated me from a perfect round.
These targets were further back than any we had shot. They hang, six orange diamonds in the distance, waist-height across a meadow. I turned to the official, “second one from the right.” I pulled the barrel to my cheek, pausing to calm my breath. The morning quiet, already dulled by the earplugs I wear to shoot, faded away entirely. I lined up the target as Danielle taught me, adjusting my aim so that it disappears behind the riffle’s sight. I pulled the set trigger into place, and slid my index finger up to the trigger. One last breathe, and I squeezed. Bang!
Nothing. The shot fired, and the targets were unchanged. No noise, no movement. The hole in the snow just beyond the target was the only evidence that I shot at all. High and to the right: 2 o’clock. I missed.
Perfect round over, I quickly worked to load my next two shots. Neither found a target. Harley took off while I load my third shot; his experienced hands work much faster than mine. He was waiting for me just across the finish line as I raced to join him there. Harley had managed to hit two of the targets at the last station, and so we were both six for nine.
I spend the next few hours talking to other competitors. They are carpenters and gun-makers, blacksmiths and fishermen. They all like to shoot, but they were here because of the community. They come with friends and they come with family. The youngest competitor I met was 18. He had shot 8 for 9 and was building his own rifle to use next year. His father competes and he wants to pass down this tradition to his son one day. “Hopefully one day I’ll have a kid, and I can build a gun for him to use out here. It’s just a lot of fun.”
One of the questions I get asked most often by my fellow competitors is when they’ll see me again, when will I come back for another primitive biathlon. The answer is unclear. I leave Vermont just a few days after the competition, and will not return for nine months. I know that I want to compete again when I get back, but that’s a long ways off. In the meantime, I will be in New York City, Buenos Aires, and Boston. These are incredibly different places than Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont. They are the sorts of places in which I have imagined needing to be in order to feel comfortable. Before this month I was always intimidated by the intimacy and the quiet of small towns.
This past month, however, felt more like home than any other I have spent in college. Being out in the quiet woods helped me rediscover a sense of introspection I had long ago lost. The people I met through this adventure feel like old friends and the unconditional honesty and compassion with which they act, initially unsettling, now inspire me. I don’t know just what I have learned from this experience or what impact it will ultimately have on my life, but that’s okay. I do know that it has shattered stereotypes and preconceptions that I did not even know I had—both about the people I met and about myself. I’ve learned skills that I never thought I would learn and become close friends with people that I never thought I would meet.
A month ago I had yet to escape my academic bubble, content to go from college to city and back, doing the same things with the same people. I had no idea what Vermont or Vermonters were really like off campus. I’m glad I finally got out there. It turned out to be an absolute blast.