By Lisa Richardson
Empty ammunition shells glint in the sun. I crunch through the snow above Suicide Hill, trying not to flinch at the crack-crack of rifle shots as clay pigeons are systematically demolished. To my left, Dan Treadway, a big mountain freeskier with a closet full of camo and ammo, takes aim at a freshly hung target. To my right, a provincial-level biathlete who held her first pistol at age eight, Sydney Van Loon, unzips her over booties, steps into skinny skis, and scopes the bulls-eye. In six weeks, this range will be reverberating with gunfire as the Department of National Defense tests its weapons for an Olympic-sized security mission. Today, it’s a good old-fashioned shootout and a friendly one at that.
Only in Pemberton, where shooting ‘chicken’ means hunting wild grouse (that’s what it tastes like), the museum doubles as a gun-licence classroom, and no one looks sideways when you start asking questions about weapons, even if you’re a chick. Here, gun culture doesn’t belong to gangsters – it’s just part of country life.
A home base for sled necks and skiers, sustainability-seeking urban refugees and fourth-generation farmers and loggers, Pemby is as equal-opportunity a launchpad for big game hunters with fat skis as for rifle-toting, skinny-skiing jackrabbits. And why not? Going from skiing to shooting isn’t as big a stretch as granola-eaters might suspect, although the connection is more seamless if you have a taste for game.
So says Dan Treadway, who spends hunting season in Northern Ontario before driving back across the country with a truck full of fresh meat. He’s been shooting guns since he was shorter than the rifle and likened hunting to going for a nature walk, only with more adrenaline. Given the lines Treadway is famed for skiing, it’s something to hear him say that “sitting in the bush calling a moose in heat is a bigger adrenaline rush” than anything he’s skied.
Sydney Van Loon spent her childhood accumulating an entirely different set of trophies for the living room. When you grow up on a beef and potato farm, you don’t have to worry about stocking your freezer with deer meat. A Pemby-bred provincial-level biathlete and cyclist, Van Loon picked up her first pistol when she was eight in a class put on by the Pemberton Wildlife Association. The instructor laid a bunch of guns on a table and gathered a gaggle of wide-eyed girls around. “Now,” he said, “Are these dangerous?”
Yes, nodded the wide-eyed girls. Yes, very dangerous.
“No!” he said. “No, they’re not dangerous at all. They could lie there like that for hundreds of years, and no one would ever get hurt. You’re the dangerous ones.”
Now coaching Prince George’s Caledonia Nordic Ski Club team while studying glaciology at Thompson Rivers University, Van Loon says shooting offers a unique “sense of having everything stopping. You feel full-body control. Everything slows down – your lungs, your heart. You’re in the zone.” The mastery required to go from skiing at full tilt aerobic output to slowing down enough to focus on the target makes biathlon one of the most challenging sports. “I don’t think people realize how much is behind it.”
Van Loon used to practice quieting her body down as she came up the driveway to the farm, then would lie on the living room floor and squeeze off imaginary rounds at the television. But now, thanks to the Department of National Defence, there’s a better place to practice – the Pemberton Wildlife Association’s shooting range.
PWA President Clarke Gatehouse throws props to the military, which, given their firepower, have been uniquely conciliatory with the club. “The DND needed a place to practice and check weapons throughout the Olympics, and rather than just build a range in a gravel pit somewhere, they wanted to leave a legacy. So they really went out of their way to make sure they left us with something we could use.” Adding a third 100-yard shooting range and beefier safety berms will allow the club to meet the growing interest in shooting sports coming from all manner of folks living on the edge of the backcountry.
Treadway explains how the lure of shooting can transcend ski-width preference or lycra-tolerance: “I don’t think there’s anything that can compare with nature sports like skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hunting or fishing for the types of experiences you get from being in the wild, where you’re so dependent on weather, circumstances, the mountains, the animals, the fact that it snowed two feet the day before….”
So, who shoots best, the chick or the hick? That information is classified. But I’ll take either on my Pemberton SWAT Team. You can never have too many cool-headed straight-shooters in your ‘hood.