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Sub-Arctic offers unusual golf environment

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GAMETI, Northwest Territories - Flying the approach shot onto the green,
there were definitely going to be challenges to this golf outing after the
ball bounded 20 yards behind the putting surface. Irregular hops are more
than the proverbial "rub of the green" and for now they are par for the
course on this layout. Such might be expected when playing a links that's
still in a construction phase.

Yet, if golf is one of those pastimes that consumes its participants,
without question the lengths to which one hardy town in Canada's Far North
has pursued its sporting passion might be unequalled. Located at 64 N,
Gameti, Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) might also lay claim to one of the
more unusual spots to build a course. One of four villages within the
Tlicho First Nation, the population is only 310. But it's not like there
will be any significant increase in traffic because this facility is in
place; Gameti is a 50-minute flight from Yellowknife, the nearest city.

Isolation aside, it's also what surrounds Gameti that leads to an eyebrow
being raised the likelihood of establishing golf just 150 miles south of
the Arctic Circle. When coming to town, all that can be seen from the air
are lakes, patches of forest and rocks. Lots of rocks. While the Taiga
Plains ecozone is pretty in its own right, possessing a variety of wildlife
amidst the forests, there is no topsoil in this muskeg biome.

Without topsoil there's no grass and with no grass golf would then test
one's patience level even more so. Employing a 5-wood from a patch of moss
doesn't quite have the same flow on the follow through. Instead of a
"THWACK!!" results sound more like a "FLOOOOPP." "I'm amazed there's a golf
course here," said Tony Rabesca, the course's manager. "When I am playing
golf, it's as if it was down south."

Rabesca is the community's wellness director whose job description usually
involves drug and alcohol counseling. His golfing passion has meant he
oversees the eight-person volunteer committee responsible for the course's
development. The initial purpose for emphasizing golf in Gameti, Rabesca
said, is to offer a low-impact physical activity. "My idea is to have these
young people play golf and give them more interests," he said, pointing out
how sports can help prevent societal problems like abuse and addictive
behaviors.

Providing the funding for the sport has been the N.W.T's Municipal and
Community Affairs department (MACA) with $100,000 (Cdn.) in grants over the
past two years. This money has been used to buy supplies, particularly the
putting surfaces, and this past spring to hire the equipment and labor to
clear the trees. From the government's perspective, money spent in
promoting fitness is part of MACA's mandate. "If it has a positive impact
on physical activity levels in the communities, I'm obligated to do what I
can," said Joe Bailey, a MACA senior recreation development officer.

Golf started in Gameti 15 years ago when a visiting school teacher
introduced the sport. Soon the community scratched together a few smaller
holes that paralleled and zig-zagged alongside the main road. The initial
intent was to build the larger course in town but space was restricted and
didn't offer the esthetics the present location does five miles away.
Definitely "winter rules" are in effect with the course as a
work-in-progress and preferred lies are an accepted practice. Fairway shots
are taken from artificial mats because of the absence of grass. Certainly
there are adjustments needed when golfing in a subarctic environment during
the late summer. As the weather offered a constant 25-mph wind and
temperatures in the 40s, swinging a club wearing a hooded parka had its
restrictions.

Still, on the par-3, 180-yard 4th hole, my tee shot found the postage
stamp-sized green. However, the artificial turf surface didn't have the
same absorption as natural grass, so with some disillusionment, I watched
the ball leap well beyond the hole. This bewildering observation isn't to
find fault with this environment. (Though it can provide a justifiable
excuse for my triple bogey.)

"When we play down south, it is a lot easier for us because the greens are
bigger," Rabesca noted. After additional shipping costs, Gameti's budget
only allowed for artificial turfs that were 30' x 30'. This area is about
one-third the space of other greens on other courses, so any shot that
lands near the hole should be its own reward. (Though there is no clemency
for where the ball stops thereafter!)

Mirage Putting Greens of Alberta, based in Calgary, installed the greens.
Owner Randy Steinley admits that a bigger area is needed to check the spin
on a turf green. What made Gameti a more difficult project than elsewhere
his company has been hired was the hard ground. "The soil conditions [are]
in an area where there is permafrost, there was a lot of sand as well,"
said Steinley, referring to the sub-base when creating contours and
undulations.

Even in the absence of manicured fairways, Gameti's nine holes offer a
layout similar to other regulation courses. A conservative estimation of
its length is 3,200 yards with a gorgeous finishing hole as its signature.
Pushing 600 yards, a drive and two fairway woods are required as the
approach overlooks Rae Lake with the green tucked into a valley that's
backdropped by a grove of birch trees. Following the close of the second
season, there are plans for the course's future use. These include the
cosmetic touches of clearing the fairways and then trying to add real grass
around the greens to permit truer bounces and bump-and-run approaches.

Longer term goals consist of expanding to 18 holes while starting to
develop multi-sport vacation packages to include freshwater fishing in the
surrounding lakes.

"They do have a plan and personally I'd like to see that go with tourism,"
Bailey said. "It definitely would be unique in this territory, especially
with Aboriginal communities."