It may not be Sherwood Forest, but Woodley Park archery range, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley's vast Balboa Park, easily evokes images of history's most legendary bowman.
"I've always loved archery, from the early Robin Hood movies," says Rima Barakat, a recent convert to the sport who had her first taste of shooting a bow in this park. Ms. Barakat is not alone in her enthusiasm - her whole family, including her husband, Tewfik, and their two children, Shaun and Chantalle, have become regulars at a range near their La Cañada home over the past year and a half.
The Pasadena mom, long accustomed to spending cold, lonely hours watching her children participate in activities ranging from horse-riding to ice skating, is, thanks to her newfound hobby, no longer a benchwarmer. "I just love the calm and serenity of it," says Barakat, "Now, finally, we have something we all do as a family, together. I'm not on the sidelines any more."
Archery has a long tradition of family involvement in hunting regions of the country but, increasingly, urban families such as the Barakat clan are using one of the world's oldest weapons for the pastime of nonlethal, target archery. Indeed, local archery clubs from California to Oklahoma to Michigan have doubled and tripled their classes to keep up with demand. The need for instructors has exploded, says Doug Engh, president of the National Alliance for the Development of Archery. In the past five years, the number of instructors trained by his group for local recreational facilities has gone from 1,500 to 6,000 annually.
The upsurge in interest is being fueled by a combination of forces. Hollywood has always courted the secret action hero inside all of us. The use of bows and arrows in films like "Lord of the Rings" and the new Nicolas Cage movie, "The Weather Man" (see review, page 11), not to mention involvement from such celebrities as Geena Davis, all bring waves of new converts to local clubs, says Michael Burnham, president of the Pasadena Roving Archers.
"Those big names always spark interest," says Mr. Burnham, who is also a member of the Woodley Park Archers.
But most observers trace the popularity of the sport among families back to a national program that began three years ago in Kentucky. The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), a two-week, gym-class curriculum for middle schoolers, has since spread to some 30 states nationwide. Mr. Engh says the success of NASP is reflected in the demand for nonhunting equipment at stores. "These families are used to skateboards and brightly colored gear in other sports, so the growing availability of 'cool' equipment is also helping the sport take off," he says.
In turn, manufacturers have begun helping local programs expand by donating equipment and sponsoring instruction.
But some people are coming to archery ranges out of sheer curiosity. Sjonna Paulson of Oklahoma City became interested in archery after participating in medieval reenactments. The mother of three, who met her husband at a range three years ago, says the sport is a source of peace for her family. "It is a great way to wind down in the outdoors together," says Ms. Paulson. "It also has a Zen quality to me, concentrating on the wind, light, shadows and how all affect you and your target."
But she says the learning curve for her children may be even more important. She says her son (from an earlier marriage) still remembers his first bull's-eye when he was 6 years old. Archery has helped boost his confidence and has given him the focus to keep trying when a new challenge frustrates him. "I will remind him how we practiced two or three times a week for many weeks before he hit the bull's-eye, and how great he felt when he finally did it," she says.
Those characteristics make archery a great family sport, says Burnham. His club has around 90 people in it, and the free programs are usually filled with a 50/50 mix of families and individuals. Archery doesn't discriminate by gender, physical strength, or size, he says. Beyond that, "It's one of the few sports where parents and kids - even grandparents - can participate side by side."
Ms. Barakat's preteen daughter, Chantalle Abdelkerim, loves that aspect of it. "I don't want to go anymore if we can't all go together," she says.
For Rima Barakat, the club is a big family. "It's so safe," she says, "I can do my archery without having to worry about my children because there are so many families. Everybody is watching for everybody."
• For more information see usarchery.org