New York Venturers STAY ACTIVE during the sometimes-slow winter months with a weekend biathlon focusing on CHALLENGE BY CHOICE.
MARY-KATE COLLINS looks down the scope of a .22-caliber rifle. Her right hand grasps the stock of the firearm, resting her index finger on the outside of the trigger guard. She exhales slowly, shifting her finger onto the trigger. In an instant the gun jumps back into her shoulder.
The corners of her mouth rise into a small smile. Mary-Kate’s shot is near perfect, boring into the target about an inch from the bull’s-eye. Instructor Mark Webster gives her a pat on the shoulder and helps her load the next round. “Are you sure you’ve never shot a rifle before? Or any kind of firearm?” he asks. Fourteen-year-old Mary-Kate shakes her head. Until today, she’s never had the chance to try her aim. But she absorbs Webster’s instructions and seems to effortlessly demonstrate her marksmanship. Sure, a couple shots are a little off-target. But she’s eager to try again.
In Venturing, youth can shoot an even wider range of firearms than in Boy Scouting, including semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and even pistols. But teens might yawn at the prospect of a run-of-the-mill day at the range. The Venturing Officers Association in New York’s Five Rivers Council sets the bar high in January with its annual Venture Biathlon Challenge that draws coed crews from across the northeastern U.S. to snowy Camp Gorton.
The weekend event does more than just test their aim. Participants face off in a winter biathlon, a competition with century-old European roots requiring competitors to shoot small-caliber rifles on a timed cross-country ski course. But before the biathlon begins, the crews get hands-on training from NRA-certified instructors as well as an area cross-country skiing expert.
On Saturday morning at the rifle range, two Venturers sit next to Mary-Kate, sharpening their skills for the event that’s only hours away. An intermediate marksman — a male counterpart — offers a friendly challenge to beginner Mary-Kate. Webster, an NRA-certified instructor and Scout parent from Corning, N.Y., warns the boy with a laugh, “You might think twice about that.” Turning to Mary-Kate, he adds, “You’ve never shot a firearm, and he’s shot before and played a thousand video games. Girls listen and take direction much better. They make great shooters.”
Mary-Kate’s eyebrows rise as she glances over at her opposition.
Let the competition begin.
LEARNING HOW TO FIRE a rifle or shotgun doesn’t start at a gun range. For these Venturers, the required crash course begins Friday evening after their arrival at Camp Gorton, two hours southwest of Syracuse, N.Y. Jim Griffin, the council’s shooting sports committee chairman and an NRA training counselor from Dundee, N.Y., questions the crowd of teens, “How many of you have shot a firearm before?”
The group overwhelmingly consists of beginners. A (mostly) blank slate — just what Griffin likes. “The great thing about learning how to handle and shoot a firearm in Scouting is that you’re in a safe environment. We’re going to teach you everything you need to know in order to shoot, and tomorrow you’ll be with instructors at the range who will help you along the way, ” he explains.
In the camp’s dining hall, Venturers sit atop wooden benches and listen as Griffin explains firearm safety and handling and basic shooting skills. The group practices focusing on a distant object with their dominant eye, an ability they perfect by gazing through a small gap in their hands.
Griffin then addresses the common feelings of unease experienced by beginners. “Does anyone feel afraid to handle a firearm?” Griffin asks. He explains that many people fear the recoil and the noise, which is why most beginners start with either a .22-caliber rifle or 20-gauge shotgun. “The recoil is a lot less, and they are easier for beginners to handle. But some of you guys are experienced, so we’ve also got a 30-30 rifle and a semi-automatic for you to try.”
Most of a person’s fears erode when he or she learns safety skills and sees someone properly handle a firearm, both part of the two-day learning session. “If you don’t want to shoot anymore after trying it once, you don’t have to. But the key is to at least try.”
At the front of the room — pointing unloaded firearms into the empty back corner — each teen practices holding a .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun. Griffin corrects posture, noting that properly holding the firearm often poses the greatest challenge to new shooters. “The first thing a beginner will want to do when he picks up a firearm is to put a finger on the trigger,” he explains. “We’re going to practice proper form now, and you’ll practice it again tomorrow.”
ON SATURDAY MORNING, participants split into two parts: one group completes the second section of the required shooting-sports orientation, while the other learns how to cross-country ski and snowshoe. Mother Nature adds her own twist to the morning with temperatures creeping into the lower 40s. The sticky, melting snow might not last until the biathlon, set to begin just after lunchtime.
But Peter “Doc” Parken doesn’t let the weather slow him down. Indoors and away from the noise of the shooting ranges, Parken hoists a featherlight Nordic ski onto a wooden wax bench. The bench sits atop a table on which Parken, an avid cross-country skier, closely inspects each ski before turning them over to the awaiting teens. “It’s wet and slushy outside, so we’re going to use wax to help these skis glide a little better in the snow,” explains Parken, whose attention zeros in on applying gummy liquid to the center of a ski.
“This type of wax helps prevent snow from sticking to the ski and amassing below your foot, where all of your weight sits. If you get a bunch of snow stuck on there, you won’t go anywhere fast.” Parken repeats this delicate process on about 10 pairs of skis, while others start choosing suitable shoes from the multicolored mass of Nordic ski boots on the floor.
All of today’s equipment is courtesy of the longtime cross-country skier. (Which means some of the size 7 feet end up in a men’s size 10.) But the impressive collection falls short of equipping today’s crowd. So Parken pulls out reinforcements in the form of handmade snowshoes woven by his Venturing crew several years back. With gear in hand, the group heads outside to try its skills at cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
In a flash, Parken begins gliding around the teens as they clumsily affix their Nordic-style boot bindings to the narrow-bodied skis. Demonstrating proper ski posture, the nimble instructor explains, “We’re going to use a classic ‘kick-and-glide’ form of skiing.”
He bends at his ankles, leaning slightly forward, and quickly kicks off one foot while he glides with the other. His arms swing efficiently in rhythm with his legs as they move in short, fast steps. “Now, when it’s time to go uphill, you’re going to want to broaden your stance. Point your skis in a V and step forward by pushing off the ball of your foot one at a time. It takes a lot of leg strength, so keep your rhythm and lean forward.”
Like wobbly ducklings, the new Nordic skiers follow behind Parken in erratic circles. Venturers kick and glide past one another. Then the group breaks apart to climb up a short hill, leaving rows of herringbone wakes behind. It takes only a couple of laps on skis for the teens to show signs of exhaustion. Parken warns that they need to save their energy for the competition that’s just hours away.
AT 1 P.M., 20 VENTURERS slush their way from Camp Gorton’s dining hall to the biathlon’s starting line. Last year’s freezing January weather left many competitors with icy hands and near-frozen feet. Today, some of the Venturers wear T-shirts and shorts. The moderate winter air defrosts Camp Gorton’s grounds, leaving the once-snowy trails muddy and rutted with fallen limbs and exposed roots — not ideal conditions for Nordic skiing.
So the event planners adjust the rules: Competitors must complete a half-mile loop (on foot, not ski) and shoot .22-caliber rifles to earn five points for each shot within a target about the size of a quarter. In the second round, the youth complete the trek again and then switch to the shotgun range, where they can earn five points for each clay they hit with a 20-gauge shotgun. Awards are earned by completion, not points. Completing one round earns silver, and two rounds earns gold.
With race numbers affixed to their shirts or shorts, the Venturers take off one by one with a race official marking their starting time. Boots sink deep into the muddy trail. And, by the end of the first loop, the competitive youth show off dirt-caked knees and backsides.
Rifles crack and crews cheer for those who decide to make a second attempt at the mucky loop. Carolyn Noyes, an 18-year-old from Crew 15 in Elmira, found ankle-deep mud in some parts of the trail. “The hills are really challenging, even without the skis!” But that doesn’t stop her from heading out for a second round. She’s not alone in accepting this challenge, either. Fourteen youth complete the second event, earning a gold award.
Sure, a true biathlon involves rigorous Nordic skiing. But that’s a (rather important) detail no one seems to notice. The youth leader of the event, 19-year-old Chelsea Wahlig, council VOA president, explains, “No one seems to care that we’re not competing with the skis. It was great to ski a little this morning, but it would have made for a long race,” she laughs. You never know what the weather is going to throw at you, she says — “You’ve got to be prepared for everything, right?”
Even Griffin shares that the day wasn’t about the race itself. “It’s about challenge by choice. That’s what Venturers like. You give them a choice to challenge themselves and do better than they did last time. It’s just fun.”
The teens’ smiles indicate that they will keep coming back for more — no matter what Mother Nature brings.
Check out nerventuring-bsa.org to learn more about the 2014 Venture Biathlon Challenge at Camp Gorton in Dundee, N.Y., about two hours southwest of Syracuse, N.Y.
Biathlon on Your Big Screen
Organize your own unit’s biathlon event, inspired by the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics. Consider watching the live biathlon events at this year’s games, held Feb. 7–23 in Sochi, Russia. And if your unit doesn’t have access to snowy terrain, just follow the New Yorkers’ lead: Adjust your event to include biathlon-inspired trail running or hiking instead of Nordic skiing. Learn more about the Olympic Games’ biathlon competition schedule and the history of biathlon at nbcolympics.com.
Ready, Aim …
Shooting a variety of firearms, including pistols, challenges Venturers. And soon Boy Scouts may also take part in pistol-shooting programs at approved council camps.
The BSA’s Research and Program Innovation team tested a pilot pistol marksmanship program at 10 summer resident camps in 2013 — including a program at the 2013 National Jamboree. The jamboree program was the only pilot program to include 9-millimeter handguns and steel targets. In this pilot program, Scouts 13 and older can shoot .22-caliber pistols after a series of safety and marksmanship training sessions.
Pat Wellen, director of research and program innovation, says the summer pilot programs helped test safety and develop “the specific program and course of fire for progressive shooting sports programs in the BSA.” The pilot programs also unveiled a greater need for consistent instructor training and program delivery — something the research and program innovation team will focus on in 2014.
Check with your council to see if a nearby camp will offer the pistol pilot program this summer.