Nongolfing Alaskans tee it up for fun and friendship

Heather Lende

WILLOW -- If you want to play spring golf on Willow Lake, it helps to know Jim Huston, since he has a loader and truck with a plow on the front and a railroad rail tied to the back, as well as a garbage can full of clubs and boxes of neon-painted balls. He also put the port-a-potty in the parking lot so if you are out that way before the tees and greens all sink, you'll have no reason not to stay and play.

Jim is the head of the Willow Chamber of Commerce, so no one calls the police when they see him driving around on the lake. Then again, I have a feeling that in Willow no one calls the police about much. I doubt they even have police. Jim's a retired state parks maintenance foreman. Between him and his wife they have five grown children and a pack of grandkids.

I'm not sure if Alaska attracts a certain kind of person or if we evolve into a certain kind of person living her. Either way, we'd recognize Jim Huston in Haines, the same way he would recognize the two men who, like him, are not golfers -- well, now that he's played about three dozen times in four years on what he calls a real course, Jim is more of a player than Haines' golf promoters -- but who built golf courses, or the Alaskan version of golf courses.

John Schnabel supervised the construction of the Weeping Trout course out at his lodge on roadless Chilkat Lake, which took even more work to clear than Willow's icy greens. (Should they be called "whites"?) The forest the Schnabel fairways reach into is full of huge Sitka spruce, the kind three people with linked arms can't reach around. Imagine felling them and pulling the stumps.

Our other course, the new Valley of the Eagles, is on the edge of town by the Chilkat River. (Rubber boots are handy.) It is also the dream of a nongolfer, retired doctor Stan Jones, who encourages sometimes skeptical Hainesites to try the game. But seasoned golfers, people who have their own clubs and who whack a ball around the meadows in a systematic, economical way, say it's a fine course and a great game to play.

Saturday's Willow United Methodist Spring Classic was fun. I played with Jim's wife, Kathy, and her friend Sharon. We each used two clubs, an iron and a putter, and managed to scoot the ball around all nine snow-banked holes.

Kathy had said it would be like miniature golf. It wasn't. The sixth hole was more than 200 yards. Also, ice with a layer of frost on top is not as slippery as you'd think. I wore grippers on my boots, but there were plenty of players in fat bunny boots, Sorrels and even sneakers. It was warm and mostly sunny there on the home-rimmed lake in the flatlands of the Mat-Su.

In the distance were ominous gray clouds that we attributed to Mount Redoubt's smoke plume, although no one paid attention to that morning's ashfall advisory. Jim put too much time into this event to let something like a volcanic eruption ruin it.

We really did golf -- sort of. We used proper etiquette, letting the person with the farthest ball from the hole hit first and counted a stroke for moving the ball off a snow pile. There was also lots of laughter. One guy hollered, "Let's see a hole-in-one ladies," and my partner said, "A hole-in-10 would be nice." She swung her putter with one hand, like a polo mallet, but still completed most holes in six or seven strokes just like the rest of us who were doing our best to channel Tiger Woods.

I saw one fellow in an insulated camo suit taking fast practice swings with a real driver and another, in torn Carharts and a fur hat, on one knee, lining up a putt.

We three women walked, hit the ball and talked. Turns out Alaskan gals of my generation may have as much in common as men who build golf courses. We had all come north for love. I came with my husband, Kathy came with a former husband and Sharon came because her high school sweetheart was here; they reunited some 20 years -- and a couple marriages -- after that first crush.

When my new friends wondered how I knew about golf, I said my mother was a good golfer. I never played with her because she took it too seriously to allow us kids to tag along. They asked if she was still alive. She's not, and neither are their mothers. Sharing that created a quiet pause.

Later, when I called home and told my daughter I'd golfed on Willow Lake, she said, "You don't even know how to play." I said I wasn't half bad. I may even golf in Haines this summer. It would be fun to play with my daughters, to walk and laugh and hit the ball, just because we can, and because someone was nutty and generous enough to build a golf course.

Heather Lende usually lives and writes in Haines but swung through Southcentral last weekend as part of a Mat-Su libraries visiting writers' program.