The young archers – seven girls and two boys on this particular night – are pictures of concentration as they take the line and raise their bows, carefully aiming at the targets 7 to 10 yards away.
"OK, you can shoot," instructor Jared Duckstad says. "Take your time – get your stance down.
"If anyone needs help, raise your hand; I'll come and help you."
So goes a typical Thursday night during the spring youth archery lessons at the Red River Archers' indoor shooting range in Grand Forks.
The archery club offers three, one-hour sessions with 10 students each during the five-week program, which is open to young archers from 8 to 17 years old, said Duckstad, who oversees the lessons. Handling the equipment can be a struggle for kids younger than 8, he says, and a class size of 10 is about the maximum the program can handle, given the size of the archery range and the number of available instructors.
The Red River Archers has offered the youth archery lessons for about 15 years, says Duckstad, who's in his fourth season as instructor. This year's program is comprised of 17 boys and 13 girls, he said.
"We try to run this program at least once a year – usually every spring after adult leagues are finished and range availability opens up," he said.
Red River Archers member Veronica Hanson, a UND medical student, assists with setup and instruction when her schedule allows, Duckstad says, and club president Jason Whitesock coordinates registration and posts class announcements on websites.
This year's program was scheduled to begin April 11, but a late blizzard delayed the first night until April 18. The lessons wrap up for the spring Thursday, May 16.
Offered on a first-come, first-served basis, the lessons are open to young archers of all skill levels, Duckstad says. Typical classes range from beginners with no experience to intermediate and experienced shooters who sign up for the program every year.
Regardless, Duckstad says, he approaches the first night of lessons as if none of the students has ever shot with bow and arrow, going over range rules, safety, basics steps of shooting and range commands.
All are good refreshers, even for the most experienced students, he says.
"The beginner students do require more attention and help getting started so we walk them through it slowly, getting used to the equipment and helping with dexterity until they are able to shoot on their own," Duckstad said. "As an instructor, you have to be patient with all students. Some will pick it up quickly, and some require more attention and help until they get the hang of it."
Eventually, though, even the least experienced shooters catch on to the basics, he says. Once they learn the routine and are hitting their targets, Duckstad keeps them on track with instruction, tips and encouragement as needed.
A little bit of praise goes a long way toward building confidence, he says.
"It is worth it to see the reactions of the student and parents when they hit the 'X' for the first time," he said.
As an instructor, Duckstad says helping the young archers become more proficient at a sport they can enjoy throughout their lives is especially satisfying.
"Everyone can enjoy archery regardless of gender, age or athletic ability and (it) is even adaptable to individuals with disabilities," he said. "As a parent, I enjoy seeing kids come in to an archery class for the first time – especially those who may not have had success with other team sports – and I see the progress.
"I see them learning focus, self-discipline, coordination and balance. I see them gaining confidence."
Duckstad also keeps it fun for the young archers by occasionally adding different targets or challenges for each class, such as hanging balloons on the targets for the students to try and pop. Or Ping-Pong, where students try to shoot a Ping-Pong ball floating in mid air over an air blower.
The students shoot at 3-D targets on the last night of class.
The popularity of the club's youth archery lessons attests to the popularity of archery both at the state and national level. In North Dakota, for example, all but a handful of counties have schools participating in the National Archery in the Schools Program as part of their physical education curriculum, and the state Game and Fish Department offers grants to help schools establish the archery program.
The Red River Archers' instructional program also offers equipment for participating students.
The lessons routinely fill to capacity, Duckstad says.
"Once word gets out that classes will be held, the classes fill very quickly," he said. "We usually do not have a problem filling 30 spots, and there are always a few more waiting to get in."
Beyond learning a lifelong activity, developing archery skills has numerous social and physical benefits for the students, Duckstad says.
"I see new relationships forming with other kids with similar interests," he said. "I see kids 'moving' – getting exercise instead of being glued to a TV screen or phone. I see kids taking an interest in the outdoors and hunting.
"This all reminds me of how important it is for parents and adults to volunteer their time – to pass on what they know to not only their children, but others, as well."