Getting fired up for the Primitive Biathlon
Ray Saloomey looks as "pure Vermont" as a pint of maple syrup: He sports a salt-and-pepper beard as well as matching red plaid jacket, pants and Elmer Fudd hat. Instead of driving a pick-up with a gun rack, though, he's got a van full of Revolution-ary War-era firearms. This modern-day Green Mountain Boy has a unique mission. "For people who enjoy shooting, this is a time of year when there's nothing going on," says Saloomey, 52, looking around the property of Jeffersonville's Sterling Ridge Inn. "There's no hunting, no shooting matches and, particularly for muzzleloading, there's nothing, other than one big shoot in Arizona -- and not everyone can go to Arizona."
But on days like this one, when snow clings to the trees like cotton balls, and the cold air seems to crackle under a bluebird-colored sky, who wants to go to Arizona, anyway? Twelve years ago, Saloomey was thinking along the same lines, and aimed to create a January event that would combine one of his favorite pastimes with a bout of exercise in the bracing weather.
"I'd just bought my first muzzleloader; I was having a good time with that," says Saloomey, who found that hunting gave him an excuse to shoot the simple rifle and be out in the woods. "It happened to be around the Olympics, so it got me thinking about biathlon, and cross-country skiing, where you've got to have technical ability. But almost anybody can snowshoe."
So, in 1995, he presented the world's first primitive biathlon. "I wanted to come up with something that wasn't done in every ski town in America," says Saloom-ey, who, as president of the Smugglers' Notch Chamber of Commerce, also organized events for the Heritage Winter-fest. "I think the first year we had 30 people, because nobody had ever heard of such a thing."
Now Saloomey is preparing for the 10th annual Smugglers' Notch Primitive Biathlon, on January 29 and 30. His idea has been featured in Outside magazine and USA Today, and heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" by listeners nationwide. Those ski towns Saloomey didn't want to copy? Now they're copying him -- primitive biathlons take place in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Idaho and Oregon.
But the original shoot-and-snowshoe competition remains here, in the folded hills surrounding Sterling Ridge. It's grown from a smattering of muzzleloading enthusiasts to a festival of old-fashioned firearms that draws first-timers, snowshoe marathoners and sharpshooters, most of whom show up in coonskin caps, fur coats, beads and buckskin. "It's become a big, big event," says Saloomey, who guesses that more than 200 will compete this year; anyone can register through opening day. "And just to toot our own horn," he adds, "the biggest any of the others get is about 75."
In the contemporary Olympic biathlon, athletes cross-country ski loops of 6 to 20 kilometers on machine-groomed tracks with high-tech, buffed and waxed equipment. In contrast, the primitive biathlon consists of a single rugged course, just a hair under 2 miles long, and forbids skis. Modern snowshoes -- the kind with tight plastic buckles and metal teeth to prevent slipping -- are also against the rules. Instead, competitors wear unwieldy wooden snowshoes. Styles can vary from bear paw, curved in front and back, to the Algonquin, which have tails at both ends. There are all sorts of theories on flotation and traction, but really, wearing these contraptions can feel like walking on two greased skillets.
The roots of both sports lie in the pursuit of animals: Rock paintings 3000 years old depict hunters carrying bows and wearing pieces of wood on their feet. But Olympic-style biathlon, born in the 1700s as a military exercise, keeps up with the times, while Saloomey's version clings to the past. So while Olympians carry pricey .22-caliber rifles with front and rear adjustable optical sights, primitive participants sling a simple, single-barrel muzzleloader over a shoulder. No fancy sights, no modern in-line firing mechanisms, and no lying down to steady a shot. Saloomey's squadron must shoot "offhand," or standing up.
Before the start of the Smugglers' Notch Primitive Biathlon, he asks competitors to test out their rifles at a "playground" near the Sterling Ridge reception office. And for first-timers? "Muzzleloaders are all friendly people," says Saloomey. "I'll just set them up with someone and they'll teach 'em how to shoot, without any hesitation whatsoever."
At the 2006 Olympic Games, television-watching biathlon followers may notice re-settable disk targets from the comfort of their couches. The Smugglers' Notch shooters aim at steel targets: If you hear a gong, good; you've hit it. If not, well, you missed -- and your ammo's lost in the woods.
Better than lodged in the neck of a visiting flatlander. "You need a special kind of place to hold a primitive biathlon," says Saloomey, describing Sterling Ridge's sprawling 360 acres just north of popular Mount Mansfield. "No houses or people around."
To tour the course, he relies on the resort's Polaris Ranger, which looks like a mini-Hummer equipped with enormous triangular snow tires. January's mild weather has left streams coursing throughout the woods, and tufts of brown grass peek out from a blanket of snow. But there's enough of the white stuff for a gorgeous, and grueling, snowshoe. "This'll get 'em huffing and puffing," says Saloomey with a laugh. The Ranger easily lumbers up a steep hill before Saloomey suddenly turns and then jams it into park.
Saloomey walks about 50 yards toward a string of faint orange strips to give them another coat of spray paint; the steel plates are pocked with dents from past events. These are the targets -- there are four sets in all. Participants get two shots at the first three sets, and three additional shots at the final set, for a total of nine tricky shots. Here's where Olympic and primitive biathlons converge again. Both sports require the contestant to shoot absolutely straight -- in the middle of a wheeze-inducing workout. It's been compared to sprinting up 25 flights of stairs and then trying to thread a needle at the top.
Granted, not all primitive biathlon contestants are blitzing through the course. "The majority of people just go out for a day walking in the woods and shooting their guns," says Saloomey, adding that most start off at a jog. "Then they turn a corner, immediately slow down, and just start to schlep along."
But even at a snail's pace, loading one of these guns requires considerable manual dexterity, which isn't always, well, at hand in the cold. Saloomey carries a "possibles" bag, so named "because you'd carry everything possible in it during wars," he suggests. Inside is an assortment of instruments that look like they belong in an 18th-century hospital: a bicycle-horn-shaped powder flask, a teaspoon-sized powder measure, a cardboard box of little balls. He pours a "charge" of 80-grains black powder into the measure, and then tips it down the barrel, rapping on the side of the gun to help the powder settle. Then he places a quarter-sized piece of cloth over the barrel, sets a .50 caliber ball over this patch and pushes the ball into the barrel with a small, knobbed shaft called a ball starter. Finally, Saloomey shoves the ball all the way down the barrel with a ramrod and replaces the instruments on the seat of the Ranger. He walks over to the shooting area, rests the butt of the rifle against his shoulder and pulls the trigger. Boom -- the shot rings through the woods, and a little puff of smoke clouds the crisp air.
"It sounds worse than it is," he says, handing over the rifle. "Black powder burns very slowly compared to modern cartridges. You'll laugh when you shoot it; it's actually fun."
Sure enough, after a clumsy loading process -- and a dangerous swing of the gun in which Saloomey almost loses his ear flaps -- the rifle bangs and gives off a little kick that could get addictive. But actually hitting a target? "It's not an easy thing to do," Saloomey concedes. "Usually we only get two or three people that shoot all nine. . . Some hit absolutely none."
The victors in this competition are those who shoot the most targets on the course in the least amount of time. There are categories of first, second or third overall; first woman; first junior under 16; first elder over 60; and first smoothbore, a musket with a different kind of internal construction which demands even more accuracy than a rifle-musket. Every year, Saloomey creates special trophies: engraved pewter plates, tomahawk handles and powder horns. Sponsors and friends donate coonskin caps, birch bark baskets, maple syrup and even a rifle to be raffled off at the finish area. Boy Scouts sell venison jerky, caribou and other assorted game.
For the biathlon's upcoming 10th anniversary, Saloomey is hoping for slightly warmer weather than last year's -- the 10-below temperatures meant he broke down and donned a vest while running around the course to supervise scoring and safety. This sport is not as dangerous as it sounds. "We have not had a shooting accident," says Saloomey, who lists scrapes and cuts, a broken tooth and a misfired ramrod among the memorable "incidents." He adds, "I don't pray much, but every year, the night before, I remember a few prayers."