FAIRBANKS — Jerry Evans never thought he would be one of those guys.
You know the guys we’re talking about. The guys who carry their own disc golf bags filled with an assortment of every golf disc known to man.
“I never thought I’d be one of those guys with a bag but here I am,” Evans confessed a couple of weeks ago. “Now I’ve got 40 discs.”
And he uses every one of them.
“Some I throw straight and they will fly straight for 100 feet and slowly peel off to the right,” Evans said. “Some won’t turn right for 200 feet. Some go 40 feet to the right and gradually come back 10 feet.
“Depending on what shot you need there’s a different disc for everything,’ he said. “The dynamics are so different. It’s ridiculous how deep you can get into it.”
More and more people are getting into it. Evans is part of a hardcore group of disc golfers called the Birch Hill Bangers, who play at Birch Hill three nights a week. Monday night is a doubles league, Wednesday night is random doubles and Saturday is handicap play.
“The first year we had 11 teams, last year we had 13 teams and this year we’re up to 18 teams,” Bangers founder Cam Chase said of the Monday night doubles league.
Since the creation of the first, nine-hole disc golf course in town four years ago at Birch Hill Recreation Area, the sport has taken flight in Fairbanks. The course at Birch Hill was expanded from nine to 18 holes in 2008, and there is an 18-hole course on campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that was completed a year ago. A nine-hole course at Chena Hot Springs Resort is scheduled to open in about two weeks.
“It’s huge,” Mark Oldmixon, coordinator for UAF’s Outdoor Adventures program, which rents out discs, said. “I’ll come in on a Saturday morning at 7:30 in the morning and people are playing. It’s insane.”
The number of disc golfers at Birch Hill has almost grown to the point that it is beginning to rival that of skiers in the winter, which is saying a lot in a ski-crazy town like Fairbanks.
“We have many days in the summer when 100 people do disc golf in a day,” Fairbanks North Star Borough parks superintendent John Haas said. “They certainly outnumber the runners and bikers.”
Summer use at Birch Hill has “probably doubled” since 2004, Haas said. He attributes a large part of that increase to disc golf.
Disc golf is like regular golf only you use specially-made Frisbees — discs to be correct — instead of clubs. Rather than trying to sink a ball in a hole, you try to throw a disc into a chain basket mounted on a metal post.
“Banging chains,” as Banger Bobb Lockwood put it.
Holes are measured in feet, not yards. There are tees (amateur and pro), fairways, doglegs and hazards, just like in normal golf. On Monday night, Lockwood put his first drive onto the roof of the Birch Hill timing building Monday night, where it lodged between two shingles. Fortunately, he was playing best disc so he didn’t have to take a penalty stroke and his partner picked him up.
Players keep score on a handy-dandy, pocket-sized, folding scorecard complete with a map that includes length and par for each hole. Par for the Birch Hill course is 55 from the pro tees and 63 from the amateur tees. Talon Goodhand, a member of the Bangers, currently holds the course record for pros at 10-under 45.
And like regular golfers, a lot of disc golfers carry specially-made bags to hold their discs, though no caddies in white coveralls have been spotted yet.
While not everybody takes the sport as seriously as the Bangers, Chase, whose best round at Birch Hill is a 49, said the number of recreational disc golfers in town are growing exponentially.
“Two summers ago you could run through the course and see maybe one or two other groups,” Chase said. “Last year you’d see more people and more families.
“This year you get up here and on any given day there’s a wait,” he said.
“And they’re new people,” said Lockwood, a 31-year-old middle school music teacher whose best round is a 51. “Almost every time up here you see new faces.”
Cheap and fun
For players, disc golf is great because it’s cheap and fun. There is no cost to play at either the Birch Hill or UAF courses. All it takes is an initial investment of about $25 to outfit yourself with a basic set of three discs — driver, mid-range driver and putter — to get you started, though Evans said that’s like playing a round of golf with a five-iron and a putter, which is why he has wide array of discs.
Disc golf is a perfect fit for both the borough and university because it requires a small financial investment and there is little or no maintenance involved other than setting up the chain baskets in the spring and taking them down in the fall.
“It’s low cost and it’s low impact,” Haas said.
The two courses in Fairbanks are almost total opposites, which is great for local huckers — the disc golf equivalent of hackers — because they provide two different sets of challenges.
The Birch Hill course is situated on narrow, wooded ski trails while the course at UAF is spread across the campus in a much more open setting. Instead of worrying about your disc hitting trees and landing in the woods, like often happens at Birch Hill, huckers at UAF have to contend with roads, parking lots — both of which are automatically out of bounds — and buildings.
The UAF course “is kind of a tour of campus,” Oldmixon said. It follows a loop around the entire campus, beginning at McIntosh Hall on the lower campus and winding through the Wood Center commons and student apartment complex. It finishes in front of the Student Recreation Center back on the lower campus.
“At Birch Hill most of the holes are really tight because they’re on narrow ski trails,” said Oldmixon, who calls himself a “recreational” disc golfer. “You don’t have nearly as much time in woods looking for your disc at UAF but you have a whole ’nother set of hazards.”
The course at Birch Hill is more challenging for serious disc golfers while the UAF course is more laid back, Evans said.
“It’s more scenic at the university and there’s fewer mosquitoes,” he said.
It’s not just Fairbanks where disc golf is booming, either. The number of disc golf courses in Alaska has nearly doubled in the last four years, from nine to 17. There are six courses in Anchorage: four in Eagle River, two in Fairbanks and one each in Girdwood, Homer, Kenai, Seward and Wasilla.
The Bangers want to put in another 18-hole course at Birch Hill and are pushing to get the state championship tournament in Fairbanks next year. The club held its first tournament at Birch Hill a few weeks ago — at the same time a wedding reception was going on, no less — and it attracted a field of 46 disc golfers, some of whom made the trip to Fairbanks from Anchorage and Kenai. In fact, I am sad to report that an Anchoragite won the tournament.
The borough has yet to sign off on designs for another course at Birch Hill, but Haas said there is a nine-hole course in the plans for budding Tanana Lakes Recreation Area at the end of Lathrop Street. The skiing, snowmachine and mushing trails at Chena Lakes Recreation Area in North Pole would be another natural setting for a course, he said.
Chena Hot Springs Resort owner Bernie Karl said he is planning to open a nine-hole course as an addition to the resort at the end of Chena Hot Springs Road sometime in the next few weeks. That course, which will be named Chena Wild Disc Golf, will be open year-round, Karl said.
“It will be winter golf as well,” he said. “We’ll light each one of the baskets with LEDs. People can do it on snowshoes under the northern lights.”
The course will offer another activity for guests at the resort, according to resort employee Diane Carrio, who designed the course.
The cost for guests will be $10, which will include a mid-range disc to play with. A donation box will be set up for local discers who have their own discs and want to make the 60-mile drive from town to play, she said.
Anyone who is interested in joining the Birch Hill Bangers, meanwhile, can give Chase a call at 978-8340 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.
Disc golf courses in Fairbanks
• Birch Hill Recreation Area: 18-hole course located on ski trails. Par 63. Hazards include lots of trees. Scorecards available inside warm-up hut.
• University of Alaska Fairbanks: 18-hole course located on campus. Par 54. Hazards include roads, sidewalks, buildings and trees. All roads and sidewalks are out of bounds. Scorecards available at Wood Center and online.