It's Friday night at Heights Archery, a combination archery range/hunting supply store at 2281 Portage Ave.
A few minutes after seven, a fellow toting a bow and arrows approaches a group of ladies and asks if he can join them on their side of the room, given that every other spot at the 28-lane range is occupied.
"Sure you can," says Deb Clark, breaking into a wide grin. "But if you do, you're going to have to put on a pair of stilettos."
Welcome to Bows, Broads and Bullseyes Archery Club -- a band of merry women who, on average, hit more targets than a Winnipegger in Grand Forks for the weekend.
It turns out Clark isn't kidding about the required footwear.
"No, that's one of the rules we came up with to dissuade any husbands or boyfriends from wanting to tag along," says Clark, one of the directors of the all-female club that congregates at "the Heights" every second Friday night. (Wendy Roberts, the club's co-director, tells a male scribe she has a pair of heels he'd look great in if he chooses to participate but he shakes his head, saying he's OK right where he is.)
Clark took up archery about a year ago. Her father was an accomplished archer so she and her daughter went to a demonstration at the Belgian Club in St. Boniface to see if the activity was something they might be interested in, too. An hour or so after they arrived, Clark gave the sport a shot. It took all of one attempt for the married mother of one to declare, 'That's it, I'm in.'"
Clark met Roberts at Heights Archery soon after Clark began showing up at the St. James locale to hone her skills. Roberts has been a fixture at Heights Archery for almost 20 years -- ever since her parents began dropping her off on Saturday afternoons because they got tired of her poking holes in the walls of their garage with her "Canadian Tire special."
Clark and Roberts -- the latter credits John Wayne westerns for turning her onto the sport -- began tossing around the notion of a women's group during the summer. Ron Minion, the owner of Heights Archery, wasn't surprised when the pair approached him to ask if it would be possible to reserve X number of lanes, beginning in the fall.
"Ever since that Hunger Games movie came out, archery has become a lot more popular for females of all ages," Minion says, noting he expects to see another wave of new faces in the weeks ahead, now that Katniss Everdeen is back on the big screen in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which hit theatres Nov. 22.
"A lot of times, I get to work and there are just as many gals as guys here. And what I find is it's usually the girls dragging their boyfriends along," he goes on, mentioning he routinely hosts birthday parties for girls as young as six. (Really, who wants to pin the tail on a boring old donkey when you can fire an arrow at a life-size wolf or bear?)
Club nights run from 7 to 9 p.m. Generally, nine lanes are set aside for the group, which includes bus drivers, veterinary assistants and office managers. If there are more women than lanes, shooters simply take turns.
Naturally, some attendees are more experienced than others; Roberts, for example, enters tournaments sanctioned by the Archers and Bowhunters Association of Manitoba. But the end-of-the-week get-togethers are always more social than competitive. Sometimes, participants will head out for coffee afterwards, or grab a bite together beforehand.
"We want it to be a fun atmosphere because we do get so many new archers," Roberts says. "The (female-only) rule is mainly to encourage women who have an interest to show up without having to feel intimidated by guys who are really into hunting, or really know what they're doing." (Although some members have spent as much as $1,500 on their equipment, you don't have to rob from the rich to join. Heights Archery charges a flat, $11 all-you-can-shoot fee if you need to rent a bow and arrows -- $8 if you bring your own.)
After a brief warm-up -- and an introduction of any first-timers -- Clark and Roberts explain what games are on the agenda. Tonight, they have settled on a variation of Snakes and Ladders. In a nutshell, archers will aim at a sheet of paper tacked to a wall 18 metres away. Each sheet contains 36 squares and each square corresponds to a numeral from one to 36. The number of points one gets will depend on what squares their arrows penetrate. Good news: people don't have to hit the sheet to score points, Clark explains. Even if an arrow lands on the floor -- or for that matter, on neighbouring Mount Royal Road -- archers are awarded seven points for trying.
Also, to make sure the best archers in the room don't run away with things by nailing the 36-point square again and again, the group decides on the "winner" ahead of time. This evening, for example, the consensus is that the person who finishes with the third lowest point total after an hour or so of shooting will be declared the victor.
Inga Thorsteinson has been part of the group since the first meet-up on Oct. 4. She purchased her bow -- a traditional wooden model fashioned out of purpleheart and yew -- about seven years ago, after giving archery a go at a convention centre trade show.
"There was a booth set up and it was $1 for three arrows. I'd always wanted to try and as soon as I did, it just felt right," Thorsteinson says, mentioning she shot casually for six years, but has really dedicated herself to improving during the last 12 months.
"I like (archery) because it's something I can do as a social thing or as a solitary activity. It's a nice balance between a mental and a physical discipline, and it's also something I can do for my entire life," she says. "I was looking for an activity I wouldn't have to drop when I got old and this is definitely something that can become a lifelong skill."
Speaking of skill, club members are in luck tonight because a certified instructor is here to deliver a few pointers. George Dierickse is a Level 3 archery coach who mentors a youth program at Heights Archery on Mondays and Saturdays. Roberts invited him a few weeks ago -- and even promised to waive the stiletto rule if he agreed to show up.
"What I'm going to do mainly is stand back and watch," Dierickse says, unpacking his bow from its protective case. "If I see something I think the entire group is having problems with I'll gather them together and work on that one thing. But for the most part, I'll probably be coaching people one-on-one."
Dierickse says body positioning is the biggest challenge for beginners; hold the bow incorrectly, he cautions, and you'll probably wake up black and blue from the bowstring snapping against your forearm all night.
"I doubt I'm going to make an Olympic archer out of anyone here tonight," he says, excusing himself so he can get down to business. "But so long as I can help them hit the target a little more consistently, then at the end of the night everybody's happy."
For more information on the club, visit their website (http://members.shaw.ca/bowsbroadsbullseyes). The next scheduled get-together is Nov. 29.