THE SPARE BEDROOM of my house looks like an REI store during one of its used-gear sales, only not as organized. Where a bed and a nightstand were once visible, there is now a pile of dinged-up skis, scuffed helmets and climbing ropes snaking out of faded backpacks with busted zippers. Yes, in the four years we’ve known each other, my wife Elizabeth and I have compiled an impressive collection of gear. And it’s not just for decoration. We’ve fired up our tiny backpacking stove in the Utah desert, pulled on our harnesses to tackle stone towers in Wyoming and clicked on our avalanche beacons before blazing down untracked Colorado mountainsides. Every piece of equipment in that heap has a memory tied to it that we’ve made together. All of it, that is, except my wife’s hunting bow.
Of this fact I am regularly reminded at family gatherings when, over rounds of beers, her folks regale me with tales of Elizabeth’s shooting prowess. I’ve heard numerous times how she’d been taught by her father to handle a bow and arrow at the tender age of 9 and how she could land three consecutive shots inside a bull’s-eye no wider than a coffee cup from 20 yards away. Aside from instilling virtues like discipline, responsibility and a sense of accomplishment, bow hunting also gave my wife’s family plenty of fond memories—and these particular memories, I don’t share. Like the time Elizabeth fended off an amorous bat while perched in a tree on one hunting trip, or the time her father stared down a bobcat that wandered a little too close to his tree stand.
Still, after all that, I’m ashamed to admit that I have never even seen Elizabeth shoot her bow. With a trip to her family’s northern Michigan hunting cabin looming, though, I finally decided to change that. I was tired of simply hearing about Elizabeth’s adventures stalking white-tailed bucks in the woods. I wanted to learn what it feels like to stare down the length of an arrow, a target in my sights.
There was just this one thing: I’m not a hunter. I mean, I think twice before squashing spiders. Besides, hunting requires freezing your rear end off in the middle of nowhere for untold hours while you wait for something—anything—to happen. I can barely handle a six-minute ride on a ski lift. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy the sport Elizabeth loves—it just meant I’d be shooting at paper targets instead of real animals. So with that in mind, I signed up for an introductory lesson at one of Portland’s largest indoor archery ranges, Broken Arrow Archery in Milwaukie.
The fact that Hollywood sirens like Liv Tyler, Keira Knightley and Oscar winner Geena Davis are all avid archers has helped drive the sport’s popularity. (Davis made headlines when, after taking up archery in 1997, she narrowly missed landing a spot on the U.S. archery squad for the 2000 Summer Olympics.) From 1995 to 2005, archery ranked as the fourth-fastest growing sport in the country, trailing behind only the X Game-worthy sports of skateboarding, kayaking and snowboarding.
When Elizabeth and I step inside Broken Arrow Archery’s 9,000-square-foot shop just off SE McLoughlin Boulevard, however, it becomes immediately clear that, unless we’re talking about Rambo, such Hollywood glam is a long way from Oregon. Chock-full of camouflage hunting garb, several mounted bucks and one honey of a bearskin rug on the wall, Broken Arrow isn’t exactly an ideal spot for PETA board meetings. Still, the vibe is friendly. “We get plenty of competitive people who come in to shoot,” says 54-year-old owner Chuck Pedracini. “But there’s always someone at the range willing to help you improve.”
Today those people are lifelong bowman Ryan Farner, the shop’s assistant manager, and National Field Archery Association-certified instructor Karl Okita, who recently placed third in the senior division of the Outdoor National Field Championships. Standing behind the “shooting line,” a thin black strip streaking across the floor 20 yards from a target that appears to be the size of a pea, Farner hands me a 66-inch-long “recurve” bow. Named for the way its ends curve outward away from the archer, this bow, aside from resembling a prop at a Renaissance festival, is the only one allowed in official Olympic competitions.
But before I can start winning any gold medals, or even learn how to properly yank the bowstring back, Farner gives me a safety primer. We’ll each shoot three arrows, hang up our bows and then yell “clear” to signal that we’re done. Once every shooter has finished, we can advance down the 20-yard range to retrieve our arrows and check our targets. This concern with keeping our bodies arrow-free makes archery one of the safest sports around. (You’re nearly twice as likely to be injured while fishing or golfing, for example, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.)
It isn’t the thought of being skewered with arrows that has me rattled, though. It’s my wife. She’s already peppering her target with arrows while I’m still struggling with heaving the bowstring back, an effort that’s all too reminiscent of my last tangle with a surly lawn-mower cord. Mercifully, our targets are only 10 yards away at this point. At the full 20 yards, I’d need the hand of God to help guide my arrow into one of the 10 rings on my 16-inch-wide target. Determined not to look like a complete fool in front of Elizabeth, I muscle back the bowstring and manage to start landing some shots. Most, however, are hitting the target high and to the right.
Okita steps in to point out one of my gaffes. “I call it ‘plucking the strings,’” he says, referring to the tendency of a shooter’s fingers to inadvertently jerk the bowstring outward, away from the body, when taking a shot. In order to straighten out my shot, I need to move my hand back more deliberately and smoothly when I release the bowstring.
Armed with fresh advice, I lock in another arrow and turn my head toward the target. I pull back the bowstring, release a deep breath and send an arrow hurtling through the air. Bull’s-eye! I scurry to retrieve my arrow from the target’s tiny yellow center, nearly ready to mount it on the wall since I’ll never have any horns. “You should have taken a picture!” I hear Okita yell as I snatch the arrow out with flourish. Dang. He’s right. And now the moment has passed. I pause, arrow in hand, hoping I can duplicate the feat. But as I look back up the range where Elizabeth is standing with a quiver of arrows on her hip and a smile playing gently on her lips, I realize I don’t care. I have all the memory I need.