Testing the Limits in Bryce Canyon National Park

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2002. Photo: Johan Elenga

A recent weekend in Bryce Canyon National Park was all about limits. I tested the limits of my friendship with accomplice Kristy by dragging her all over the park and then persuading her to compete with me in an archery biathlon.

Never mind that she had never been cross-country skiing before.

She tested the limits of her friendship with me during the five-hour drive to Bryce, when I had to roll down the windows for much of the chilly February drive thanks to her garlic pizza dinner. Our hotel room had to undergo a similar de-fumigation process.

We were going to Bryce Canyon’s annual Winter Festival. The three-day festival
includes free clinics, demos, and tours in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, archery, ski archery, photography, and ski waxing. The event is usually held over President’s Day weekend but had been bumped up a few weeks to accommodate the Olympic Torch Relay.

I was ecstatic. Bryce Canyon National Park’s pillars, hoodoos, and fin-like ridges are stunning enough during the summer months. But in winter, they erupt from the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in a fiery display set against the cold white snow.

This high elevation park is also Utah’s smallest with an area of only 56-square miles. Best of all was the absence of the tourists who flood the park every year beginning in May. Park rangers assert that Bryce averages around 100 visitors on any given weekday and rarely more than 250 on the weekends during the off-season. The park’s elevation reaches as high as 9,115 feet, and the resulting snows scare off the fair-weather tourists from November through April.

Archery 101

We dove into the Winter Festival that afternoon, starting with the archery clinic. Our instructor was Eric Quilter, a member of the U.S. Archery Biathlon Team. Quilter had been involved in the cross-country ski circuit for years but shot his first bow at the Utah Winter Games only two ago. He soon started to compete in the Archery Biathlon, a blend of cross-country skiing and target archery. The event consists of a 6- to 12-kilometer ski course with several stops at the targets. Scoring is a combination of ski time and shooting points.

Quilter explained that in the real race, a simple “hit-or-miss” style target is used at an 18-meter distance from the racers. Our target was thankfully a huge bulls-eye with concentric rings that was in much closer proximity. He walked us through archery’s basics— everything from eye dominance, to brace-height, to stance.

Quilter then asked for volunteers. Never one to shun a shot at public humiliation, I started to step forward. “How about we start with the burliest in the group?” he quipped.

I stepped back. My daunting 5’4” frame topped with curly strawberry-blonde hair didn’t exactly constitute burly. But when a couple of wiry teenage boys stepped up, I figured I was in the running and joined them.

The smug juvenile next to me leaned over and whispered, “Hey Blondie, don’t worry if you can’t pull the string on the bow. You need to be really strong.” It was at that moment that archery became the most competitive sport in the world. I flexed. I pulled.I aimed at the bulls-eye with Junior’s face etched on it. And I shot those arrows with great precision, overcome by the competitive spirit.

I somehow thought my success (or lack of failure) qualified Kristy and me to take it to the next level: the archery biathlon. Kristy called it insane and at first, refused. She had never been on cross-country skis and didn’t believe me when I said it was “all in good fun.” She had probably witnessed my interchange with Junior. I finally convinced her to join me.

Cross-Country Skiing 201

We participated in a ski clinic early the next morning so Kristy did not have to race cold turkey. Our R.E.I. instructor taught our group of five the basics and then let us loose on the groomed Great Western Trail. I had only been cross-country skiing a handful of times, but I figured 25 years of alpine skiing would have some bearing upon my skills. I forgot I thought the same thing when I took up water-skiing, when I had quickly learned otherwise.

Kristy did better than most of our group, which instilled a false sense of confidence. We eventually connected with over 50 kilometers of cross-country ski track that Ruby’s Inn Nordic Center grooms for classical and skating techniques. The trail winds through meadows and forests to the rim of Bryce Canyon. Some of the trials interconnect with ski-set trails inside the national park. The scenery was stunning and best of all, there was no track fee at Ruby’s.

Graduate-level Biathlon

We met for the race at 11 a.m. I surveyed the competition. There were many serious biathletes in the group. And then there was Kristy and I. Oh, and Junior.

Eric relayed the rules. The children and youth would race first and start in 30-second increments. The race for the adults would not start until the completion of the previous races. Our biathlon consisted of six laps around the track. After the first two laps, we would stop at the archery range, shoot, and continue for another couple of laps repeating the process. We would shoot a total of nine arrows at three different times.

I was initially disappointed when I discovered Junior would be racing in the youth division. But then I noted that Eric’s four young boys, all excellent skiers, were also racing. I decided it was best we had separate divisions—there’s nothing like having your butt kicked by a five-year-old.

With my arch nemesis out of the race, I had to concoct a new strategy. I got more realistic and decided upon two goals: to not wipeout while skiing, and to hit the target every time. Bulls-eye was an added bonus.


I was slated third to start the race. Eric went first and I was at the line 60 seconds later. I started strong. With all my amateur archery biathlete might, I forged forward, relishing every stride. And then Eric passed me. On my first lap. I shook it off—I mean, the guy was on the U.S. National Team. But then another competitor passed me, and then another.

I conceded that the majority of the field outclassed me. I vowed to ski my own race and started taking notes. Most archery biathletes made use of the “skating” technique, which is generally faster than the traditional diagonal stride (“classic”) style of skiing I was using. No wonder they were able to pass me so effortlessly.

Oh, and also because I was slow.

By the time I finished lap two and skied up to the range, I was panting heavily. I grabbed the bow. It bobbed up and down like a ship on a tempestuous sea. I had not taken into account that I would be shooting under such conditions. Regardless, I somehow tamed the tempest and hit the target every time.

Like a masochist, I repeated the process two more times and completed four more laps with two stops at the range. I was exhausted when I finally crossed the finish line but my spirits were lifted when my supporters cheered me on.

OK, most of them were Winter Festival volunteers who were supposed to be there but hey, fans are fans.

I ran to the edge of the track to watch Kristy’s race. It wasn’t pretty. I mean, she should have won the rookie of the race award: first time on skis, first time shooting a bow, and first time in a biathlon. And her finish was spectacular. She made her final shots, turned toward the finish line and face planted. She somehow crawled across the line, leaving a trail of her sunglasses, hat, and gloves. She laughed.

Until she saw me.

Her look of death confirmed my worst fears. And at that moment in Bryce Canyon National Park, I realized I had surpassed the limits of friendship—a limit that no amount of belching garlic pizza could ever match.

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