There's a saying that the history of the bow and arrow is the history of mankind, and standing in a damp Hillside birch forest last week, I met a pack of kids on the cusp of creating their own.
Ever since a cunning Robin Hood and his band of merry men wowed us with a split-the-hair bull's-eye in Walt Disney's adaptation of the 1938 Errol Flynn classic, bows and arrows have found their way into the imaginations of countless young wannabe adventurers.
My generation's bow-and-arrow set consisted either of the homemade stick, string and sharp stick variety, or the kind we could find at the dime store. We whooped and hollered in the vacant lots and wooded areas of our neighborhood, trying in vain to hit bull's-eye targets we had made out of cardboard boxes and magic markers.
Today's 21st-century archery students are far more sophisticated, since recent hit films like "The Hunger Games" and another Disney offering, "Brave", turned this ancient hunting and defense technique into a sought-after skill set for youngsters.
9-year-old learning fast
Cole Stoddard is only 9, but his stance at the shooting line is that of someone twice his age. Not long ago, he carefully explained the unique attributes of bows, a rather complex study in physics and geometry. There's the cam, limbs, sights, and an arrow rest — all of which factor into determining how far and fast the arrow will travel as well as how accurate the shot will be. Cole inserts an arrow, sleek and fast with a metal tip that makes the overprotective parent in me briefly cringe with fears of shooting an eye out. Ignoring me, Cole confidently pulls back the bow string, adjusts his stance, sights the target, and releases.
The arrow hits a foam block with a satisfying "thwack" as his cohorts, Hunter and Madison Davis, clamor to be next. Cole leans back, rests the bow on his sneaker, and shrugs.
"I'm still shooting to the right," he says with an air of self-evaluation. It's his third year of consistent shooting, and he's serious about archery.
Hunter, on the other hand, is in his first year, and his mom Chantal says it's been a good fit for this busy 7-year-old who's trying to keep up with older friends.
"The kids have to be so calm and think through all the steps before shooting," she said as Hunter struggled to fit his fingers underneath the arrow. "No matter how much they might be joking or jumping around while waiting their turn, it's all business at the line."
Indeed, feedback from the parents of kids who participate in archery programs around the country report increased concentration and a heightened sense of environmental awareness. In this wooded section of Anchorage's Hillside, trees and brush can make the targets (including a replica of a black bear) challenging to navigate, and the kids must constantly look around for potential hazards that could not only affect their aim, but their safety and that of bystanders like me.
Laura Stoddard is Cole's mom and co-owner of Full Curl Archery, an indoor range and store in South Anchorage for those interested in the sport. Both of her children, including big sister Macie, 13, see archery as a steppingstone to bowhunting as a family.
"It's a chance for all four of us to be together, providing for our family," she says, carefully watching Macie, who had just arrived from cross-country practice, line up alongside her dad for a bit of friendly father-daughter competition. "Bowhunting is a specific skill, and when you involve kids, it's a lifelong activity in the outdoors."
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game requires potential bowhunters born on or before January 1, 1986 to complete a certification course that includes shooting proficiency. Young people must prove their strength to pull back a bow and send an arrow up to 29 yards on a variety of terrain to ensure ethical hunting practices, Kirk Lingofelt, hunter information and training manager for Fish and Game told me in an email.
There are other opportunities as well, Stoddard said, ranging from a kids' archery league at Full Curl to weekend classes managed by the Municipality of Anchorage and taught by members of a local archery club.
"We've got 44 kids in our league right now ranging in age from 6 to16," said Stoddard. "They love it."
Most youngsters enter the sport around age 6, when coordination and comprehension have developed enough to understand the many steps involved. Cole Stoddard rattles down the full list of 11 for me, ranging from stance to hand sets to follow through and reflection of the shot. Every step requires concentration.
After watching the kids shoot their way through three quivers of arrows, they laid down their bows and scattered to locate the projectiles that were now laying every which way in the tall, tangled grasses and leaves.
Then they lined up and did it all over again. And again.
Serious, yes. But seriously fun too.
Erin Kirkland is author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children" and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a family travel resource. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Archery in Alaska
* Full Curl Archery, 12501 Old Seward Highway. 344-2697, www.fullcurlarchery.com. Offers classes, equipment rentals, and leagues for all abilities. Private sessions for groups available.
*Anchorage Parks and Recreation, Saturday Archery class at Kincaid Park Annex, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Oct. 1-Nov. 26, 343-6397. Free class is run by the Northwest Archers club and supplies equipment for beginners. Parents must accompany children to this class, designed for kids age 6 and up. www.northwestarchers.com
*National Archery in Schools Program, statewide in 175 Alaska schools as part of physical education curriculum for grades 4-12. Kirk Lingofelt of Fish and Game oversees the program, originally designed in Kentucky to inspire more kids to participate in outdoor recreation activities. Lingofelt can be reached at (907) 267-2534. www.naspschools.org.