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Archers mingle online, and in person

February 14, 1999

By Ken Gordon, Dispatch Sports Reporter

After connecting on the Internet, these bowhunters had a chance to meet face to face.

DELAWARE, Ohio -- The excited voices blended together -- grown men acting like kids meeting their pen pals for the first time.

"Who is 'Will-MO?' " someone asked, referring to an Internet nickname.

"I have to find George and see if he's anything like I thought he would be,'' another said.

And the consensus was everyone was dying to meet the person (a man, they assumed) they knew only as "Dances With Squirrels."

This was the scene at the Delaware State Park campgrounds on Jan. 29 -- opening day of a one-of-a-kind event known as the Great Ohio Rabbit Hunt.

It was a gathering of people who had known one another only via the Internet -- specifically, on a bulletin board called "The Leatherwall'' devoted to traditional-archery enthusiasts.

The Leatherwall attracted a hard-core group of archers (they won't be dismissed as mere hunters) who despise modern technology and shoot exclusively with "sticks and string'' -- wooden longbows and recurves.

It may be an information-age irony that a group devoted to primitive weapons met on the Internet. But it was an information-age hazard known as "flaming'' that led to the Delaware hunt last month.

"Everyone in this group dances to their own drummer, and we can be a contentious bunch,'' said Dean Torges of Ostrander, Ohio, who organized the event. "It got contentious on the Leatherwall; everyone had their own ideas and opinions on the way the world ought to be."

Anyone familiar with computer bulletin boards and chat rooms knows the scenario:

Person A fires off a question or comment for discussion. Person B answers, and Persons C, D, and E join in. Any one of their comments could spark an argument.

It doesn't help that participants are anonymous, hiding behind a mysterious nickname and therefore more likely to be sarcastic or outrageous.

"A professor of mine once told me, 'You can't smile in a letter,' '' said hunt participant Ron Thompson of Shelby, Ohio. "On the Internet, it's called flaming, where someone takes someone else to task for the fun of it."

Torges said, "Insults and slights that may not be intended get puffed up to more than their regular size. Soon someone gets upset because in anonymity you can pose in any posture."

After one particularly nasty exchange (Torges termed it "a bloodletting'') last year, the idea of getting the Leatherwall bunch together for a hunt surfaced.

In August, Ohio was selected because of its central location.

Will Steffen of St. Louis had a typical reaction:

"We're getting together . . . for a rabbit hunt . . . in Ohio . . . in January?'' he thought. Yet he and 52 others signed up.

After the hunt was set, it was discovered that a series of archery rabbit hunts had been held in Delaware County in the 1930s and '40s. An article from the 1938 event was unearthed in the now-defunct Ye Sylvan Archer magazine. Now the hunt had historical significance, as well.

As the men of the Great Ohio Rabbit Hunt streamed into the campground that Friday, faces finally were put to names and Internet masks were stripped away.

It was obvious it would be a weekend of camaraderie.

"I told the guys at work I was getting picked up at the (Columbus) airport by someone I'd never met,'' said Steffen, who was met by Rich Sanders of Indiana.

"The guys at work were like, 'He could be a psycho, we may never see you again,' but I told them these guys were my friends. I talk to them every day. I talk to them more than I talk to my wife."

Several groups of archers wasted no time packing beagles into trucks and heading for the briars to chase rabbits. They returned with three rabbits among 24 hunters. That was fine, as all agreed hunting rabbits was not the main purpose of the rendezvous.

That purpose was played out the next three days as the men sat around campfires, joked, swapped stories and generally just got to know each other.

Chuck Wyatt of Alabama said he had been worried about being accepted north of the Mason-Dixon line but afterward reported he quickly got over his case of "Northophobia."

Bud Hall of Indiana circulated his own Leatherwall -- parchment backed by a rabbit skin and mounted on a leather-covered board. Each participant signed Hall's board, which he planned to put in a frame.

Everyone got to meet Dances With Squirrels (a k a Bill Rickvalsky of New Jersey) and find out how he got his nickname.

"My wife feeds a bunch of squirrels in our back yard,'' Rickvalsky said. "One day I went out back to shoot, and a squirrel was standing right in front of me about 6 feet away.

"I moved over a bit, and the squirrel moved over in front of me again. This happened two or three times, and my wife laughed and said it looked like I was dancing with the squirrel."

Before breaking up for the weekend, the men decided to reprise the event in 2001, proving that face-to-face contact could bring together what technology had nearly torn apart.

"Nobody quite looked like we'd imagined, and that was funny,'' Rob Flinn of Indiana said. "The guys you knew were good guys were, and the guys you had doubts about were good guys, too."