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Bearclaw rendezvous hits a bullseye for old-style hunters

Ah, the good old days: Enjoying the Bearclaw get-together at Height-of-Land Lake were four campers from Longville -- from left, Darcy and Mike Osburnsen, "Handsome Dan" Yochum and Bill Payne.1 / 4
The archery range was popular at the Bearclaw Rendezvous this weekend at the Height-of-Land Sportsman's Club. Gerald Streifel of Sabin nailed the target again and again -- it was one of a dozen or so animal targets on the archery range.2 / 4
POURING SHOT into a black powder shotgun on Sunday was Carol Bradow of Pine River. It was no easy process to load the weapon, used from the 1860s to about 19253 / 4
she was a deadeye shooter, downing a series of clay pigeons launched over a swamp at the Height-of-Land Sportsman's Club.4 / 4

Arrows flew and the smell of gunpowder was in the air at the Height of Land Sportsman's Club over the weekend,

About 35 families gathered for the annual get-together hosted by the Bearclaw Muzzleloaders of Northern Minnesota.

Members dress in pre-1840s garb and generally use gear and equipment similar to what was available back then.

Guest campers came from all around the region to visit, trade and enjoy some friendly shooting and archery competition.

"It's the camping and the shooting," that draws people to black powder rendezvous, said Bearclaw President Al Witthoeft of Detroit Lakes.

There are some pretty good marksmen (and women) out there, judging by the waste laid to the rows of targets -- including small toy apples hanging on strings, gummy candies poking up on sticks, small toy Army men placed on boards, along with crayons, clothes pins and similar targets.

The kids liked to shoot one of several gongs placed in the shooting gallery, for the satisfying sound of a bulls-eye.

This particular temporary range at Height of Land is unusual in that it slopes downhill, away from the shooter, which makes it a little more difficult, Witthoeft said.

Elsewhere archers were taking aim at targets shaped like a wide variety of animals, and placed at varying distances away.

Later on Sunday a black powder shotgun competition was held in yet another spot, with clay pigeons sent winging out over a swamp.

Period dress is encouraged, but not strictly enforced.

"If you're out here competing, you're supposed to be in period-correct clothes, said Witthoeft.

But a lot of black powder enthusiasts are getting older and have trouble keeping up with the physical demands of period-correct clothing and camping.

Those canvas tents and teepees are heavy and cumbersome to set up and take down.

Witthoeft knows -- he owns four and set up three for the weekend.

"It's a lot of work," he said. "It used to be easier when the kids were home, they'd help." Al and his wife, Theresa, have three grown children.

"A lot of them older people can't do it anymore -- it's heavy," he said.

That's why modern campers are part of the scene at the Bearclaw rendezvous, though they are grouped together.

"After 5 p.m. anything outside those campers has to be in period-correct clothes," Witthoeft said.

At some black powder rendezvous, modern campers are allowed, but are segregated a ways away, behind a tree line, for example. But there just isn't room for that kind of screening at Height of Land, Witthoeft said.

There have been as many as 57 families at the Bearclaw gathering, but the heat this year kept many of them away, he added.

"It's amazing what you go through to do this stuff -- the heat and the cold."

He recalled waking up to six inches of fresh snow at a black powder rendezvous one May in Kindred, N.D.

In July, however, pre-1840s clothing tends to be on the warm side, and are a lot of work to make.

"My wife made all the clothes herself (for the five-member family), including the moccasins," Witthoeft said. "We bought the hide and made moccasins."

But there are options to do-it-yourself.

Clothing, knives, and equipment can sometimes be purchased from traveling venders, or "traders," who camp at the rendezvous.

And sometimes campers set out "trading blankets" holding used clothing or equipment for purchase or trade.

"They come from all over," to camp at the rendezvous," from Park Rapids to Kindred to Long Prairie to Bemidji, Witthoeft said.

And who can blame them? For a $20 camping fee, they get to spend a weekend away from everything and enjoy the slower pace of life 150 years ago -- and for $10 more they can do a little shooting, to boot.