There's nothing like the Sportin' Life, especially when the weather is inviting. Summer's the time to learn a new outdoor sport; learn how in our series every Monday in the Today section.
It was thoroughly medieval. Here I was, stalking through the forest carrying, of all things, a bow and a quiver full of arrows.
I stopped and stood for a minute in the middle of a wobbly wooden footbridge above a wide creek and thought, "Yes . . . I am Robin Hood."
Once across the bridge, I reached to my quiver and pulled out an arrow. The sun fought its way through the forest's lush green canopy high above me and illuminated my target. I nocked my arrow and drew back the bowstring to just below my cheek. My hand on the bow shook under the strain as I struggled to keep the sight fixed on the bull's-eye.
Finally, I let go. The arrow sailed through the woods, its feathers giving it spin and stability. I waited patiently the split second it took to reach the huge bale of hay, where it landed with a powerful thunk.
Unfortunately, that thunk didn't occur on the target, or anywhere near it for that matter. The arrow instead was wedged snugly in the wood below the target.
Then came a voice from close behind me: "Aim the middle pin to the black outer ring at the 12 o'clock position."
I listened . . . I aimed.
That voice wasn't from the ghost of Robin Hood, and it sure wasn't Kevin Costner's. No, it belonged to Al Szymborski, the president of Baltimore Bowmen, and I was competing as a guest in the club's 40th anniversary shoot last Saturday at Graham Memorial Park on Harford Road in Baltimore County.
This was the first time I'd ever seriously picked up a bow, but following about one hour of patient instruction before the competition, I became, if not competitive, thoroughly competent with the bow and considerably less dangerous.
I was instructed on the finer points of the sport on the practice range as I shot from about 15 yards. Keep my head straight, I was told. Position my feet like I was going to swing a bat. After I scattered a few arrows across the face of the target, and one deep into the empty woods beyond, Mr. Szymborski was able to adjust my sights (three small pins on the bow positioned for various yardages), and my shooting gradually grew more precise.
Unlike firing a gun, where most of the work is done for you, in archery you're pretty much responsible for getting the arrow where it's going. You're the one who has to pull back the string, and you're the one who feels the satisfaction after releasing the arrow and watching it hiss through the air to land, you hope, where you aimed.
Bows come in two different styles, compound and recurve. Compounds, the kind I used, have pulleys that reduce the draw-weight by as much as 60 percent when the string goes "into the valley." Recurves, like the ones Mr. Costner used in "Robin Hood," have no pulleys.
Mr. Szymborski, who is a big fan of Robin Hood's but hasn't yet had the chance to see Mr. Costner's version of it, emphasized that anyone can get the kind of instruction he gave me when they begin the sport, because expert archers, himself especially, are always eager to help out novices. "Fraternity plays a big part in archery," said the 1990 state champion in the broadhead category, which is the hunting class of archery.
Some of the club members shoot as practice for bowhunting, some to improve themselves for competition and some just for fun. "More than half the people in our club come out and shoot without even keeping score, just for the enjoyment or relaxation of it," Mr. Szymborski said. Membership to the 105-member club is $30 a year and with that you have access to the clubhouse, the practice range and the two 28-target ranges spread out through the 25 acres of beautiful woods, rivaled only by Robin's Sherwood Forest.
Since the equipment in archery is tuned to each individual archer, clubs won't rent out equipment (but Mr. Szymborski says if you just want a taste of the sport before investing money, club members will often let you try their equipment, if you're the right size for it). For about $300, a beginner can set himself up with a good bow, some arrows, a quiver and the small assortment of accessories that always turn up. In the state, there are 15 archery clubs that are registered with the Maryland Archery Association and the National Field Archery Association.
So once you get your equipment, the only thing left to do is have fun. Even though shooting the 28-target range took four hours, and my arms and legs were exhausted by the end, I would have gladly gone again. Each target was a new challenge and it was exciting to see how the terrain and distances changed each time. Sometimes you shoot from 30 yards onto a small target, and sometimes you shoot from 80 yards onto a larger one (though I, as a beginner, never shot from that distance). The space between yourself and the target can be a hill that rises up or a valley that dips down, and you often shoot across creeks or through narrow spaces between trees.
Four of us shot as a group; Mr. Szymborski, Sam Spampinato of Perry Hall, Chris Bosley of St. Michaels and me. With the exception of a few comical bank shots off trees and rocks, and a dramatic near-harpooning of an enormous spider, all agreed my performance was respectable, scoring 289 out of a possible 560.
So after only one day of archery, I'm ready for anything, even Kevin Costner. He may be an OK actor and director and all that, but, you know, I'm willing to wager he isn't really that good an archer.
And I'll bet that, with Mr. Szymborski's help, I could wax him. So, Mr. Big Shot Movie Person, if you're out there, I challenge you to a competition. No special effects, no body doubles, just me and you, in the woods, with our bows and arrows.
Unless, of course, you're chicken!
For information on archery clubs in the area, call Ronald West of the Maryland Archery Association at (202) 584-8015.