Writer Mark LaFlamme takes aim at a target without an arrow during an L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester recently. Before actually releasing an arrow, participants learn the strategy for pulling back the bow string.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

I’ll be honest with you. I expected to be among the best archers on the range, second only to the instructor herself.

I mean, what were we talking about here? A bunch of bored vacationers picking up bows and arrows just to kill some time before dinner? Surely I’d be better than all of them. I’m no Daryl Dixon, it’s true, but I know my way around a quiver well enough, yessir. I’ve shot my share of arrows, let me tell you, and I even made my own bow out of PVC pipe and paracord.

So you can imagine my embarrassment when my very first shot was way down there at the 5 o’clock position and well off the target.

“Sun was in my eyes,” I said.

I fired another arrow.

THWAP!

“Distracted by a bee.”

THWAP!

“Got a bad rotator cuff.”

THWAP!

“Did you see that target jump out of the way just now?”

L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Program’s archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester gets bows and arrows into hands of participants, along with expert instruction. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

I wasn’t terrible, mind you, but I wasn’t exactly shaming Ramsey Bolton, either. (Look it up, you lazy laggard.)

Go figure. Take a few years off practicing with the bow and arrow and whatever meager skills you maybe once possessed will completely disintegrate into nothing.

Turns out this was OK, though, because if there’s anything that Maria Kokenos likes to do, it’s to help a novice archer to develop his skills and then fine-tune them to get that arrow a little closer to the bull’s-eye.

Maria, cooler than Katniss herself, is a certified level one archery instructor with L.L.Bean. Including Maria, there were five of us out there that day in a sprawling field at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester where 10 hefty targets were arranged in a row.

All summer long, Maria has been out there in the baking hot sun, teaching the archer’s arts to one group of novices after another. It’s all part of Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Program, which for 40 years has been teaching tourists and locals around the country the finer points of everything from kayaking to fly-fishing to snowshoeing and stand-up paddle boarding, whatever that is.

Today, at Pineland, it was all about the archery and everyone save Maria was as green as it gets.

“I haven’t done it in years,” said Steffen Kaplan, a New Jersey man, who came with his wife and 12-year-old son. “I’ve watched ‘The Avengers’ a lot, though.”

That’s the thing about archery. You see it in the movies and it doesn’t look difficult at all. What’s so hard about it, anyway? You hold a curved hunk of wood and draw back a string to fire a glorified stick into a target. We’ve all seen characters on the big screen firing with ease from horseback and in the heat of battle. Heck, Cupid fires with great precision and he’s an infant.

“They make it look so easy,” said Steffen’s wife, Hazel.

Ah, yes, Hazel. How humble she was, and how self-effacing. Before the lessons were half over, she was shaming the rest of us with consistently tight groups around the center of her target.

Steffen and his family had been up in Maine vacationing during the latter part of summer. They spent

Instructor Maria Kokenos demonstrates proper technique during an L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester recently. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

some time at Acadia National Park and some more in the southern part of the state. They went to Bean’s popular dog jumping competition, but vacation was winding down and they were looking for something to occupy their time.

“My wife had googled L.L.Bean activities because we had another half a day with nothing to do,” Steffen said. They could have gone with fishing, kayaking, biking, bird-watching, skeet-shooting or a dozen other things, but archery looked good.

“We all wanted to try it,” Steffen said. “So we registered and drove up from Cape Elizabeth.”

Steffen is a former New York Times photo editor who now runs his own social media and visual consulting business. He had vague recollections of shooting a bow and arrow back in the hazy past, he said, but it had been so long, he had surely forgotten everything he’d once learned.

RELEASE YOUR INNER YGRITTE

Steffen’s first shots were well off the mark, to the point that his son started giving him grief about it, the way a 12-year-old will do.

“He thinks of everything as a contest,” Steffen said. “I’m trying to show him that sometimes, it’s more about learning.”

Writer Mark LaFlamme nocks his arrow during an L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

And boy, had we come to the right place for learning.

Maria Kokenos grew up in Connecticut – which might be an unforgivable offense if she was somebody else – and learned her way around a bow when she was just a lass.

“My dad is a hunter,” Maria told me, “so he got me into archery when I was very young. We practiced a lot together as I was growing up. When I got to Maine, I did a lot more practicing. I’d go to ranges and whatnot.”

One day she was at the L.L.Bean archery bow range and so impressed an instructor there that he asked her if she’d be interested in teaching a course for the Outdoor Discovery Program.

“I’m also a teacher,” Maria told me, “so it seemed like a good fit.”

And it was. Watching Maria work, it’s clear she isn’t out there in that hot field just to hand people bows and arrows and let them run amok. She’s there to help them develop their skills and then to finely tune those skills once they come into better view.

She makes sure you have a bow with the proper draw weight. She wants you to use the right length arrow and shows you how to measure for it. And there’s the matter of figuring out which of your eyes is dominant so you can determine if you’re a lefty, a righty or some weird mix of the two.

When it’s time to nock, draw and loose, Maria helps each student identify an anchor point – one person might draw his arrow back to his nose, for instance, another to the corner of the mouth. You need to pull the arrow back to the same place every time, Maria explains, or the untamed release hand will float and send arrows flying off target.

One of my issues, as it happened, was that I was drawing my arrow back too far, beyond my anchor point, and the result was a series of unsatisfying thwaps – arrows landing well off that bull’s-eye I so desperately wanted to obliterate.

Maria helped me make that adjustment and my arrows started showing a little more discipline. The same

Hazel Chan pulls her arrow from the target bull’s-eye at the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester recently. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

was happening up and down the row. Steffen started placing arrows closer to the mark. His boy, too. And Hazel was downright slaying it.

“Nah,” she said when I complimented her on another tight grouping. “Just luck.”

Mmm hmmm. Hazel, a ringer if ever I clapped eyes on one, was shooting like Ygritte out there. Maria had helped her identify flaws in her technique and Hazel was quick to respond with corrections.

Next, Maria worked on tweaking our nascent skills even further, helping us make corrections in elevation with the use of tiny pink squares she placed on the targets. Gap shooting, they call it, and my Lord how that tiny pink square mocked me.

Thwap! Too high.

Thwap! Too low.

Thwap! It’s that bee again.

To my right, I heard Steffen whooping after putting his arrow where he wanted it to go. Heh, I thought. Rookies. They get excited over every little . . .

And then I nailed that stupid pink square with back-to-back arrows and I started whooping, as well.

I AM THE ARROW!

Writer Mark LaFlamme looks to instructor Maria Kokenos during an L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester recently. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Using a bow and arrow is always going to be fun, and learning to do it well only adds to the experience. Which is, I suppose, the point of the Outdoor Discovery Program.

On a field adjacent to ours, an instructor named Sue was teaching an unnamed man to cast with a fly-fishing rod. Over and over their lines snapped across the sky, the unnamed fellow’s skills visibly sharpening with each new cast. Some people prefer to take their lessons in a group. Others, like the fellow out in that field with Sue, are willing to pay a little more for a one-on-one lesson.

Maria is only in her first year of teaching archery for Bean. During the course of the year, she’s taught a wide range of people to find their inner Guineveres.

“A whole medley. Kids from 8-year-olds to adults all the way up into their late 60s,” Maria told me. “Most of them have no archery experience. Some of them feel awkward about that, and uneasy, but they leave here very confident and really passionate about archery by the end of the session.”

That’s not just a company line, either. By the time we were done with our 90-minute session, we were all much better archers than when we first sauntered onto the field.

“I AM the arrow,” said Hazel, her humility slipping just briefly as she once more swarmed the bull’s-eye with her arrows.

Steffen was so entranced by the sport, he was thinking seriously about buying a bow and continuing his training in his own backyard. Why not? These days you can get a bow and arrow set just about anywhere. L.L.Bean has a dizzying variety of them, as do most sporting goods stores. Even Walmart sells bows these days, although most serious archers would remind you that you get what you pay for.

Hazel Chan and writer Mark LaFlamme take aim at their targets during an L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

For our training at Pineland, we used simple recurve bows, which are the kind that appear in your head if you close your eyes and try to picture a standard bow. There’s nothing fancy about them. When you get right down to it, it’s just a piece of string pulled taut between the ends of a flexible piece of wood. It’s more or less the same technology hunters and warriors have been using for about 18,000 years.

It all began, I assume, when some prehistoric fellow fired a stick from a crude bow made out of elk guts and a tree limb, probably in hopes of killing some small animal he could eat.

THWAP!

“Unk! Sun was in eyes!”

But he saw the potential.

THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER THING

L.L.Bean offers the Discovery Program at all 44 of its retail stores across the country and at 14 other outdoor sites.

The program first began offering a mountain biking program at Pineland, which has 5,000 acres of working farmland. This spring, Bean expanded its program at Pineland to include fly-fishing and archery along with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, coming this winter.

“With thousands of acres of forests, fields, streams and ponds, Pineland is a uniquely abundant venue for outdoor enthusiasts of all abilities,” writes Matthew Sabasteanski, outdoor recreation director at Pineland Farms.

Prices for the Discovery programs are kind of all over the road. The 90-minute archery course in which I indulged cost $25. There’s a more advanced “Introductory to Archery” course that lasts half a day and introduces more advanced compound bows. That one costs $129.

Bows and arrows at the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Program archery class at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

And so it is for most of the program listings. You could pay $25 for a full moon hiking tour or shell out $895 for a Baxter State Park hiking and camping trip. Fork over $25 for simple kayak training and a short excursion or go big and spend $3,000 for a complete Maine Woods Adventure trip – which involves a tour in a float plane and white water rafting, among other things.

“Their courses are great, as are their instructors – and the prices are so doable,” says Steffen. “With kids this such a great, fun and economical way to introduce them to so much. Will definitely be looking forward to more Bean courses.”

You can find a complete list of those courses, along with a calendar of events, at llbean.com.

I don’t know if Steffen followed through with his plans to keep shooting, but when I got home, I immediately dug out my homemade PVC bow and a quiver of arrows. Went into the backyard, set up an old plastic bin that my wife probably won’t miss, and started firing away, using all that Maria had taught me to put my arrows on target.

OK, they weren’t ALL on target. I tell you, that bee just won’t leave me alone.


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