On Sunday, the 38th Annual Al Souza Turkey Shoot welcomed archers of all ages and skill levels to the 59-target archery range located behind the Chabot Space and Science Center, high up in the Oakland hills. While turkeys do live in the area, the only ones meeting their demise that seasonally cold morning were either cartoons printed on paper or realistic 3D targets of both toms and hens. (Dozens of frozen birds were eventually handed out as prizes.)
Jeff Anderson, the vice president of the Redwood Bowmen Archery Club, greeted everyone with a warm welcome and a warning.
“You guys are the first shooters out there in the last two months,” he told the group of about 100 people decked out in a variety of gear, from camo to head-to-toe purple, the trademark color of the Avenger character who wields a bow and arrow.
The Redwood Bowmen is the current iteration of Oakland’s main archery club, which first began in 1939 and was housed at what is now Fruitvale Avenue and Interstate 580. For the majority of that time, they’ve been the curators of 35 acres in Roberts Regional Recreational Area. Its first clubhouse, built in 1953, predates the science center. Today, Chabot’s concrete parking garage butts up against the course’s first few targets.
The public is welcome to shoot at the course and range daily from dawn to dusk for a suggested $5 donation to help with maintenance, which is handled entirely by volunteers.
This year’s turkey shoot also celebrated the end of the unprecedented closing of the upper and largest part of the course. Its closure began in early September so crews could remove major urban wildfire hazards like oily eucalyptus trees and bushy and invasive French broom plants.
Susan Rouse, the Redwood Bowmen’s media liaison, said the archery course had never been closed that long before in its nearly 70-year history.
The day before the turkey shoot, Rouse walked the upper and lower course with Marrianne and Jannette Melchor, two sisters from Oakland who write and edit “Target Talk,” the Bowmen’s monthly newsletter. Marianne, 15, shoots using a recurve, while Jannette, 18, prefers a compound bow. They made sure the course’s wooden arrow-shaped markers were pointing visitors in the right direction and labeled correctly.
Rouse said one of the worst things that could happen on the course is someone accidentally going the wrong way, potentially exposing them to incoming arrows. “We want to make sure it’s safe for the public when we reopen. We’ve been busting our rear ends,” she said.
That included adding more than 100 yards of fencing and new and larger backstops to halt arrows that miss their intended target, including one behind a Port-a-Potty. “You don’t want to get hit with an arrow while on the toilet,” Rouse said.
In the process of clearing trees and brush, Rouse said “buckets” of misfired arrows were recovered, some likely dating back decades.
The course once felt like the dense and overgrown woods common in Redwood and Joaquin Miller parks, but now the Chabot parking garage is more visible from further back in the course, a reminder that Oakland’s own Sherwood Forest is extremely vulnerable to climate change and urban wildfire.
But keeping archers off the course isn’t something the Bowmen take lightly. In August, when Vice President Kamala Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and other Bay Area bigwigs were scheduled to visit Chabot to highlight California’s space industry, Rouse said she fielded phone calls from the Secret Service asking her to close down the course for the day. The most Rouse would bend was closing the upper course, leaving the range and the hills course behind it open. Archers with bows in hand and arrows in quivers strolled by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies who were on hand to provide security.
Finding the next generation of archers and caretakers
Now, with the range and all other targets open for the public to use, the Redwood Bowmen hope more families and young shooters will take up the sport.
Redwood Bowmen doesn’t rent equipment to the public, but it does lend gear every third Saturday of every month—except December in case of rain—to a small number of kids who want to try an archery class. It is, according to the latest State of Play survey, a recent analysis of the state of youth sports in Oakland, the No. 1 sport kids in Oakland want to try.
Rouse said the club has about 80 members ranging from age 4 to 95. She bribes the youngest among them with donuts to help make targets, and the oldest still comes by to take the trash out.
“We want to see more families up here,” Rouse said. “We are the caretakers of this place, and the caretakers are getting old.”
Redwood Bowmen pay $110 a year in membership fees, but their more valuable contribution is a required 20 hours a year in sweat equity toward the upkeep of the range and course.
Standing on the bench in front of the clubhouse on Sunday, Anderson, the club’s vice president, encouraged visiting archers to join their nearest organization, whether that be the Diablo Bowmen in Contra Costa County or the San Francisco Archers.
“Join a club. Pick up a shovel. Pick up a rake. All the ranges need help all of the time,” he said.
A day of shooting
A few minutes before 9 a.m., a tone shot out, alerting archers who were staggered throughout the course that the day had begun.
Wielding a 50-pound recurve bow, this reporter chose to team up with the group at target 18, which starts at 45 yards out and has the backdrop of a heavily wooded valley that likes to gobble up arrows, something I learned a long time ago.
Kevin Durning, a contractor who builds wireless networks in the Bay Area, learned that lesson the hard way with his 50-pound Turkish reflex and arrow resting on the inside of his right-handed grip. After coming to the heartfelt realization that his arrow was long gone, Durning let out a deep laugh.
Durning started building bows when he was 12 years old, before responsible adults in his life bought him his first real one. Now, he shoots back home in Cumming, Georgia, with his 17-year-old son.
Shooting with him Sunday was 17-year-old Lilly Pierce of San Jose, who shot her first bow at summer camp when she was nine years old. She kicked off her competitive shooting career half her lifetime ago at the same turkey shoot in Oakland. She shot a recurve bow without a sight and walked the course with her dad, Andy, who knew all the ins and outs of competitive shooting. Andy provided support to his daughter and the other shooters by using his binoculars to let everyone in the group know where their shots were landing.
The highest-scoring member of the group was Vincent Tran of Hayward. He picked up a bow in 2016 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps; his base happened to have an archery range. On Sunday, Tran shot a Hoyt Defiant compound bow, competing in the adult sighted class.
Lilly and Vincent were our scorekeepers. It was an 11-10-8 system, which is 11 points for the smallest ring, which would be considered a bullseye, and 10 for the next around it. Hitting a turkey, even in a feather, was worth 8 points to us. The smaller the target, the smaller the circles, and the closer regulations said to shoot. The furthest available shot marker was 100 yards. The closest could be just a few dozen feet.
The group was warm and supportive, as is typically the mood of people congregating around archery targets in Oakland.
And that’s the case for most people this reporter has encountered since shooting a bow and arrow around Oakland for five months before his first local shooting tournament. Lots of people would be better off if they could spend some time in the woods with two sticks and a string.
Vincent was the only person to purchase any mulligans—a do-over shot—and went for the maximum allowed three for a dollar each. It added an important part to his strategy, weighing the option of putting in a fourth or fifth shot on a target when he felt his aim would be more dialed in, or wanted to make up for a release he wasn’t entirely happy with.
Vincent weighed the decision the heaviest when contending with targets short and long as the group returned to target 18. Given that he gets to shoot only every few weeks, Vincent felt pretty good about a score of 816 with three mulligans. “I’d give myself a B,” he said.
His teammate for the day, Kevin, missed winning a turkey by one slot in the non-sighted senior class, as they were given out by every seventh place. So, first place got a turkey, eighth place got a turkey, and so on. This reporter also barely missed winning a turkey by scoring 319 out of a possible 924 points, ranking 7th in his eight-person non-sighted adult class.
“Lilly: 639. Congratulations! We do have something for you, so don’t go away,” Anderson announced around 1 p.m.
Lilly was, after all, the only shooter in the non-sighted youth division, with the Redwood Bowmen awarding her a small trophy and a frozen Cornish game hen, not the full-sized turkeys awarded to other divisions. “Lilly is the future,” Anderson said.
But, as Lilly’s dad explained, she wanted to come out to this year’s Redwood Bowmen turkey shoot because it was her first and may be her last. She’s off to college next year. She’s not against trying to shoot competitively at the collegiate level, but she’s not dead set on it.
After collecting her hen and trophy at this year’s turkey shoot, Lilly and her dad, Andy, sat together with their groupmate Kevin Durning and had some street tacos served up by the editors of the local archery club’s newsletter.
“They’re really good,” Lilly said.