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Boomerangs 101
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Members of the boomerang club at Harbor City International School try out their latest models at Bayfront Park in Duluth. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
There aren't many high schools where you can get a letter jacket for throwing a boomerang. In fact, there might not be any. But that doesn't bother the kids at the Harbor City International School in Duluth. Nobody gets a letter jacket at Harbor City, because there aren't any sports teams. And the boomerang club seems to be the school's fastest growing activity.

Duluth, Minn. — The kids in the boomerang club have been inside for the past couple months shaping and sanding boomerangs. Now that the deep freeze of winter is over, the club members are back outside once a week. They're working on throwing the things.

On a windy afternoon in Bayfront Park, a dozen kids are standing in calf-deep snow waiting for their turn to throw. An experienced boomerang thrower can get a boomerang to come back, and then catch it without having to move. These guys aren't at that level yet.

"Someone get the orange one!" Paul Webster hollers as a fluorescent orange boomerang plunges into the snow. "You can see why it's orange. I hate losing a boomerang."

Paul Webster is a language arts teacher, and one of the advisers for the club. He shows the kids how to throw boomerangs, and how to make them.

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Image Pointers from Paul Webster

"They're made out of Baltic Birch plywood," he says. "It's good stuff. It does a lot of flexing and bouncing, and you can see why that would be good."

A boomerang sails a few feet behind Webster's head while he's answering questions. Somebody yells, "Heads up!"

Webster is unfazed. He says it wasn't a close call, "by boomerang tournament standards," but he calls the kids together for a quick conference. First off, he says, it's a bad a idea to yell, "Heads up."

"How many of you guys know how to assume the incoming lost boomerang position?" he asks. "You new guys need to know this. It goes like this."

He drops into a crouch and covers his head with his hands. That's what to do if a bad throw sends the boomerang too high and you lose sight of it against the sky.

It's a windy day, and that makes it even harder to keep the boomerangs under control.

"They're starting to learn to keep it low, down out of the wind," Webster says."And they're starting to learn not to put too much power on it."

As he speaks, a girl steps up to throw and drills her boomerang into the snow about 10 feet in front of her. The boomerang disappears from sight.

"That's too low," Webster says.

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Image Emily Wartman takes aim

The girl is Emily Wartman. She's in ninth grade, and her boomerang is still a work-in-progress. It needs some fine-tuning, and some paint. She says it's tricky to get the boomerang shape just right.

"You sand down the sides from about half-way in until you get it to about a point on one side," she explains as she runs her fingers down one edge of the boomerang. "You do that on the outside side of one of the sides, and then you do it on the inside side of the opposite side."

She concedes that it's easier to demonstrate than to describe.

She says Paul Webster gave her a lot of help. He learned how to make boomerangs right here in Duluth, when he was a member of the outdoor club in college. The club went nuts for boomerangs one year.

"We had one member of the club, she kind of received some training when she was abroad, I think," he says. "She came back and taught us how to do it, and before long the entire club was doing it. We had 20 or 30 boomerangs hanging around. I used to make them commercially, but I've since gone heavily professional -- not boomerang, but teacher -- so there'll be none of that."

There's an art to making a top-notch boomerang, and Webster remembers a particular failure from the college boomerang club. The club members nicknamed it "The Wrath of God." It had a tendency to shoot straight up and come roaring back down at the head of the person who threw it.

"Yes, The Wrath of God," Webster says with a grin and a wistful tilt to his head. "We lost it in the grass somewhere, thank goodness."

Webster says he's never been hurt by a boomerang. Then he reconsiders.

"It depends how you define 'hurt,'" he says. "Nothing that needed stitches."

Harbor City International School is a charter school, and the students govern their own clubs and make the decisions. Webster says the kids in the boomerang club are talking about a field trip. Some of them want to enter a tournament. Webster says the Harbor City kids still need work on throwing for distance and accuracy.

"But we have youthful exuberance," he says in his best radio announcer voice. "We're trying to decide whether to host a tournament or go to one."

The club has been discussing where to go.

"In the far future, maybe Australia," Webster says. "In the near future, maybe Illinois."

Webster says kids in the boomerang club learn physics and anthropology and woodworking. And it looks like they're going to learn how to raise money, too.

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