By Joseph Robertia
With each visibly steaming exhale, May Bruno’s cheeks grew rosier. The 12-year-old was working hard in the cool morning air, but her mind was not on the single-digit temperatures. Just arriving from skiing the short, but hilly, Raven Loop on the Tsalteshi Trails system, the teen was focused on her breathing.
She glided in and quickly transitioned to lying in a prone position, then picked up a .22-caliber rifle, rotated the bolt in battery, and took aim with the iron sights on a small, 1 ¾-inch target 50 meters downrange.
As she concentrated and got her breathing under control, she moved her still-gloved index finger onto the trigger. Without jerking she smoothly squeezed off a shot. The rifle popped, and a “ding” of success could be heard even before Tim Bruno — her father and a level-one biathlon instructor staring at the target through a spotting scope — announced that she had hit her mark.
Her bluish lips formed a large smile, the kind that comes from success, but she continued working through her still-full clip. Pulling the bolt back, a small brass shell flew out, glinting in the morning light. Before the still-hot empty cartridge hissed into the snow, Bruno had already slammed the bolt forward and loaded another round. Over and over again she hit her mark, until finally her rifle ran silent. Only the sweet smell of gun-smoke emanated from its empty chamber.
“These are difficult targets to hit even without breathing hard, but when you add in the hard breathing and increased heart beating from skiing so fast, this can be daunting to kids,” Tim Bruno said.
That was part of the purpose of the youth biathlon event held Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails — to not just practice biathlon skills, which combine the aerobic demands of cross-country skiing with the precision of rifle marksmanship, but for the youth involved to build confidence as a result of this practice.
Throughout the morning the “swish, swish, swish, bang, ding” process was repeated by the handful of youths, ages 10 to 13, who
braved the cold to take part in the live-fire event. During the week, Tsalteshi Trails Association also offers youth laser biathlon for even younger children, but these older kids had already been through that program, as well as attended a biathlon range safety clinic and become members of the U.S. Biathlon Association in order to take part in firing real bullets.
“The impetus for opening this old range back up was the growing interest in youth biathlon,” said Scott Downing, one of the organizers, who, along with Tim and Jill Bruno, Jeff Fox and several others, has been championing the program.
“We’ve had tremendous interest in the youth skiing and laser biathlon program, which uses guns with lasers and targets that receive that laser, and signal when hit. It gives the kids experience in a very safe environment,” Downing said.
Last May, Tsalteshi also hosted a well-attended clinic, taught by Kasilof-born and raised biathlete, Jay Hakkinen, a four-time Olympian whose 10th place finish in the 20-kilometer individual race during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, was the best finish ever by an American biathlete.
“Reopening the range, located here between the Raven and Beaver Trails, seemed like a natural extension of all this building interest,” Downing said.
Still, logistical issues remained. For one, where to get the firearms? Jill Bruno said that the Snowshoe Gun Club in Kenai had several .22-caliber Marlin 2000 rifles available that they were gracious enough to lend for the kids to use.
Once firearms were secured, there came the matter of getting the range operational. To do so, the range safety officers and Tsalteshi
Trails Association mapped out a route that allows the firearms to be brought to the range without crossing onto Kenai Peninsula Borough School District property. Then trails near the course were flagged as closed for the biathlon ski loop and to keep other skiers safely away from the range during its two hours of operation Saturday.
“My kids were pretty excited when they found out there were guns available,” Jill Bruno said. “They’ve wanted to get into this since they first watched the Winter Olympics.”
Tim Bruno said that a lot of the lesson Saturday was repeating what the kids had already learned with the laser rifles.
“It’s still teaching them the fundamentals of firearms safety. Legally, they can’t ski with the guns until 18, so the rifles stay here pointed downrange while the kids ski. Then they come in and practice what they know — keeping their finger off the trigger until shooting, always looking to be sure what is beyond the target, and not pointing the gun at anything they’re not trying to destroy. The kids that have been in the program for a while are really good at it all,” he said.
Bruno’s words seemed to bear truth as, throughout the morning, many of the kids connected with the bull’s-eye. Several also
displayed a working knowledge of not just shooting, but rifle mechanics, as well, as Addison Downing, 13, cleared a jammed shell with the precision of a gunsmith. To the outsider, if the kids struggled with anything on Saturday morning, it was only to stay warm.
But they each had their own areas on which they believed they needed more work. Gabe Bruno, 10, said that while his strength is double-poling while skiing up hills, he is still working on reining in his breath when he comes onto the range.
“I shoot well, but not as good when I’m breathing hard. My muscles get wobbly and the gun gets heavy, but I’m practicing. You have to concentrate on your breathing. That’s what I like about this. It combines two really fun sports, but with more rules that make it more difficult,” he said.
Much like karate, in which kids do pushups when they make a mistake, in biathlon the kids also pay for errors with physical actions. Missed shots mean more laps skied.
“The penalty loops can add up,” Bruno said. “But even at the Olympic level there are a lot of misses, and the kids understand that.”
Future range openings are scheduled through March 16, depending on how the snow holds up this winter. Any youth interested in participating must be members of U.S. Biathlon and be trained in safety protocols. Downing said that they’d like to begin the biathlon program next winter as soon as the snow flies.
Parents wanting to enroll their children in the biathlon program are asked to preregister. For more information, visit http://www.tsalteshi.org.