I sat staring down at the functional piece of wood in my hands. It was rosewood and forest-brown glass, expertly shaped from slabs and strips into something flowing but purposeful. It represented art and, at the same time, engineering genius.
It left the Grayling, Michigan, factory in 1966, the same year I was born. I’m loathe to call Bear Archery a factory, as that implies sameness and a lack of craft. Anyone who has ever handled a vintage Bear bow knows that they harbor plenty of soul. There is something personal and warm in these bows. Yet a factory it was, churning out as many as 300,000 bows annually, which was far more than its competitors.
I was enamored with the classic bow resting across my knees on this cool November afternoon during the peak of the whitetail rut. Perhaps my bewitchment arose from a recent birthday in which the bow and I both turned 50. But no, it was more than that. Admiring the bow’s lines and red-hued grain reminded me of what it’s like to hear a song that transports you so completely to another time that you can see, hear, and even smell the circumstances of that bygone day. Just a few bars of The Eagles’ Take It Easy conjures the rocking motion of a pontoon boat on the Chesapeake Bay, the sound of blue crabs scratching in a bushel basket, the stink of chicken parts in the sun, and the feel of my dad’s hand on mine as we cast the rod together for bluefish.
Bear bows, among others such as Ben Pearson, Browning, Damon Howatt, Shakespeare, and many more, certainly have their following, but in the big scheme of things, I knew I was one of a rare breed who cared about these old bows and what they represented. Or was I?
Just three weeks after my November tryst with the 1966 Bear Kodiak, I found myself on a plane heading for Seattle to record a Meateater Podcast with Steve Rinella and Janis Putelis. On the day of the recording, I grabbed an Uber ride from my hotel near the Space Needle to Steve’s house just outside the city. When the old Honda Civic, which was clearly suffering from an exhaust issue, came to a stop in a neighborhood of homes with mixed architectural styles and ages, I slid the Uber driver a five and hopped out. The decrepit car continued up the hill with a sound that reminded me of being on a trail ride behind a flatulent horse.
As the amusing sound tapered to a flutter, I suddenly got the feeling that something was wrong about the situation. It was a sinking sentiment, similar to how you might react when realizing your bush pilot has just flown off with your arrows.
The closeness of the houses and proximity to the city struck me as incongruent for Rinella, a man who clearly relishes wild places. Maybe I gave the driver the wrong address? I got a little panicky and started looking around for street names and house numbers. Then I saw them—a pair of sun-bleached elk sheds leaning by the door of the house directly opposite of where the gassy mare had dropped me. Life was right again, and before I knew it we were sitting around a table in Steve’s garage with headsets hugging our ears and Janis telling us to start in “3, 2, 1.”
The podcast focused on my book, A Traditional Bowhunter’s Path, and was broadcast on December 22, 2016. The reaction was immediate: My talk with Steve, Janis, and local restaurant owner Jimmy Doran had struck multiple nerves among bowhunters and non-bowhunters alike. The email messages I received were overwhelmingly positive—the passion was contagious; everyone wanted to know how to get started in traditional archery.
I suppose that could have been predicted, but here’s what I didn’t expect: During the podcast, I casually mentioned shooting and hunting with vintage bows, which was something that I considered somewhat esoteric. But not so. Listeners were intrigued, not only with the idea of hunting with something that was 50 years old, but also with what that 50-year-old thing represented in culture and hunting history. Thus, The Classic Year was born, dedicated to uncovering how vintage bows might help us to discover and explore the hunting experience.
So, here’s the deal. During the next year or so, I’ll be hunting exclusively with classic gear and writing about my thoughts and experiences, including some semi-live hunts. I’m passionate about hunter-based conservation and will infuse a lot of my writing with that subject. Of course, we’ll also cover other favorites like American history, natural history, travel, food, culture, and archery. I’ll relay much of this through writing, but I’ll be posting videos, too.
A highlight of The Classic Year will be a semi-live, September 2017 moose and black bear hunt in Newfoundland. I want to be clear about something: This isn’t some sort of stunt where I’ll be dressing like Fred Bear and reenacting a moose hunt. Nor am I doing this to prove something about old bows. Many of the vintage bows perform on par with modern customs, and I have no reservations about hunting with them.
So, why am I doing this? I simply love vintage bows and believe they can help me to tell rich stories about adventure and our collective human experience. Fred Bear said, “The history of the bow and arrow is the history of mankind.” I suspect he was right, but we’ll certainly test that notion. I know that there will be other bowhunters following The Classic Year who regularly hunt with vintage gear. I hope that you will provide your thoughts by submitting comments, too.
There’s really only one hard and fast rule for The Classic Year: All bows used for hunting will be at least 25 years old, with the sweet spot being those made in the 1950s to 1970s. When possible, I’ll use period-correct gear, such as arrows, broadheads, and quivers. Though I respect collectors, such as Jorge Coppen, Rick Rappe, and the late Al Reader, this isn’t about the exactness of collecting and matching tackle, but more about the heritage and art of hunting.
From this point forward, I’ll be rolling out new essays and videos every few weeks until we bring The Classic Year to a close sometime in 2018. As with all projects of Traditional Spirit Outdoors, ten percent of all proceeds generated from The Classic Year will be donated to promote conservation and archery.
I have something very cool and participatory planned for an upcoming post—hint: it involves the chance to win a bow and other traditional archery gear! Sign up to my e-newsletter now so you don’t miss your opportunity.
Thanks for reading. It means a great deal to be able to share my thoughts and stories with you. I’m excited to get this underway.
Keep the traditional spirit alive!
Editor’s note: Sporting Classics Daily will be featuring each of The Classic Year’s articles and videos, with new content posted every few weeks. In the meantime, be sure to visit his website, traditionalspiritoutdoors.com, and pick up a copy of his book, A Traditional Bowhunter’s Path: Lessons and Adventures at Full Draw.