May 03, 2012
From the very conception of my bowhunting madness, my ambitions have remained in a perpetual state of flux. All but one, that is -- the desire to someday bag a big-game animal with a bow born of my own hands.
Certainly, my aspirations required skills considerably beyond those that earned me a tanned posterior -- at age 7 or 8 -- after I whittled a succession of unsuccessful bows and arrows from backyard landscaping and a length of packing cord.
I also recall, maybe two decades later, hauling the "perfect" bow stave from Saskatchewan, Canada, following an ambitious bowhunting road trip (a hive of U.S. Customs agents commiserated half an hour over the 7-foot hank of lumber). Following three years of seasoning and carefully carving a handsome English-style longbow (per Saxton Pope's instructions in Hunting With The Bow & Arrow), I joyously sent exactly two arrows speeding down range before the bow failed terminally; three weeks of tedious labor reduced to kindling.
The requisite monotony of tenderly shaping a potential weapon, weighed against looming heartbreak, cooled much serious effort thereafter. But the notion, like a latent dream, remained deeply embedded in my imagination.
MEET THE MASTER
I met Alan Currier during a community soiree in a small southwestern New Mexico village. I'd heard whisperings of a wildly eccentric "Chinaman" (actually Japanese-American) who made bows via the unreliable grapevine universal to intimate hamlets where small minds with idle hands occupy themselves with the affairs of others.
I introduced myself, and Alan and I were immediately connected by a mutual fascination with the flight of the arrow. Alan indeed makes bows -- primitive designs free of modern materials -- though his inspiration is not bowhunting or even target shooting. It's flight shooting. He owns several primitive-bow world records in this vanishing endeavor. It quickly became evident Alan owns wisdom I've long coveted. And for my part, I had a catalog of prospective bow woods in the ready recesses of my mind.
Our friendship budded while investigating the widely strewn groves of exotic Osage and native hackberry. Through Alan's patient tutelage, I came to understand the synchronous qualities comprising harmonious bow wood are as exceptional as discovering the perfect likeness of Jesus Christ in a tortilla's surface. There's the matter of knots (good and bad), grain twist and, most of all, stave length in relation to these qualities. I learned the concept of compression and tension woods and how slanting staves forced to surmount a lifetime of gravity can increase performance potential. I offered one potential bow after another, Alan investing scant scrutiny before summarily dismissing my favorites due to one flaw or another; most occasioned by the comment, "Perfect -- if it were six inches longer."
I'm a quick study. In time, I managed to lead Alan to trees sparking his infectious enthusiasm. Alan's wedded to wood like no other person I've known.
Our friendship solidified. One day, observing me exercising a modern recurve, Alan offered that if I'll instruct him in the proper approach to shooting, he'll teach me the art of creating a reliable primitive bow. Later, disappointed by Alan's dismissal of my latest find of wild Osage after long, hopeful inspection ("if only it were four inches longer"), I made an off-handed comment. "With all these absolutely perfect, if slightly short, pieces of bow wood, why not make take-down bows?"
CRAFTING THE PERFECT WEAPON
Alan quickly designed a prototype take-down handle, New England hickory core flanked by Osage orange, laminated with primitive hide glue, cut for center shot and including a crowned shelf. He assembled a set of heavily reflexed, laminated limbs to plug into the handle's friction-fit sockets, hardwood side-plates reinforced with hide-glue-soaked linen to prevent lateral travel, an Osage dowel secured through each socket base accommodating half-round divots at the limb butts when properly seated. It was a simple, secure design, though there were friendly disagreements regarding details. Alan is all about pure function and performance, while I'm equally concerned with streamlined aesthetics.
So, when I built my own handle (our first lefty), lines became less blocky (making Alan openly nervous, fearing failure). I added a crowned shelf of gorgeous mountain mahogany, the core cat-claw instead of Eastern hickory I'd had no hand in cutting and curing. The mountain mahogany, as gorgeous as African bubinga, I'd discovered while stalking desert muleys the previous January. The bulk of the riser consists of naturally deflexed Osage we'd cut months earlier and seasoned with great care, ends waxed and sealed against checking (splits); a one-in-a-thousand section of wood providing perfect take-off angles without interrupting grain integrity with saw or file. I patiently sculpted the handle so it became an extension of my hand, eliminating potential torque, making it my own.
Limbs were trickier. This was when having Alan watching intently over my shoulder was absolutely necessary. They involved faces of tediously tapered Osage (compression wood) backed by desert hackberry (tension wood), reflexed on a 24-inch radius, further reflexed (but not quite static) after splicing more hackberry into the tips, the lighter material used to reduce weight and increase speed. All was slathered with warmed hide glue (Knox gelatin rendered into a cold honey consistency) laid up and carefully clamped into laminated plywood jigs of Alan's own design -- controlled chaos at it best. Into the hot box (a plywood coffin heated by 100-watt light bulbs) they went. After curing, the real tedium began; rasps, files, sandpaper of ever-finer grit, removing wood, creating tapers, tillering and smoothing, the edges and back, in particular, taking on the consistency of glass before sealing all surfaces in hard wax.
The bow's draw weight exceeded expectations (it's Alan's first hunting-weight bow). And the upper limb (stiffer for tillering purposes) shattered disastrously after a dozen shots. I was devastated. Alan was unfazed. The lower limb became an upper and another was tediously assembled -- just enough of the original staves remaining to create additional laminations. Alan added bridges, preventing string over-travel; string nocks a shoulderless design, again, to boost performance. This proved a sound move. The bow, a forgiving 73€‰1/2 inches made to accommodate my extreme draw length, proves an orgasmic shooter.
My wife and I moved to Idaho a week after my bow's completion. There isn't much I miss about New Mexico (especially the near impossibility of drawing quality big-game tags), but I do miss Alan's jocose wit and contagious fervor, making hunting wood and those hours in his sawdust-heaped shop. I invited him up to investigate Northwest bow woods (yew and viney maple), but he's busier than ever building primitive bows -- our take-down vision -- for paying customers. We keep in touch, via letters (Alan eschews telephones and the Internet.)
I soon won several traditional-only 3-D tournaments with Alan's bow, as I've come to think of it. One of these I won by posting 98 points better than second place in the primitive class, and that second-place shooter swiftly demanded my disqualification. My bow's too efficient, he said, (it does shoot on par with modern longbows), too "modern." The official in charge refused, and I offered the man my $5 plastic trophy, prompting a rapid departure punctuated by muttered curses and gravel-spitting tires.
Killing something with this bow proved considerably more exasperating. In fact, I quickly came to consider the bow utterly jinxed!
My arrows, initially Sitka spruce tipped with 1947 Zwickey Black Diamonds, sailed over the backs of two point-blank whitetails during the early season. And on the final day of the late season, in sub-zero weather, I missed a trophy buck I'd pursued since fall. I guarded bear baits the following spring with my primitive bow, small bears appearing regularly, but never the shooters featured on camera when I'm absent.
A custom recurve made for me by South Cox (Stalker Recurve Bows) coaxed me to shelve Alan's bow an entire season, catching up in my killing, but by the following spring it called to me again. I carried it to guard bear baits once more, but after only a single evening with a new recurve in tow, a trophy bear showed up to offer a shot. And then it's fall once more.
There's a gap between September archery-only deer/elk season and mid-October's general-season opener normally reserved for hunting upland birds. Yet fall bear remains open and bait sites I've enjoyed good results over during spring months are being pounded again in short order. A faithful trail camera is capturing regular visits from several bruins, one of these a burly fellow with lustrous fur and pumpkin head. He impresses enough that I spend nearly two weeks sitting for him, a shy brute inclined to show only under the cover of darkness.
It's a chilly evening at altitude, heavily overcast, threatening rain, maybe snow. Shooting hours are winding down and I'm keeping an eye on my watch, ready to climb down after four hours of uncomfortable boredom. Shooting light's uncertain, despite the hour. All confidence has left me. He won't show, and my conviction of Alan's bow being cursed is now complete. I tell myself it's fine. I've taken a beautiful spring bear, and there's no one here to help track and drag and skin. Plus, I've 3 1/2 hours of white-knuckle driving to reach home.
And then he's just there. He has appeared, like a wraith, on silent feet. He's broadside and only 18 yards away.
I fight to control my breath, giving myself a minute to pull it together, the end of shooting hours looming. And then it's time -- shifting slowly to twist my legs aside to make room for the reaching bottom limb, tugging the string snug into anchor, making sure of it, followed by the sibilant chorus of cutting feathers. The boar crashes away and I can't even guess where my arrow's gone. I strain to hear something more, but only the beating of my heart fills my ears.
I quite literally trip over my prize 70 yards into the tangled alder, Juneberry, cedar and willow. The heat-tempered bamboo shaft (ordered online from an Englishman who sorts from thousands a dozen matched for spine and general diameter) has driven the 1941 Ace Standard (chosen due to parallel ferrule creating a natural mating over hollow bamboo) completely through both lungs. I'm quite beside myself, a long night lying ahead, but my heart as full as Neruda's interminable artichoke.
Alan will be pleased. I can't wait to write him about it. I can count on him calling from the ancient payphone in town after receiving my letter. It'll be good to talk to him again.