The family tree on my dad’s side is planted in Canada. Winnipeg specifically. But we’re only able to follow our blood back so far before the records and family get tight-lipped. See, my dad’s great grandfather took a Native American bride, and the marriage was considered a big no-no in their day. No one up that way will acknowledge or talk about it. So, I don’t know anything about my great-great grandmother other than she was full-blooded Blackfoot. I have no name, no pictures, no story other than what I can imagine about her and their life in the still-wild landscape of southern Manitoba…and a gut feeling that her spirit has made it down through the generations to me, and likely my kids. But that’s a story for a later date–I’ve got a lot more digging to do. Even so, I think our Blackfoot roots figure into the experience my dad and I had a couple weekends ago.
Saturday morning was cold and snowy. Grant Taylor was coming by the house with a collection of Black Widow custom recurves and longbows for me and my dad to try out. Grant had done a photo shoot for the folks at Black Widow and had been given the green light for us to give them some exercise. Since we were going to start the morning on a target upstairs in the barn, I plugged in a couple ceramic space heaters early, hoping to take the edge off the cold by the time we started. Grant arrived and, after some coffee and hunting conversation, we headed for the barn. The heaters did about as much good as a fart in a mitten. I think the barn might have been warmer if opened the hay door on the front.
Grant strung seven or eight bows crafted from layers of exotic woods like Bocote, Honduras Rosewood, Tulipwood and Tiger Myrtle along with layers of red fiberglass and black phenolic. We put the shooting block in one corner and set up in the opposite corner, ten paces away. I was struck by the intricacies and beauty of the design and craftsmanship, their quiet strength and quickness, but it was the profound calm I experienced when I knocked and drew each arrow that made me feel as if I was uncovering some sort of truth in my soul.
Dad used to hunt with a recurve, but his last time in the woods with one was just before my mom was pregnant with me. Dad lost track of that bow when I was little, most-likely after a few years of hunting with his new compound. I, on the other hand, have never known a shot without cams, cables, sights, an arrow rest, and at least a 50% let-off when at full draw. I looked forward to shooting, but I was quietly glad to have the broad side of the barn as the backdrop.
Grant had given me a brief lesson about instinctive shooting–the art of hitting a point on a target using no sights or reference, relying only on one’s spatial capacity to judge distance, speed and trajectory. Grant instructed that I needed to pick a very small spot on the target, focus on it and trust my gut on when to release. He had learned in an instinctive shooting course taught by G. Fred Asbell out in Nixa, Missouri that this method uses the same part of the brain that tells you how hard and high to throw a ball to someone at different distances. With practice, finding that small spot on the target, whatever the distance, becomes second nature.
We each shot at least six arrows from the seven bows Grant had lined up. Another couple dozen from the two that felt and shot the best for each of us. In the entirety of my years flinging arrows into haybales, 3D targets and shooting blocks with my compound, I have never felt as confident or calm at full draw as I did during those 70+ shots I took. There’s an honesty and strength about it. A physical and spiritual connection. It’s trusting in something that I can’t control, but must pay serious attention to. Instinct, man. It’s crazy.
Now, I’m not sure whether flint spear/arrowheads can be given credit for the advent of bowhunting, or hunters finding themselves having to now chase down quicker/smarter/farther-ranging quarry in a post-mammoth world. Regardless, I’ve come to see that there is nothing more simple or brilliant in design and function than a recurve or longbow. They are utility in its purest form. The poetry of necessity.
Dad fell immediately in love with a longbow (the PLX, in Honduras Rosewood), smiling after every arrow found its way into a tight shot group. After shooting it myself, I couldn’t have agreed with his sentiment more. But, not wanting to limit myself, I also chose a handsome take-down recurve (the PMA, camo hunter). Even though there was only a pound and a half difference in weight (1.75# vs. 3.25#), it felt much more substantial. The recurve seemed to hold steadier for me…most-likely a product of having only ever shot a compound. That said, I could absolutely see myself holding steady with the longbow and more time shooting…and eventually taking that prowess from the target to the woods. In the meantime, we took them out to the backyard and a 3D target so Grant could get some shots of them (and us) in action.
Standing outside, snow falling, geese honking in flight north from the lake to corn stubble. Ten paces from a 3D target looked twice that with all that open space behind it. Even so, I felt more in tune with that distance. As if shooting these bows, learning to trust my instincts, helped me get a little closer to our family’s story.