76-year-old Merrill Arbuckle has been teaching archery at the Jack Creek Preserve Youth Summer Camp since it began 18 years ago. He’s been practicing the sport for most of his life, and hunting in the Jack Creek area for decades. In fact, the biggest bull elk he ever harvested, came from the area. He said elk numbers declined after the area was clear cut in the 1970’s, but it’s still a great place to hunt. He shot his first elk in 1960, and now has 58 sets of ivories in his collection.

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Long-time archer teaches the trade during Jack Creek summer camp

On a warm summer morning off of Jack Creek Road, down a long, winding gravel drive, past several groups of cattle, elk bugles emanated from the woods. The calls mingled with the laughter of children, and it soon became clear elk weren’t actually hanging out nearby—the sounds deep in the forest were coming from the Jack Creek Preserve Summer Youth Camp, underway in early August.

     Throughout the overnight, four-day camp kids honed their outdoor skills, learning about everything from fly fishing to orienteering, astronomy, photography, noxious weeds, wilderness medicine and archery.

     Excited youths, aged 12 to 18, were out of their tents and up and at ‘em by 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 10 enjoying a hot breakfast cooked by Becky Arbuckle, who also provides medical assistance as an EMT. Her husband Merrill was also there offering his expertise in archery. He’s been teaching the sport since the camp began, and was back at it again this year for his 18th camp.

     In July their granddaughters from California joined in the fun. 

     “I call one of them a princess,” Becky said as she washed the breakfast dishes in a big pot. “But she adapted really, really well. She loved it.”

     Merrill’s relationship with the Preserve began before it was even a preserve at all. He had bow hunted there since the ’60s, and when the current owners, John and Dottie Fossel purchased 4,500 acres in the Jack Creek drainage nearly 20 years ago, Arbuckle called them up. 

     “I wanted to talk to them about access to public domain across their private property,” he explained. John figured it’d be best to have these negotiations in person, so that’s what they did, eventually becoming friends. 

     “John is an avid bow hunter, like I am,” Merrill said as a camper wiped up the table he was sitting at in preparation to start the day of activity. “And he had been talking about doing a kids’ camp here. So he did, and I’ve been with it ever since. 

     In the early days the camp used Coleman stoves and lanterns, storing perishables in U-Haul trailers so they didn’t have to worry about bears. Nowadays, they’ve got a chef, a cabin for cooking and storage, and plenty of amenities to make the wilderness a little more manageable. While they don’t have much problem with bears, they did find bear paw prints on the cabin door from the springtime.

     “We have a lot of fun with the kids, and I really enjoy it,” Merrill, a Three Forks resident, said of his time at the camp. “Part of the reason I got involved, was because nobody was around when I started using a bow, to teach anything. You had to learn by hook or crook, and there wasn’t the quality of equipment they have nowadays. So I like helping these kids get their bows set up right.”

     The campers seem to like learning archery, and the rest of the camp’s unique wilderness lessons as well. Arbuckle said this year there were returners back for their fifth year in a row, coming from not just the Big Sky and Ennis area but around the country. Some who attended the July camp enjoyed the experience so much they signed up for the August camp as well. And when they get too old, they can come back as junior counselors. 

     With breakfast and cleanup out of the way, the campers and counselors quickly regrouped before heading to their assigned stations. Some grabbed fly rods and began practice casting, later putting those skills to use at a nearby lake with trout. Others circled around a map, compass in hand, to learn about orienteering. Still others headed to the cabin to grab a bow hanging from the wall.

     Merrill soon followed, meeting them down the hill where the day’s lessons began. Even kids who come to camp with their own bows are started out on the basics. The bows are examined and the kids are also taught how to maintain their weapons, especially if they plan to hunt with them. 

     “Out in the woods, you can’t just find a pro shop to get your bow fixed,” Merrill said, elk calls from the kids bugling in the background.

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