Taking aim in the high country | VailDaily.com

Taking aim in the high country

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
HL Guns 01 TS 08-24-08

EAGLE COUNTY ” It’s a hot Saturday in Wolcott and storm clouds hover in the distance. They don’t appear to be an immediate threat, but that could change at any moment. From far away the loud, booming noises heard coming from Piney Valley Ranch could probably be mistaken for thunder claps; but when you’re this close, there’s no mistaking it for what it is: Gunshots.

The ranch offers outdoor sports enthusiasts an array of activities, most notably fly fishing and hunting. But the loud, periodic bursts of gunfire heard today isn’t from hunters pursuing big game. No, these shotgun-wielding customers are here for a different thrill. The sport is trap shooting, the ultimate in hand-eye coordination tests.

Two clay discs are launched into the air with different flight patterns and speeds, while shooters take aim and fire, trying to nail both targets before they land.

“It’s all about finding that Zen in your sport,” says Kathryn Long, the 24-year-old founder of Elevated Entertainment, an event management and production company in Avon.

This cheerful blonde from Florida knows her way around a gun. Her father taught her how to shoot properly as a kid growing up in Florida and she fell in love with the sport.

“I’ve always enjoyed guns, I’ve always felt very comfortable with them,” Long says.

She handles a Beretta 12-gauge shotgun with confidence and ease as she explains the beauty of a sport that teaches patience, self-discipline and respect. But how does she find Zen in a sport this loud?

“I think the hardest part about sporting clays is that I’m the hardest person on myself,” Long says. “So for me it’s really teaching me a lot of patience and dropping things, letting things go, learning to laugh at myself. It’s learning how to soothe your nerves and calm yourself down so you can reach that point of relaxation and concentration. It’s just fun.”

Guns are a touchy subject in America. Second Amendment rights aside, sports like skeet and trap shooting are proof that not every gun in existence is used in a violent crime. Long compares this type of shooting to sports like golf, tennis or baseball.

“It depends on who’s behind the gun, just like it depends on who’s behind the wheel of a car,” Long said. “You know who you are as a human being. You know what you’re capable of. I know that if I pick up a gun it’s not going to make me want to go and hurt someone with it.”

Indeed, Long calls trap shooting a “gentlemen’s sport,” and said that some of the most friendly and helpful people she’s ever met in life have been avid gun collectors and sport shooters. In her opinion, guns, and the people who own them legally, get a bad rap because of those who abuse the privilege.

“I just wish people would get out there and try it before they made an opinion,” Long said.

Her enthusiasm for the sport, which she picked up in college, led her to start organizing trap shooting contests around the country.

Lance Nichols moved to Wolcott from Idaho for his job as a hunting guide and ranch hand at Piney Valley Ranch. He also goes clay shooting whenever he can.

“It’s fun to just go out and shoot,” Nichols said. “Most people do it for practice for hunting birds or whatever or just as sport and it’s been getting bigger and bigger. I mean these last 10 years it’s been getting popular. Most people, instead of golf now, they kind of go out and shoot guns and it’s for regular old Joes or people that have money and like to come out here.”

Nichols, a gun owner himself, said the trap shooting people do on the ranch is more a test of the shooters patience and skills than an attempt to prove manhood.

“You gotta pay attention and always be safe. Safety is the biggest key that we like to teach out here. Always keep everything safe and point it in the right direction and just have fun,” Nichols said.

Safety should always come first, agreed Matt Bayley. Bayley teaches gun safety and self-defense at the Minturn Shooting Range through his company, On Target.

Watching him teach his students ” a married couple from West Vail ” he looks and sounds like a jovial drill sergeant.

He shouts directions; his students repeat the directions aloud, then follow them.

“Shooters, step up. Load your weapons. Aim. Fire,” Bayley barked.

Bayley specializes in tactical shooting, which teaches people how to defend themselves against an intruder. He teaches his students the proper stance for shooting, how to hold a hand gun and how to aim it and fire it effectively. He takes his job seriously and is obviously very concerned with teaching his students proper respect for guns.

“We go through probably six to 10 layers of safety,” Bayley said.

But he’s not without a lighter side. Bayley cracks jokes in between his instruction to keep things from getting too serious.

“I use humor and I use positive reinforcement,” he said.

In front of Bayley and his two students, Sonja and Brian Craythorne, stand easels mounted with paper targets shaped like human silhouettes. The targets are pierced with dozens of bullet holes, showing off the couple’s skills. They’ve been taking lessons with Bayley for only a short period of time and as older, second-home owners, certainly don’t look the gun enthusiast part.

“I don’t intend to shoot anybody, and probably never will,” Brian said. Nevertheless, he said he wanted to know he could handle a gun properly if he or his family was ever attacked. He and Sonja weren’t necessarily afraid of what lurked around every corner, but they wanted to be prepared for anything.

“I just enjoy the sport. I’m enjoying trying to hit the bull’s-eye and the marksmanship,” Sonja said.

“It’s much more challenging than a novice would expect,” Brian agreed.

The fear of handling a firearm is what keeps the majority of people away from them, Bayley said.

“Knowledge is power, number one, and people are afraid of guns because they’ve never used them,” Bayley said. “It’s a very wholesome sport.”

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 970-748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.

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