Of all my forays into peel-away-the-urban-skin country adventures, this was the most challenging.
On the drive to the 125-acre woodsy confines of Blendon Pines, in Zeeland, Mich., I was feeling some butterflies. I wasn't out to bag the main entree for Thanksgiving dinner, but I was about to become a hunter.
In the words of my instructor, Denny Fuller, sporting clays is a bloodless gun sport. But the knowledge that I'd be shooting bright orange clay discs didn't do too much to settle the stomach.
I walked into the clubhouse and was met by a roomful of hunting men. They weren't skinning rabbits, but I knew I was among fans of guns. (The once-spry animals mounted on the walls may have influenced my assumption.)
My immediate thought: wardrobe regret. Wearing my favorite jeans, fitted turtleneck sweater, baby blue vest and a cashmere gray scarf, I was looking sufficiently cute, but my attire didn't distinguish this day from any other. I was hunting (again, nothing with a pulse), not window-shopping up Damen sipping a skim vanilla half-decaf latte. I should have slid into my two-seasons-ago camouflage cargos from Target and donned an NRA cap. Calling Dick Cheney.
Be strong. Don't be such a girl. Remember you're among hunters. Out of my head voice and back to the task at hand: destroying some clay "birds."
Denny, a robust man with a welcoming smile, hunts all kinds of game, but he's equally passionate about sporting clays and is quite accomplished in the sport. Clearly, I was in good hands.
Before I was to lay my hand on a gun, Denny was keen on instructing me about safety. Guns should be unloaded and never pointed in the direction of others. Eyes and ears are covered by protective gear. I needed my glasses to shoot, so that sufficed. Fingers are to be left off the trigger until "in station" and ready to fire.
Denny chose a 28-gauge, over-under (the barrels are on top of each other) shotgun for me. It was heavy, and after practicing my hold for a few minutes I knew it was time to resume Pilates. I hadn't even fired the thing and my upper arms were yelping "this doesn't feel like typing."
We hopped into Denny's golf cart, pimped out with camouflage rollup sides, and hit the wooded course. Our first stop: the wobbling trap, which launches clay targets in various directions unbeknownst to the shooter. Denny was quick to note that novices usually spend their first lesson learning the fundamentals. For me, an exception was made.
Gun mount: That spot where the recoil pad rests against your shoulder and cheek. Your face should just graze the gun comb. Stance: Since I'd shoot with my right hand, my left leg was slightly bent and extended. My left arm extended supporting the gun, my right bent gripping behind the trigger pull.
Leaning at the waist, both eyes open I was anxious to be a "shotgun virgin" no more.
Miss. Miss, miss and miss. And then, oh glory, I saw orange pieces raining. I gleefully hit a few more before we powered up Denny's hunting cart and breezed into the woods.
Similar to a golf course, sporting clay courses are dotted with stations that launch targets at varied heights, angles and speeds. The targets are designed to mimic the movement of game, be it rabbits, squirrels or birds.
At each station, Denny would launch a test bird and together we'd read the target and visually mark the hold point (where you first see the target) and the break point (where you fire) against the landscape of surrounding trees.
From "pull" to hit or miss, was lightening fast. Half the time I was closing my eyes and just firing. But at an elevated station, I hit the first target dead-on. The bird exploded and I giddily jumped for joy.
I fired my shotgun about 30 times and probably hit 10 targets. Each time I hit one, I wanted another—and I'm not much of a competitor. High school graduation marked the end of my forced participation in team sports. But the adrenaline rush was intoxicating. This must be what Tiger feels when sinking a putt.
I could never shoot a furry or feathered creature because I imagine their fear and pain. I'm a softy. Sporting clays is a victimless sport that will tone your arms, focus your mind and give you an excuse to buy a new wardrobe. Let's call it hunting chic.
Jammed in the City:
Drinking and gun sports do NOT mix in the great outdoors, so head inside Wicker Park's Lincoln Tavern and Restaurant. Elegant it's not, but you can drink and tag a few video game-generated deer. This play gun won't produce that oddly pleasing smoke after being fired, but you're free to yell "pull."
For sporting clay facilities near you, check out claytargetsonline.