Powder, Patch, Ball – The Primitive Biathlon
“I don’t think you’re ready for this gal yet,” Harley says to me as he places one of his many beautiful hand-carved muzzle-loading rifles back on the rack. Actually, I don’t think I am quite ready for any of it. Sure, I’ve spent the majority of my eighteen years in Frostburg, Maryland – in the heart of Appalachia. In the land of beautiful mountains, simple lifestyles, deer bologna, and of course, camouflage dresses that appear at local high school proms: a reflection of the popular hunting culture. Yet despite my hometown’s traditions, I have never so much as held a gun. Not until now, anyway. And now, I have just eighteen days to become one with a gun.
“I think we had better stick to the 22,” Harley chortles. I agree, admiring the machine in my hands. This gun is smaller, lighter, quieter, easier to use, and, most importantly, harder to damage. After loading a few sleek bullets into the rifle, we leave the comfort of Harley’s toasty basement and instantly immerse ourselves in the wintry Vermont air. Harley walks in purposeful strides, his hands buried deep into the pockets of his jeans. I wonder how he can stand the cold without any gloves. But then again, he is a Vermonter. As a first-year student at Middlebury College, I guess I still have some adapting to do. He reaches a large pile of wood, where he staples a paper target.
I notice a full deer carcass dangling from the branch of a nearby tree. The flesh dances around in the frigid wind, twirling from a bright yellow rope. The deer’s head is neatly placed beneath the carcass, nestled in the brown, frozen grass. It almost nostalgically reminds me of the deer heads at home, the ones that are neatly mounted on the walls of all my hunting friends’ houses. Childhood sleepovers often brought waves of uneasiness to my sleep; I thought I could feel the eyes of all the dead deer boring into my skull – into my dreams. But somehow, this hanging deer torso is almost comforting.
Harley observes my lingering gaze and nods in the direction of the carcass. He chuckles, causing his white beard to quiver, and behind his thick glasses, I can see his eyes twinkling with delight. “Ah, do you like my bird feeder?” I can’t help but to smile. “Yes, I do,” I answer.
I hold the smooth, cool wood of the gun in my hands as he adjusts my body positioning. Feet facing perpendicular from the target, chest tall, elbow up, cheek against the barrel, eye squinted. “Okay,” he calls, “shoot! But don’t you hit my wheelbarrow now.” I align the ball at the tip of the gun into the v-shaped piece near my eye, and then again into the bright white bull’s-eye at the center of the target. It’s hard; the gun is much heavier than I anticipated, my fingers are already frozen, and each time I think I have everything perfectly aligned, my body involuntarily shifts no more than a millimeter, which is just enough to throw the bull’s-eye out of perspective.
After a few long moments, I go for it. Bang! “Eleven-o’clock.” Harley answers the very question going through my mind – the question of where the heck the bullet hit. Not bad for a first shot, I think to myself. After all, at least I had made it onto the target paper. No gun had been dropped, no wheelbarrows had been hit, and much to my amazement, no one had been killed.
However, I have quite a bit of work to do before competing in my very first primitive biathlon, just eighteen short days away. And Harley does not let me forget that, gently giving advice after each and every shot I take:
“You’re leaning too far back — with that stance and a strong kick-back, you’ll knock yourself right over…Chin on the barrel…Stand up straight, you’re leaning back again…Get the gun back in the pocket of your shoulder…Lean forward, not backward…Straighten your feet out…You’re leaning again…Are you even looking at the correct target?”
Primitive biathlon. Primitive, as in the strict use of muzzle-loaded rifles and wooden snowshoes (the kind that work best as wall décor). Biathlon, as in the contest involving the combination of two athletic sports: rifle shooting and snowshoeing (not to be confused with the cross-country skiing of Olympic biathlons). Now in its 20th year, the 2015 Smugglers’ Notch Primitive Biathlon, which takes place deep in the Jeffersonville woods of Northern Vermont, is an event that is especially low on technology and high on tradition. This is evident by the Daniel Boone period attire that appears every year without fail. And in just less than three weeks from now, I would be there among Daniel Boones of all ages to take a shot at the sport, so to speak.
In a New England primitive biathlon, competitors navigate on snowshoes through an approximately-2-mile-long course, stopping at four target stages along the way. The first three stages contain two targets, while the final stage displays three targets, for an additive total of nine shots. Targets can be as close as 20 yards and as far as 50 yards. The last three targets are usually the farthest away and therefore, the hardest to hit. Course times are adjusted based on shooting accuracy scores, with each hit target usually subtracting five minutes from an entrant’s score. In this way, primitive biathlons are all about accuracy – about placement, precision, and patience. Whether I had any of these skills, I wasn’t sure. But I knew what I did have. I had the desire to return to my hometown roots, to the roots I had perhaps failed to explore due to my lack of knowledge and lack of appreciation for the sport of shooting. And through a few seasoned biathletes like Harley, as well as the careful, understated, traditional art of primitive biathlons, I would do just that.
Two weeks to go. Danielle stands behind me, eagerly chirping words of advice. “Okay, great stance. Now, find your zone. Shut everything else out…it’s just you and that target.” Danielle has spent a lot of time in front of a target – hours and hours of practice for quite a few years now. But for me, it’s only been a few minutes, and my scattered array of bullets, all teasing the outermost circle of the paper target, are indicative of this. After each missed shot, I follow her short, brisk strides back into Harley’s warm basement, where we re-load our muskets.
To Danielle, shooting is an art form. She describes it as if we are in a yoga class: “Chest wide, relaxed limbs. Focus on that breathing, and keep that body calm and steady.” Danielle has incredible body control. And not only when she target shoots. Attend just one of her log-rolling practices, and you’ll be amazed by the way she nimbly lifts each of her feet at fifty-two years old, gracefully balancing the spin of the log beneath her. It’s not uncommon for her to remain upright for several long minutes at a time, often beating the fit college students who dare to challenge her.
At five foot two, Danielle can seem tiny and unintimidating. The winter wind plays with her short, black hair, and it resembles the black powder puffs that plume from our rifles. I hit a bull’s-eye at last, and whipping her blue eyes around in my direction, she lets out a “YIPPEE!” followed by a cheerful, high-pitched laugh. She’s famous for that “yippee”-laugh combination. Not the least bit intimidating. But boy, is it a mistake to underestimate her.
Danielle would never tell you, but she is pretty darn good when it comes to primitive biathlons. In the five years she has been involved with the sport, she has placed in the top three at almost every biathlon she has attended, which is somewhere around twenty-five biathlons in total. And after watching her nail a few shots in a row, it’s not hard to believe.
A few weeks ago, I asked around in search of a primitive biathlon training coach. When I was directed toward the Special Collections section of the Middlebury library, I was a little thrown off. I expected to be sent to some small, hunting cabin in the middle of nowhere, where perhaps I would be met by a towering outdoorsman with a beard like Santa. Instead, I found myself in the lowest floor of the library, surrounded by ancient books peering out from glass cases. I heard an eager, joyous laugh, and there was Danielle, rounding a corner of memorabilia.
Danielle is the Middlebury College archivist, as well as the log-rolling coach. In her spare time, she remains active, racing horses and running her dogs, though she no longer speed skates. And she of course goes shooting quite often. Her office is filled with small post-it note reminders, along with various artworks from around the world showing abstract human figures, dancing and moving across their frames. To the left of her desk, a calendar hangs, depicting a beautiful Vermont December. There are only about five events penciled into her calendar for the entire month, and they all read the same thing in bright red ink: “PRIM. BIATHLON.”
Danielle first got into biathlons when she spoke with a friend who noticed her love for shooting, her eagerness to be outside, and her competitive edge. Danielle was immediately pointed in the direction of 78-year-old Middlebury citizen Harley Grice, who has handled a gun for the better part of a century and owns nearly 300 acres of land, equipped with practice primitive biathlon courses and full target shooting ranges that he set up himself. Harley was generous, as he always is, in lending Danielle guns and practice space as she first became accustomed to the sport, and the two instantly developed a friendship centered around their interest in marksmanship and the primitive biathlon. And now, as the newest inductee to the world of primitive biathlons, I have found myself spending a lot of time at this gun haven.
Danielle’s shooting stance is strong and relaxed, her feet placed perpendicular to the target. Her toned arms have no problem supporting the gun that I find far too heavy. Defined jaw line pushed against the stock of the rifle, one blue eye open, squinting down the barrel toward the target. Bang! Bull’s-eye. Danielle does not miss very often, but when she does, you can see the frustration furrow in her eyebrows. But this is not one of those rare moments, and instead, Danielle lets out an especially long “YIPPEEEEE,” followed by that inevitable laugh that boils up inside her and explodes all over the place.
After about a week of training, Danielle has taught me a lot. She has improved my stance, my focus, and most importantly, my confidence. She has shown me that shooting is more of an art than anything else. It requires a grace like that found in her log-rolling stance, and a focus on form, like that of the careful figures that line her office walls. You don’t have to be a long-time woodsman to compete in primitive biathlons. You just have to have the perseverance that Danielle maintains. The satisfaction I now feel when I take a good shot does not come from within, or from Danielle’s praise, but rather from the sound that follows — her overwhelmingly pleased laugh ringing in my ears.
There’s something oddly calming about shooting a muzzle-loader. I know that sounds crazy, given the deafening blast, the blinding black plume of smoke that follows and consumes the world, the harsh, stale smell of burning gunpowder, and the jolting kickback that I am never quite fully prepared for. Oh yeah, there’s also the fact that a muzzle-loader is a war machine invented for the sole purpose of killing men, and I’m yielding it freely in my arms. But it’s the discipline required to perceive all this — to control all this — that produces a calm awareness.
I stand with Harley, testing out a few rifles, one at a time. He tells me about each one in his patient, assertive way, and gently moves my hands along each one, to make sure I know just how it works. “Shift your index finger on your right hand there. Oop, other index finger. There ya go, can you feel the trigger? Don’t pull it until you’re all lined up.”
The set-trigger always shoots before I am ready for it. The cap-lock is only a few ounces more, but those extra ounces are enough to make me move on to the next rifle. There’s a beautiful gun with gold and silver inlays of a moon and some stars that Harley’s friend made, but the stock is just too long for me.
We go back down the stairs to Harley’s basement. Descending into Harley’s basement is like walking back in time a few decades with each step. Past black and white photos of primitive biathlons, past the tan, flowery wallpaper straight out of a 1950s catalog, past the single bulb that lights the entire place, past the rows of giant wooden snowshoes hanging from the ceiling, and finally, right up to the rack of rifles that could’ve supplied an entire Civil War regiment. A waft of stale gunpowder hits my nostrils.
Harley bends down and hands me the flintlock. The flintlock is about as primitive as you can get after a matchlock, and that’s why Harley, his daughter Wendy, and Danielle all prefer this type of muzzle-loader.
“We like to give all the cap-locks a hard time.” Danielle laughs her laugh. “It’s kinda like cheating – it’s not as primitive.”
Invented by the French in 1630, flintlocks were designed to push back the lid and spark a flint at the same time, solving a longstanding problem of the previous time-consuming manual process. The flintlock ignition system reigned for two centuries, with virtually no alteration. And almost four centuries later, this is my rifle of choice.
Though perhaps more involved, the process of preparing a flintflock to shoot is one that I enjoy. It’s methodical, a little mantra in my head. “Powder, patch, ball.” After hearing that phrase countless times from Danielle and Wendy, I couldn’t forget it, even if I wanted to. The first step – powder – is perhaps the most satisfying. I take the pre-measured amount of powder, encased in a homemade newspaper packet, between my teeth, and listen to that satisfying riiiiiiiip as I bite off the tape at the top, forcefully spitting it to the ground. That step alone makes me feel pretty official – I like it. Next I fumble in all my zippered coat pockets for my ball starter, which is used to push the patch and bullet out of the blocks around my neck and into the barrel of the gun. Then the ramrod, another satisfying step. I quickly and seamlessly slide my hands up and down the smooth metal until the patch and ball are snug at the very bottom of the barrel.
I lift the gun, never forgetting to add two small pumps of primer into the pan, and then close the lid. I pull back the cock until I hear that click. Ready to go. When I’m shooting, I don’t worry about the mountains of college work I have to do, my next crew workout, or whether my roommate has eaten all the fresh raspberries in our fridge (they’re my favorite). All I think about is what my fingers are doing and where my target is.
One week to go. I look down at my feet, which are encompassed by what I’m told are primitive, traditional snowshoes. I’d be more inclined to call them tennis rackets for giants made from entire trees, but same difference I guess.
Snowshoes have been used for over 4,000 years, to explore new territories and hunt wild animals. And judging by the massive blocks of wood now strapped to my feet, I don’t think this pair of snowshoes has progressed much from those used 4,000 years ago. I can see that the word “primitive” is not used lightly in the sport of primitive biathlons.
They’re supposed to making moving through the snow easier, by staying atop of it. But my rear end, now covered in snow from a fall, would probably beg to differ.
Then there’s my flintlock rifle. (Well, Harley’s flintlock rifle). As if navigating on clown feet for two miles wasn’t a task enough, adding a civil-war era gun to the equation while running tops it all off. I carry the single-shot muzzleloader straight up, remembering to “not get snow down the barrel” and to “glide” with my feet. Harley and Danielle have plenty of suggestions as I maneuver through the snow. They’re forgetting that they are, or have been, arguably two of the best primitive biathlon participants in all of New England. But this is my very first time on snowshoes, and only two weeks since I first picked up a rifle. If only my Appalachian friends could see me now.
Day of the competition. January 24th, 2015. I jump down a little too eagerly from my lofted dorm bed, hitting a lamp and something else I can’t see in our dark room. I throw on my many layers, hop in the car, and am at Harley’s by 6 am.
I make the basement descent one last time, quizzing Harley and Danielle about the contents of their already-packed car. “Powder, patch, balls?! Ball-starters, ramrods, primers? Snowshoes, guns…hand warmers?!”
“We got it all,” Harley assures me, and trudges back out of the basement. We get into the car. Danielle, who is driving, lets out a “YIPPEE,” and just like that, we’re off.
Well, almost. It’s early, coffee is going to be a necessity if this two-and-a-half-hour drive is going to be successful. Middlebury Bagel & Deli. My imagination brings up awful scenes of a caffeinated college student, too jittery to even hold a rifle properly, missing target after target. Yeah, I think I’ll pass on the coffee. But I will take a bagel. I get in line and pull out my wallet.
Harley, has other plans, however, and insists that Danielle and I, along with my friend Gabe, who I have brought along to film, place all of our purchases on the counter in front of him.
“That’ll be $8.64,” the cashier says.
“8.64?! That can’t be right! I’m trying to support a business here,” Harley mumbles. He puts away the $100 bill, which he apparently thought he would need, and instead hands the cashier a twenty.
She laughs at his remark and counts out his change, which he gently takes and proceeds to stuff into the tip jar, until it is overflowing. A rumble of giggles erupt from us all. That’s Harley.
After a few naps and some nervous conversation, we are finally in Jeffersonville. I’ve decided that my goal for the day is to hit at least four out of nine targets. Other than that, I plan on relying on my youth for some speed that may put me ahead of some of the expert, but slower shooters.
We turn down one dirt, snow-covered road and a “BIATHLON” sign with a bright red arrow appears. And then I see the Daniel Boones…. One man is covered head to toe in the fur skins of fox and rabbit he has hunted himself, another sports the traditional “blanket shirt” of French explorers, and still another dons a colonial militia uniform that makes me do a double-take because I swear he’s George Washington. I know we’re in the right place.
After signing in, we decide to compete early in the day, while the snow is fresh and the targets are still freshly painted in that bright orange. We unload the car, attaching the wooden torture-devices to our feet, packing all of our powder, patches, and balls, and prepping our guns.
Daniel puts on her raccoon cap (a past primitive biathlon win), I, my $5 Middlebury thrift shop furry hat find from the day before. It’s go time.
As Ray Saloomey, the inventor of the primitive biathlon, counts down our start time, I hear distant gun shots echoing in the distance and a million things race through my head.
Will I get too hot in this hat once I start running?
Will the targets look just as they did in practice?
Did I grab the right ramrod? How far until the first target station?
Will the course curve toward right toward the road and open fields, or left, into the woods?
Are these snowshoes even on correctly?
And that’s the last question I had time to ask, because as the adrenaline began to fade away about a minute in, other things came to my attention. Like how freaking heavy my feet suddenly were. Like the subtle burn in my calves and shins that was beginning to surface. Like my breathing, which was pretty heavy and didn’t seem conducive to holding a gun steady at a tiny target.
My right arm feels numb with the weight of the gun – time to switch. But just a few moments later, my left arm is exhausted, too. Man, how did soldiers back in the day do this? Through the snow, maybe without any shoes, marching for miles and miles and miles? I suddenly had a new appreciation for the AP U.S. History march to Valley Forge lectures that had bored me junior year of high school.
I try to keep as close behind Danielle as I can, but a few slight inclines and I’m slipping and sliding all over the place. Learning how to shoot was definitely an adjustment. And prancing around Harley’s woods in snowshoes last week had contained a learning curve, too. While helpful, neither of those experiences could have ever fully prepared me for this.
After what seems like a good three miles, we finally arrive at the first target station. I spot three long, skinny orange targets hanging vertically through the undercover.
Darn it. I hate those vertical targets. They’re the worst.
Every biathlete has their favorite shaped target, and then the target shape that they dread, and for me, this is it. Danielle could do without the horizontal targets, and Harley’s daughter Wendy has a deep-rooted dislike for the rhombus. I remember shooting with her during her lunch break just a few days before.
“Dad always told me that they’re just like squares on their sides,” Wendy had explained as she gazed past her neat blonde bangs, past me, past the blinding white landscape outside the house that her husband Randy built by hand. “But I could never quite get that. I was always like ‘no, they’re just a messed up shape!’” Wendy’s blue eyes had glazed over and her lips had curled into a half-smile. I knew she was far-off, at a primitive biathlon somewhere deep inside her mind’s eye.
I let Danielle step up to the line first, which gives me some time to catch my breath. And then I’m all muscle-memory – powdering, patching, and balling away.
“Which target are you going for?” the volunteer station judge asks me.
“I’ll take the second one from the left,” I respond. I take off my gloves, which, despite the snow and sub-freezing temperature, don’t seem to be necessary, given the sweat dripping off every square inch of me, soaking layer after layer. I raise my rifle, put my two pumps of primer in the pan, close the lid, pull the cock. Cheek to the barrel, I tilt my head, causing my sweaty hat to shift down into my eyes. Damn this hat! But I can’t take it off – I’m fully embracing the primitive spirit, and no modern inconvenience like sweat is going to get in my way.
I re-focus, find the sight, line it up in the little v, and then again with that darn skinny target. I take a deep breath, let half of it out, and BANG! The familiar black powder clouds my eyes and my nose as I release the second half of my breath, but I don’t need the judge’s call to know I missed that one. It just felt off.
I repeat the entire process, powder, patch, ball and all, but I still end up with another “O” on my scorecard. Danielle misses both her shots too, though, and I don’t feel discouraged yet.
The course continues like this. Sprinting, or at least trying to, past brambles and branches and hills and frozen streams and tree roots. Out, of breath, sweaty, legs burning. Then station. Go through the mantra, relax, breathe, shoot. Then back to sprinting.
I end up nailing my next four shots, which are my favorite circle targets, placed at two different distances at the next two stations. It’s a good feeling to hear that little PING! as the bullet smashes into the orange steel, and to see the target waving back and forth, almost a congratulations in itself. It’s also a good feeling to hear the judge yell “Hit!” and to see some giant “X’s” on my scorecard. And, of course, to hear Danielle’s “YIPPEE!” after each hit target.
At the final, fourth station, I’m not so lucky. But neither is Danielle. I smile as I shoot my last miss, all six neat little rhombuses remaining perfectly still. Maybe Wendy does have a point about the rhombus. It sikes you out a little.
I’m too excited to care, though, and I stuff my scorecard into my pocket. I take off full speed ahead for the finish line, just ten yards away.
I make it about three steps, though, and I’m sprawled out in full superman fashion, face full of snow. I hear Gabe behind me cracking up, “It’s all on video, it’s all on video!” And I can’t help but to laugh with him. Ah well, at least it will make for a lively video.
It’s funny – I had heard about falls, and Danielle and Wendy had both given me stories about their single epic career falls, and I had thought about falling the whole way throughout the course. But once I made it to the final station, I thought I was in the clear, and all precautions to avoid falling had slipped my mind.
I untangle my cumbersome footwear and spring right back up, glad that I haven’t damaged Harley’s gun. Huge smile on my face, I cross the finish line, running, though perhaps a tad more cautiously than a few seconds before.
“53:09!” Ray calls out my time. And with four hits, I subtract twenty minutes from that time, giving me a final time of thirty-three minutes and nine seconds. Also known as fifth place in the women’s division.
We spend the rest of the day conversing with all the characters (around 200 competitors show up, from as far away as El Salvador) – I have a really great conversation with George Washington, who tells me about his recent run for the Vermont State Legislature as an independent. I buy some moose-venison chili, meet the man who built Danielle’s rifle, clean Harley’s gun out, and talk with Ray about the event he created.
I go around the course one more time, just for fun. And you know what? I hit that darn skinny, vertical target with my very first shot.
When everyone has gone, the wooden tennis rackets for giants have been removed from my feet, and the car has been packed, I climb into the backseat and wait.
Harley and Danielle approach, arms around each other, laughing. Harley in his red fabric French explorer coat, Danielle in her raccoon hat. I know I’ll have a whole car ride to reflect on the experience, but there are only two thoughts that come to mind as I sit there, watching them.
One: How lucky I am to have been taught by such talented, patient, fun people. Actually, how lucky I am to have been surrounded by people of this nature all day. I remember Wendy telling me when we first met, “It’s all about the camaraderie.” I had asked her what her favorite part of primitive biathlons was. I didn’t understand fully what she meant by that until now.
Harley had stopped on the course to chat with an old friend for a few minutes, and when I had stopped to fix a snowshoe, two different biathletes with far more experience than myself had stopped to ask if I was okay. Danielle refused to leave a station until she had thanked every volunteer judge present, and when I had a misfire my second time around the course, a judge stopped what he was doing to unplug my vent hole. These small details, which I hadn’t noted until now, were what Wendy was referring to. A camaraderie shared by primitive biathlon addicts across New England. A camaraderie that welcomes participants of all ages and skill levels, a camaraderie that I was thrilled to be a part of.
Two: “Powder, patch ball.” I think I would be hearing that sequence in my head for a long time to come.
Danielle and Harley had slipped into the car without my noticing, and as she started the engine, Danielle turned around in her seat and winked at me. “YIPPEEE! So, are you coming with us to the primitive biathlon next weekend?”
I surprised myself with an, “Of course!” without even thinking it over. Maybe it had taken going away from Appalachia to become more Appalachian — more aware and fond of the art of shooting.