On Sunday, February 28, I made an impromptu visit to Camp Ripley to watch some of the races of the National Guard Biathlon. This event has been held since the 1970s when the adjutant generals of Vermont and Minnesota each agreed to build a biathlon range and begin hosting a friendly competition. Each state takes turns in hosting the event.
On a 30 degrees, overcast day picked up my visitors pass at the main gate, drove two miles to the range control checkpoint, picked up another vehicle pass and was escorted another couple of miles to the Biathlon course in the woods that make up Camp Ripley's range. A large red flag at the entrance signaled that live ammo was being used in the area.
On the way to the range I wondered how there could be enough snow for a biathlon competition. The gravel roads were clear and brown grass covered the fields with only occasional patches of snow showing.Staff Sargent Anthony Housey met me at the entrance and gave me the answer:
"We scraped up what we could find", he said. It took a staff of 70 a week to haul 400 semi truckloads of snow to lay down a ribbon of snow 2.5 km (1.5 miles) long.
A ribbon of snow to ski on
24 teams from as many states came to Minnesota to compete in races over several days. The day of my visit it was time for the patrol races: Teams of four ski four laps, then three shooters each take three shots at a target 50m (160 feet) away. The fourth person, or captain, instructs the shooters as they lay on the ground, loading and aiming their rifles. They ski two more laps after that and the final score is a combination of skiing speed and accuracy. Skiers need to keep an eye on their pace because a high heart rate impedes the ability to aim well. Part of biathlon training is bringing your heart rate down as fast as possible for shooting.
Three shooters, one instructor
Major Joseph Bessman with his competition rifle
Major Joseph Bessman from Oregon had finished his race and explained some of the features of his German-made Anschütz Model 1827 .22 caliber long rifle, which looks nothing like a regular hunting rifle. "It's heavy. It weighs about seven pounds", he said. It has eyecups to prevent you from having to squint and the barrel is covered by a flapper similar to one on the exhaust pipe of a tractor. "That keeps the snow out", Bessman said. "It has a 5 round clip, but we are only allowed to carry three and have to load them manually", he said and worked the bolt action back and forth. A rifle like this costs about $4000.
I walked back to the car and the echoes of cheers sounded in the woods behind me: "One more lap, Minnesota!" "Nice work, Rhode Island!" Next year the competition will be held in Vermont.
Mens and womens teams competed
Keeping an eye on the competition