The poet and novelist Jim Harrison once wrote that “the sky is a door never closed to us,” and on Tuesday evening in Orono, overlooking the four trapshooting fields at Park Sportsmens Club, when a clear Minnesota sky appeared to stretch to forever, that seemed true enough.
First organized in 1939 in St. Louis Park, the club and its members enjoyed only a brief run there before they and their scattergun noisemakers were sent packing to what was then the Twin Cities’ outer ring, at 78th and Normandale in Bloomington.
Soon enough, they were crowded out again by houses, apartments and just plain too many people, and in 1951 the Park Sportsmens Club — named for its original location in St. Louis Park — scurried to what it hopes is its final location in Orono.
The club’s elder statesmen are usually on hand when the outfit is open to league and public shooting on summer evenings, and that was the case Tuesday, when brothers Tom and John Lynch, Todd Gabrielson, Perry White and Jim Fust gathered in advance of a monthly board meeting.
“I was shooting leagues here before I could drive,” said Fust, 60, the club’s president.
“I shot on Jim’s dad’s team,” said John Lynch, 69.
This summer, the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into just about everything, and as a result, the club is in only its fourth week of shooting, a duration shorter by half or more than what would normally be the case.
Additionally, fewer league teams with names like Five Blind Guys and One Hitz are competing this summer. On the three evenings the club is open to league competition, 10 teams might show up to shoot, down from the 16 or so in previous years.
“We could have started shooting earlier this summer,” said Tom Lynch. “We were probably a little overcautious about the pandemic, and that cost us some league teams. When high school trapshooting was canceled, that also slowed us down. School teams from Minnetonka, Orono, Hopkins, Blake, Wayzata and Providence Academy shoot here.”
As Lynch spoke, shotgun reports echoed into the wild blue yonder from the club’s four ranges, as shooters, one after another, called for clay targets to be thrown by an oscillating machine hidden in a concrete enclosure 16 yards away.
The trick of American trap — there are variations — is to hit the 4 ¼-inch orange discs no matter where in a 54-degree arc the machine sends them flying. Each shooter fires five rounds from each of five stations, and everyone’s goal is 25 x 25, a challenging tally rarely achieved.
But highlighting only the sport’s competitive aspects is a mistake. At most trapshooting clubs, gatherings on summer evenings to shoot a couple of rounds of clays before cooking a burger on an outdoor grill is no less Minnesotan than taking in a Twins game or jigging for walleyes.
Such was the case Tuesday, as shooters called “Pull!” a few dozen times, then gathered on picnic tables alongside charcoal grills and open coolers, the pandemic and its daily boxscore of death and infection forgotten for the time being.
“I’d say it used to be 50-50 in terms of people who joined the club primarily for the shooting and those who joined primarily for the social part of coming to the club once a week,” Fust said. “Now I think it’s probably 70-30, with shooting the primary attraction. There seem to be more competing activities than there used to be.”
Shooting clubs first took root in Europe’s Germanic cultures in the 13th century. In the 1700s, marksmanship matches were held in American colonies, and by the late 1800s, competitive shooting was so popular that one match in Glendale Park, N.Y., drew 600 shooters and 30,000 spectators.
As recently as the 1940s and 1950s, some of the nation’s cultural and media elites, among them Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Robert Stack, shot trap and its companion sport, skeet.
But as access to good bird hunting declined throughout North America, and as many shooters grew older and some ranges closed over neighbors’ noise complaints, trapshooting participation leveled off.
That changed in 2008, when the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League was founded on the then-far-fetched idea that guns, kids and schools could unite toward a productive end.
In the intervening years, competitive trap has proved so alluring to kids in grades 7 through 12 that the nine-day 2019 Minnesota high school trapshooting championship was the largest shooting-sports event in the world, with more than 300 schools and 8,000 kids participating — each vying for trophies and varsity letters, just like their classmates who kick footballs and shoot basketballs.
“All of the kids who pull traps here at the club on league nights shoot on their high school teams,” Fust said. “Any young shooter who comes out here, and we’re open to the public, who wants shooting instruction, we’re happy to help. In fact, we’ll help any shooter of any age who wants help.”
So it went Tuesday, with the final target pulled and the last gun cased just before sunset. By then, the evening’s brighter blue sky had assumed nightfall’s darker hues.
The coronavirus has indeed thrown a wrench into just about everything this summer.
Yet looking westward from Park Sportsmens Club’s trap ranges, the sky still seemed to stretch forever, a door, as Harrison said, that never closes.