The Sporting Life: Straight shooters

Nathan Cole takes aim at a hay-bale target at last year’s Orange County Fair. Cole is a member of the local 4-H archery club and has participated in regional and state 4-H archery competitions.

(The latest in an occasional series on the sporting life in Orange County)

On any given Friday night, Orange County residents get together for parties of all kinds—birthdays, anniversaries, potlucks, wedding rehearsals, you name it. But last Friday, it is safe to say the three adults and five children gathered in a 4-H meeting room in Orange were attending the county’s only fletching party.

For the uninitiated—and that would be most people—fletching refers to the feathers or plastic vanes attached to an archer’s arrow. The 4-H archery club hosted the fletching party in the Sedwick Building so young participants could learn how to replace the vanes on their arrows.

Club coordinator Dani Cole of Rhoadesville kept an eye on the proceedings while her husband, Todd, a certified archery instructor, and two of their three sons, Ryan and Nathan, worked side by side with Momin, Salaar and Arhum Ali of Unionville. The Ali boys were there with their mother, Mutahara Mobashar. Chatting quietly as they worked, members of the welcoming and companionable group took occasional breaks to help themselves to bowls of chili and spicy cornbread muffins.

The room was filled with a silvery scraping sound as the boys stripped the old vanes off their arrows. “We make sure they get clean and smooth,” said Nathan Cole, age 14. He explained the fletching starts falling off the arrows when the glue holding the vanes in place wears out.

Sometimes, an arrow will land so close to another that it will shred the brightly colored vanes that serve as ballast. If you land an arrow exactly in the back of another, that is called “Robin Hooding,” Todd Cole explained, and it spells the end of the targeted arrow. “We don’t like doing that because they’re five bucks apiece.”

After scraping a bunch of arrows, club members began lining new vanes with glue. Todd Cole positioned one freshly scraped arrow after another in a fletching tool. With the arrow held firmly in place, he could attach the new vanes. Presto! Arrows ready to take flight at the group’s next target-shooting practice. Come summer, club members will put on their annual archery demonstration at the Orange County Fair.

The local 4-H archery club has a roster of 17 members, the oldest in their teens. Although the active membership is all boys this year, Dani and Todd Cole said girls have participated and done well in the past. Club members meet every month to practice shooting. Repairing the arrows was an optional activity, something the young archers wanted to learn.

Asked how he got involved in the unusual sport, Momin Ali, age 12, said, “I saw them shooting at the fair, and then I wanted to join.” For those who have watched archers in action and wondered how difficult it is to master shooting a bow, Momin remarked, “It’s pretty easy to learn. You just have to try hard. You have to be persistent, and you just have to keep practicing.”

His brother Salaar, age 14, said, “I like shooting at 3D targets, fake deer and stuff. That’s pretty fun.” Commenting on the value of archery to other activities in life, he added, “It improves your concentration and your work ethic because you have to work hard at it and practice often to get good at it.”

Club members have project books and logs in which they record the length of time they practice on their own. Although the club used to practice twice a month, that proved hard to schedule. Dani Cole said the project books are intended to create self-discipline: “We tried to encourage them to practice on their own a little more.”

She emphasized that the club teaches young archers safety first. Everybody learns to respect the rules and not create danger with a raised bow. Beyond that, she said, archery is a boon for young athletes who may not excel at team sports like soccer and basketball. And for the truly dedicated and gifted, 4-H regional and state competitions offer a chance for them to shine.

Todd Cole grew up in Texas and got serious about archery when he was 25. He and a hunting buddy couldn’t afford a lease—that is, a license to hunt on a privately owned ranch—so they were delighted to learn they could bow-hunt for free on designated tracts of government-owned land. “We didn’t kill many deer, but we had a lot of fun,” he said. “We shot a lot more ducks.”

Archery has an extraordinarily rich history that goes back many thousands of years. Cole and his oldest son, Ryan, spill over with details about archers in ancient Rome and the expert Korean archers of many centuries ago. Todd Cole is fascinated by contemporary archers capable of shooting many arrows in rapid succession. His eyes light up as he describes the extreme dexterity of a Danish archer named Lars Andersen who has taken archery to new heights.

With a career in the computer industry servicing financial hardware, Todd Cole brings a wealth of technical knowledge to his teaching and practice of archery. “Archery is a heavy, mathematical type [of] sport,” he said. Nevertheless, he observed, “There are some guys that are just natural shooters—guys and gals. You give them the basics and you give them the practice—they get the basics down. Practice is really not a needed thing, unless they really want to get into competition. If they’re just there to have a good time, they can out-shoot most guys all day long, just by picking a bow up and shooting it.”

Having first held a bow at age 3, Ryan Cole is well on his way to becoming a certified archery instructor like his father. Todd Cole says his oldest son is not as fiercely competitive as Nathan is, but Ryan knows his stuff and has been bitten by the teaching bug. The 16-year-old has been an archery instructor for children at Camp Red Arrow in Culpeper County for the past couple of summers. When he speaks of archery, it is with a knowledge and focus beyond his years. He is immersed in the history, including the way bows and arrows were constructed in previous eras.

What does he like about it so much? “I love shooting the target, but my favorite part is teaching the kids to shoot the bow, because then they learn a skill they can use for hunting, for military reasons and for just a fun sport,” Ryan said.

Elsewhere in the room, 8-year-old Arhum Ali was absorbed in applying a line of glue to a fresh vane. He has been waiting for years to join his brothers and friends on the 4-H practice range. With his ninth birthday coming up, he is almost old enough to be an official member of the club.

He is not yet thinking of archery in terms of hunting or military maneuvers. Standing close to his mother’s side, he smiled widely as he explained his fascination with the sport: “I like archery because it’s fun!”

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