PABLO - Back in January, upon hearing that Thompson Falls Sen. Greg Hinkle had proposed a new state law that would legalize the use of atlatls for big-game hunting, I sent a note to my editor, proposing that I find someone to teach me that ancient technique of dart-chucking.
"You and a spear," my editor wrote back. "What could go wrong?"
A month later, my mind flashed back to her rhetorical question as I sat at the base of a small pine tree, stuck tighter than a bug on a pin, squalling like a baby in mortal agony.
This, I realized a little too late, is what could go wrong.
It all started innocently enough. In fact, it almost didn't start in the first place. After getting the initial go-ahead from my editor, I tried to contact Hinkle, hoping he could point me to some mass of northwest Montana constituents pining for the right to pitch a pole at a wapiti.
My calls and e-mails weren't returned. (As of press time, Hinkle's bill has passed through the Senate and is now awaiting action in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee.)
I then turned to the Internet, where I learned the basics of atlatls. Invented by prehistoric physicists approximately 30,000 years before the release of "Cabela's Dangerous Hunts" for the Wii, atlatls consist of two rudimentary parts: an arm-length handle not unlike your dog's Chuckit and a slender, spear-length projectile that, I learned, one should never, ever call a spear.
The handle part - which is the atlatl proper - hooks into a divot in the rear-end of the dart, in essence giving the user a real-world version of Dr. Octopus' comic-book extendo-arm with which to hurl the dart.
In the course of poking around the Internet, I found a scattering of Montana atlatl enthusiasts, including one guy from Manhattan who calls himself "Atlatl Bob." Known to his mom as Bob Perkins, Atlatl Bob is one of the foremost experts on this ancient art - a fact no doubt enhanced by the domain name of his business, Atlatl.com.
I called Bob, and got an earful about his 30-year love affair with atlatls.
"Atlatls are real, viable weapons and they're accurate, deadly," said Bob. "If they weren't, we would have evolved into vegetarians or gone extinct."
Bob first became interested in this ancient weapon when he was an undergraduate civil engineering student at Montana State University. For a term paper in an archaeology class, Bob decided to build and test an atlatl. Soon, other students heard about the experiment and wanted to get in on the action.
"We realized, we're Americans, we're capitalist pigs, we can make some money here - and the rest is history," he said. "I've been making and selling atlatls for 30 years now."
Bob has since become the closest thing to a celebrity in the atlatl community. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Outside magazine and the New York Times Magazine, and according to his own website, he is "described by ladies around the world as a Casanova for the nineties."
Obviously, he has a sense of humor about his own obsession. But he still makes a solid case for why atlatls have a place in the world today.
"A good recurve longbow will shoot an arrow at 160-180 feet per second," he said. "An atlatl does 120-140 (feet per second) - which is not much slower, and it's moving a dart that has about three times the mass of an arrow from a bow."
Not surprisingly, heavy projectiles thusly hurled can put a real hurt on what they hit.
Despite that, Bob is a little ambivalent about declaring open season for atlatl hunters.
After all, simpler tools don't necessarily make smarter hunters.
"One guy told me he was going to go musk ox hunting with one of the atlatls I sold him," he said. "Strangely enough, I never heard back from that guy."
I guess if you go poking around enough, sometimes the world pokes back.
That truism hit home for me in early February, while having dinner with my brother-in-law. Apropos of nothing, he mentioned that his art teacher at Salish Kootenai College, Jay Laber, was into building and hunting with atlatls.
Two weeks later, I found myself in Laber's studio in Pablo, pondering a table laid over with various atlatls that Laber had made out of everything from a knobby hawthorn branch to a Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
Laber, recognized widely for his recycled-metal sculptures such as the one of an Indian on horseback that stands outside the Adams Center on the University of Montana campus, first got into atlatls about four years ago, after his cousin gave him a replica of a 3,500-year-old atlatl.
Since then, Laber has incorporated atlatl-making into a Reservation Arts class he teaches at SKC. As a registered member of the Blackfeet Tribe - which acknowledges atlatl hunting as a traditional fair-chase means of hunting - he has also hunted and killed deer with an atlatl on the Blackfeet Reservation.
In today's culture, one wouldn't necessarily associate primal, manly-man hunting tools with sensitive artist types.
But the way Laber figures it, he owes his very profession to the atlatl.
"We can trace about everything we have now culturally to the atlatl," Laber said.
Laber reasons that the efficiency of atlatls over spears meant aboriginal hunters needed to spend far less time out in the field chasing game.
"You could get it done in two or three hours, and then come back and sit around the fire and work on your social skills, maybe even paint a picture on a rock because all of a sudden you had free time," he said. "My opinion, the atlatl probably jump-started a lot of our culture, our development of language, our art."
Given the nature of Laber's own art, it actually makes sense he would connect with the atlatl, which - as his array of handmade versions attests - can be made out of practically anything.
"Out in the woods, I could make a killing weapon with an arrow and an atlatl in about 20 minutes," he said. "That's what's great about these: Anyone can hunt without a big investment of money."
Kill? There was only one way to find out.
Grabbing an assortment of darts and atlatls, Laber and I ventured into a snow-covered field behind his studio, where he had set up a makeshift target. Laber commenced to skewering the spray-painted deer silhouette with a variety of darts, each one producing a deathly thwack as it poked deep into the dense foam backstop.
"It's really just the same as throwing darts in the bar," he explained as he hooked another dart into the atlatl and took aim. "You just point the tip at the target, come down and forward, and flick your wrist like you're swatting a fly."
Laber handed me one of the atlatls and a dart made of two aluminum arrow shafts.
"Now you try."
Standing about 20 yards from the target, I gripped the handle of the atlatl, hooked it into the end of the dart, and raised it to my shoulder menacingly. The dart clattered to the ground beside me.
"Hold the dart tighter, with your thumb and forefinger," Laber advised.
I reset the dart, pinching its shaft tightly as I took aim again. With one, fluid motion, I hurled it toward the target. The snow six feet in front of me never saw it coming.
"You'll want to aim a little higher," Laber suggested.
So it went for several minutes, me hurling limp noodles, Laber offering encouragement. Once, I even almost hit the target.
Sensing my frustration, Laber turned to the big picture.
"A lot of what I do in my classes is to show that you don't have to have special materials to do useful stuff. Did you know I can tie you to a tree using only your own body parts?"
I looked at him. He grinned mischievously.
"I'll show you," he offered. "I promise, I won't break any bones."
Laber led me to a small tree nearby and graciously laid out his coat on the snow.
"Stand facing the tree," he said, "and kind of straddle it. Now, squat down a little."
Certain that this was nothing but a play on words, I followed his instructions. Quick as a whip, Laber bent down in front of me, grabbed my right leg, wrapped it around the trunk of the tree, hooked it behind my left leg, and - as I yelped out in surprise mixed with red-hot pain - hooked my left leg behind the tree.
Try as I might (and believe me, I tried), I couldn't budge. I would still be sniffing sap today if Laber hadn't eventually untangled my legs.
After sharing a laugh, we headed back to Laber's studio. As we walked, my mind wandered to Sen. Hinkle's atlatl hunting bill, and to an adage as old as atlatls themselves:
Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.