DALTON, N.H. — When they get the go-ahead from the race director, each competitor takes off running, slowly, in wooden snowshoes, dressed in period garb, carrying a finicky rifle, trying to keep their breath in check. Because if they miss just one shot at the four shooting stations, their chances of winning are pretty much over.
It’s basically the Olympic biathlon designed by Daniel Boone.
Now in its 11th year, the Dalton Gang’s Primitive Biathlon, which takes place deep in the New Hampshire woods on the north side of the White Mountains, is an event that is intentionally low on technology and high on nostalgia.
The event is actually very similar to Olympic biathlons, said Bob Lindemann, the race director, but instead of modern guns and cross-country skis, they use muzzle-loaded rifles and wooden snowshoes, the sort that work best as wall décor.
Period dress is encouraged, though not required, but most competitors make an effort to go for the Daniel Boone look, which means lots of fur and a homemade “possibles” bag, a little pouch for competitors to carry everything they could possibly need.
The appeal for competitors, many of them members of the Dalton Gang gun club, is that it harkens back to a time when such things weren’t a sport; they were a way of life.
“The setting is just so beautiful that it takes you back to a time when you’re just trudging along in your snow shoes, without a manmade structure for miles around,” said Wendy Butler, a competitor from Middlebury, Vt., “and you can stay in that moment of time gone by where you’re visiting another trapper’s lodge.”
Butler, who has been a longtime competitor, said that after growing up with parents who liked to disappear into the wilderness for weeks at a time to hunt elk, she has an appreciation for “primitive” experiences, but she likes them best when they include the ability to take a shower at the end of the day.
The competition is one of several in New England — the original, in Smuggler’s Notch, Vt., is now in its 19th year — and the Dalton course consists of a 1.5-mile race through the woods, up and then down a hillside. Along the course, there are three shooting stations, where competitors must load their single-shot rifles and take two shots at metal targets off in the distance. When they reach the end of the course, there’s a fourth station where they fire three shots. The entire course takes most people somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour, and while the scenery is calming, the course is not.
“Quite simply, the uphill kicked my butt,” said Greg Sanderson, a first-time competitor from Sanbornton, N.H. “I wasn’t quite ready for this.”
Sanderson was at least dressed for the part. Like many of the competitors, his clothing was a combination of modern and frontiersy. He wore period pieces for his pants and shirt, but stopped, as did most everyone else, when it came to footwear. Rubber is hard to beat in the snow.
The course itself has a rustic feel, considering that it’s on a hill just above the Dalton Gang’s clubhouse and parking lot. Competitors leave at intervals. The event lasted two days, and people could go whenever they liked; some went twice, taking a pistol or a smoothbore musket for a second go-round.
Once in the woods, the feeling is one of solitude, like a good hiking trail, with the only sound coming from the heavy breathing of a human attempting to get uphill quickly in a snowshoes.
That breathing is the key to the entire competition, because controlling it while shooting is necessary for victory.
“The key is to calm yourself and try to shoot the same every time because they’re real finicky rifles,” said Skip Ward, a competitor.
Unlike the Olympic biathlon, missed shots do not lead to a penalty. In Sochi, a miss means a lap around a small oval that usually takes about 20 seconds. Instead, each successful shot in the primitive biathlon leads to a huge reward, five minutes deducted from the overall time. If you’re able to hit all nine shots, it’s possible to end up with a negative time.
While some are in it to win it, most people come to the primitive biathlon for the sentimental tingle of playing dress-up and connecting to the old days, which means some guns, some nature, and a lot of hanging out by the fire in the clubhouse telling war stories.
The Dalton Boys’ clubhouse is certainly rustic, in the sense that it has a painting of John Wayne on the wall, no indoor plumbing, and it feels as if it could fall down at any moment. There is a small television TV in the corner with a stack of VHS tapes and DVDs next to it. Not quite primitive, but it still fits the theme: All the movies are Westerns.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.