What’s the best way to survive a Winter in Minnesota? The obvious answer is take a vacation somewhere warm. Now add to that a solid 5 days on a shooting range, and you have the perfect mid-Winter reprieve! Okay, I get it that most women would not find this an ideal setting for “fun in the sun”, but for me, it’s just perfect. And after taking a break from Southwest Nationals last year, Erik and I were more than ready to head back down to Phoenix and Ben Avery. I will admit, I did have a separate vested interest in it this year due to the emergence of my website almost a year ago. I also shot a couple of F-Class matches last summer, so naturally I had a different perspective this time around. And yes, getting to be around so many great people, is just icing on the cake!
I’m not a fan a flying, so whenever possible, we drive. We hit the road at 3am the Friday before, and after 25 hours of driving with only a brief stay in Dalhart, TX, we arrived safe and sound in Phoenix on Saturday afternoon. And of course our first stop was at Ben Avery. It was 7º in MN when we left, so we were very happy with the sunny 68º that welcomed us at the range. According to the AZ locals, the weather had been unusually cold and damp for an Arizona winter until literally the day we arrived – a sign of good things to come? Since the matches weren’t scheduled to start until Wednesday, we were looking forward to a few days of relaxing, seeing the sights, and wherever else the dirt roads of Arizona would take us. In the past, going down a few days before the actual match started was the trade-off for Erik spending more than half the trip shooting. He’s always a good sport, though, and we can always find things to do that we both enjoy. Although, I usually get the majority vote on what we do. I think it’s his way of showing appreciation for me going along with him on all these shooting trips. Although, I really don’t mind. We stayed in Anthem for a few years in a row, but this time we opted to stay in Cave Creek for a change of scenery.
In what has become somewhat of a tradition, we made our usual trip to the Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, and Safari Park, which is in Litchfield Park, just down the road from Luke Air Force Base. If you haven’t been to this zoo yet, you should go, and if you have kids, then it’s a definite must! It’s open 365 days a year, and all the animals are easy to see and get up close to. Be prepared to do some walking, though, because this place is huge.
This year I was given a recommendation to visit Bartlett Lake, which is in the Tonto National Forest. It’s nothing like you would expect because it’s nestled in the middle of the mountains. The curvy road out to the lake is a beautiful drive, and when you least it expect it, the lake suddenly appears before you. Bartlett Lake has a full marina, picnic areas, overlooks, and several different terrains for camping for tents or campers. It’s truly breathtaking! There’s a side story though to our finding the lake, though. When we originally set out to drive there, we somehow missed the VERY obvious sign for the road to the lake. So instead, we drove for miles and miles on very windy and often treacherous roads expecting to find the lake at any moment. Not a chance. What was supposed to be a 30 minute drive, soon turned out to be a 3 hour ordeal. Don’t get me wrong, the route we accidentally took was still interesting, but not quite what we had in mind. Especially the parts of the road where it was only one car wide and a pretty much sheer drop off one side. Yes, I white-knuckled it most of the way. After realizing that we we’re not on the right road, we decided we needed to start heading back before it got dark, and before the Super Bowl started! And of course, we saw the sign that pointed to Bartlett Lake on our way back. We gave it another try the next day and we were successful this time. It was a great way to spend our last day of R & R before the shooting started.
In previous years I didn’t have too much of an interest in the shooting part of the trip. I was content doing my thing while Erik was at the range, maybe stopping by to say hi a few times and go to the awards banquet. This year was quite different, and I was looking forward to spending more time on the range and hopefully meet some new people, as well as reconnecting with those that we only get to see a handful of times a year. Add to that my website and Rifle shooting Blog, which gave me even more specific reasons for being there.
The weather for the week could not have been nicer. With temps ranging from 70-80 and mostly sunny, it made for great shooting conditions for the over 350 competitors who made their way to Ben Avery. I would also like to add that there were 7 other countries represented at this year’s match, a tribute to the popularity of this well-run match.
I spent every day except for one at the range. Each morning started off with a spectacular sunrise, and of course, the always necessary hot coffee and warm donuts.
The 4 Man Team match was definitely the most interesting day for me. Not only did I get to keep score for one of the teams, but I got to meet and watch 4 really awesome shooters in action all day. At the top of the roster is a name that is known nationally and internationally to the competitive shooting world, whose accomplishments are too numerous to list, is Nancy Tompkins. A legend in her own time, Nancy’s skill is not to be outmatched by her personality. She shoots a mean rifle, but has a gentle and sincere presence about her. I was fortunate to be able to have a few conversations with her throughout the week, and she even gave me a few tips on using my new Joypod bipod. Next up was Ryan Hayes, one of the best up and coming junior long-range shooters in the country. Ryan is definitely someone we all can expect to hear a lot more of in the future. Although he has only been in this sport for 6 years, Oliver Milanovic has already become one of the top Long Range shooters anywhere. In 2016 alone, he fired 2 perfect 450 Palma scores – including a 39x that would have tied the long-standing national record if it had been in a registered match. I know… that’s crazy, right?!? Justin Skaret rounded out the team with his over 20 years of record-setting shooting experience, and as a firing member of the 2015 US Palma Team. A Marine with a tough exterior, I found him to be quite funny and personable. Last, but not least – Phil Hayes coached the team with is superior wind reading skills. I was impressed with how steady he remained throughout the day. He coached with purpose, keeping his team focused and on point.
And definitely not to be forgotten, I had the honor of meeting and snapping the first pic of the 2017 Berger Southwest Nationals Match Winner, John Whidden.
The week ended with the traditional banquets. Saturday was the dinner with raffle prizes, and Sunday was the awards part. With so many great shooters in attendance this year, it was no doubt tough competition for all the competitors, but several rose to the occasion and ended the week on some very high notes. Of course I will give Erik a shout out first. He placed 5th overall, which I would have to say is pretty darn good! And he made his goal to be in the top 10, so he was pleased with that. It was a good ending to a great week!
I met so many great people this year, and actually came away with some great shooting advice from some of the best. Two of the people I was able to connect with; Bryan Litz – the owner and genius behind Applied Ballistics, and Anette Wachter – a woman who needs no introduction, but to many is known as the “30 Cal Gal“. Both were very down to earth, and excellent shooters as well. They also accepted an invitation to be interviewed for the “Shooter Spotlight” section of my website, so look for that in the coming months.
The Berger Southwest Nationals is definitely one of the best and well run matches in the country, so if you haven’t had the chance to experience it, this is one match you should put on your calendar. Arizona is always beautiful and the mild February temperature make it even more enjoyable. The range at Ben Avery does not leave anything to be desired either. From the mountains as the shooting backdrop to the technicolor sunrises, it somehow lends a bit of peacefulness even amongst the steady sounds of gunfire all day long.
Until next time – another match and a different state… on and off the range,
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