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Would you shoot that deer?
I asked about 120 sixth-graders that question over and over this week, standing in the cold and damp woods off Montana Creek Road.
The deer were realistic, two-dimensional models, designed for just this purpose - teaching practical field exercises to hunter education students. The guns were realistic as well, and the students treated the wooden models like the real thing.
Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School sixth-graders received Hunter Education this week, a cooperative teaching venture that involved dozens of volunteers from the community. And hunter education covers more than just firearm safety; students learn about regulations, wilderness survival, game care, ethics, basic wildlife biology, hypothermia and water safety. In short, the outdoor shoot/don't shoot course puts the book-learning to test.
A short trail meandered through the forest, offering eight shoot/don't shoot scenarios. Two instructors and a teacher or parent volunteer took about a dozen groups of 10 kids through the 40-minute course. The students traded off with four wooden rifle "trainers" - not toys.
The first challenge, a nice big buck presenting an excellent side profile, was right across the road.
"Would you take this shot?"
A chorus reply of, "No, you can't shoot from or across a road," made it clear they had done their homework. They also knew a "skylined" animal - one silhouetted at the top of an embankment - was also not a safe shot.
Another scenario depicted a caribou with a scarecrow-like "hunter" standing behind it. And another, showing a deer with its head hidden behind a tree, sparked discussion of legal animals.
I liked the kids who thought outside the workbook. After the quick response to the doe offering a tail-end presentation - "Can't see the vitals, and a shot like this would ruin too much meat" - some added, "I would make a little sound and see if I could make it look up and take a step."
One exercise involved crossing a fallen tree. Students practiced helping each other in pairs, safely handing firearms back and forth, as well as crossing solo by laying the gun down on the ground.
"You can put a little piece of electrical tape over the muzzle to keep out water and stuff," one student suggested. It was clearly not his first time in the woods.
Muzzle control was the hardest lesson, which is ironic, as it is the simplest, most basic lesson. Of course you don't point a gun at anyone. That's not difficult to understand. But constant vigilance is hard, especially if it's the first time ever having to think about this. There was very little careless swinging-the-muzzle-at-a-hunting-partner action, but bending over, adjusting a hat, zipping up a coat, even just listening, it became apparent the idea was harder than it seemed. The reminders went off like alarms.
These young Alaskans may or may not go on to be hunters. But they are Alaskans, and some practical advice on hypothermia, navigating in the woods and basic survival could come in handy.
And knowing how to behave around guns could absolutely save their lives.