Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
Wendy Butler grew up in the town of Middlebury, the oldest of three daughters in a farm family. As a teenager, she helped milk 70 Guernseys, shoveled sawdust for bedding and hoisted 60-pound hay bales. “And because my dad had no boys,” she says, “I learned to shoot.”
When she was a pre-teen, her father, Harley Grice, now 78, would put empty tin cans on fence posts and oversee her firing with a .22 that was otherwise used on garden-chomping woodchucks. Harley’s family, however, usually focused on bigger game: Wendy first hunted deer at 16 in the mountains in Ripton.
“I hit a sapling in front, so I missed the buck,“ she says with a laugh. She’s gotten deer, elk, turkey, grouse, and pheasant since then.
Wendy was athletic – she played hockey on the backyard pond – but barn chores conflicted with high school sports like soccer and basketball that required after-school practices.
So, you could say that these days, Wendy, now middle-aged, is compensating for some lost sports opportunity. On winter weekends she and her husband Randy can be found competing in one of the region’s half dozen or so “primitive biathlons.”
If Vermont were to elect a First Family of Muzzleloader Shooting and Primitive Biathlons, Wendy’s family would be candidates – especially when you toss in as competitors her father, her two grown children (sometimes) and her sisters and brothers-in-law.
What’s a primitive biathlon? It’s a competition that involves snowshoeing on a trail and shooting muzzleloader rifles, and sometimes pistols, at targets along the way. It’s sort of like the Olympic biathlon, only instead of moving speedily and gracefully on Nordic skis, contestants tromp through the forest on traditional wood-framed snowshoes. And instead of firing modern rifles with range and accuracy, contestants fire muzzleloader guns known for their loud boom, clouds of smoke and their place in early-American history.
Many competitors, in fact, are re-enactors, who further celebrate history by wearing the garb of those who helped make it: French explorers and fur traders, frontier mountain men, colonial militia. They wear the pelts and skins of critters they, themselves, shot; rustic hats with feathers or other natural adornments; buckskin jackets and raccoon caps. That’s half the fun.
And so it was that Wendy, Randy and Harley; and one of Wendy’s sisters, Penny, and Penny’s husband John were all at the recent Smugglers’ Notch Primitive Biathlon in Jeffersonville, a Chamber of Commerce annual event that attracts some 150 enthusiasts. They came from across New England, plus New York and Canada.
At 20 years, this biathlon is one of oldest, if not the oldest, such contest in Vermont, if not all of America.
Wendy and family arrived at the event site at Sterling Ridge Inn around 8 a.m, which is early, because they like to get on the trail before the crowds.
The scene soon reminds of a combination country fair, antique gun show, reunion and sports tournament all wrapped into one. Hamburgers are being grilled; souvenir sweatshirts are on sale, there are hunting dogs aplenty to pet and admire: labs, spaniels, a beagle in a youngster’s arms. And from the distance: gunshots.
“Bonjour, monsieur! Comment allez-vous?” says a fellow in a voyageur’s tunic to a similarly dressed character. “Tres bien, merci,” replies his friend with a hesitancy and accent suggesting French is not their first language.
A gray-bearded contestant in colonial garb smiles as he displays his match-lock rifle with its fuse of smoldering hemp. “If you are a child of the ‘60s, you will appreciate this,” he says.
Wendy is dressed in a green “blanket shirt” that she stitched together and a waist sash holding a cloth pouch containing her powder and .40-caliber lead balls. Harley is wearing his bright red “capote,” a long wool coat with a fur collar, of the style worn by French fur traders, that his late wife Marilyn fashioned. (On the track he will wear fleece but also a 19th-century-style bowler that he calls “silly but fun to wear.”)
Randy, wiry and bespectacled, chose an understated contemporary look: jeans and a flannel shirt. He’s more interested in scores than fashion. On this day he will place second in his category.
Contestants are judged on speed along the trail and shooting prowess. They follow a snowy path to four stations, where they eye the steel targets, measured in square inches, suspended on a rope, maybe 60 yards distant. Upon arrival they pour gunpowder into the gun barrel, drop in the lead ball, push it down with a ramrod, prime with more powder or a cap, take aim, fire, and hope for the clang of ball against target.
In this biathlon, participants shoot twice at each of three stations, and three times at the final station. Any misfire caused by balky flint or a problem with powder counts as a missed shot.
“I hit only three targets,” says a deeply disappointed Wendy after her first run. She did no better her second time but later acknowledges winning isn’t everything.
“I have a very competitive edge that I don’t get to use anywhere else,” confesses Randy.
By all accounts, though, the fiercest competitor in this family of shooters, the one who got them all into this in the first place, was Wendy’s mother, who as a youth was an avid hunter. Harley took her on hunting dates back when she was 17 and he was 24, back before they were married. Their first date was a woodchuck hunt.
“She flew her own airplane, showed Morgan horses, milked cows, raked hay, filled both freezers with vegetables, raced snowmobiles and raised three beautiful daughters,” says Harley, proudly.
In biathlons, “she wore her game face and was all business,” says Wendy.
In the autumn of 2005, while in the last stages of cancer, Marilyn insisted on competing in a biathlon in Littleton, New Hampshire. Harley helped her along the trail, carrying her gun and a stool that she used for breaks.
Randy is a carpenter, a craftsman, a budding gunsmith, who fashions gun stocks from maples harvested from their land. He has made probably a dozen muzzleloaders that he has given mostly to family. A few years ago, he made the “Marilyn Grice Memorial Trophy,” a silver bowl atop a polished bird’s-eye maple stand. It goes each year to the overall winner of the Smugglers’ Notch Primitive Biathlon.
Harley shows his devotion to the sport of shooting in another way. For the past few years he has mentored students from Middlebury College, giving them lessons in hunting, gun safety and marksmanship at his home. It’s part of a special January freshmen course that has students pick an outdoor adventure and write about it and digitally record aspects of the experience.
One of Harley’s students, Georgia Grace Edwards, 18, from Frostburg, Maryland, competed at Smugglers’ Notch, and you could she say fell right into a nice anecdote that might work in her essay.
“I made it around the entire course, but 10 yards from the finish I was so excited … BLAM! … I ‘face-planted,’ and everything was captured on camera,” she says laughing.
Targets hit? “Four, so I do feel good about that!”
Georgia has only good things to say about Harley, the teacher. “He’s patient, but also assertive, which is an interesting combination,” she says. “He’s very willing to share.”
Wendy could have told her that.