September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

Disc Golf in the heart of Saint John

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

Every new disc golf course that opens has the chance to change lives. Sometimes we build in places where disc golf is already thriving, sometimes we build in places where it is completely brand new. Last week, we opened a course in Shamrock Park, a wonderful, multi-use space in the heart of north end Saint John. This course, more than almost any other that we have been a part of, is going to change lives for the better. On any good course we build, we get to learn about the land and the people that use it. There are always stories that come forth about the space we are on and what came before us. Shamrock Park is full of stories, some of which we would love to share here.

To set the stage for those of you who are unfamiliar with the city of Saint John, it is a beautiful and rugged city, set on the coast of the Bay of Fundy. It is a mix of industrial opportunities and hard granite rock. In many ways, it is the essence of New Brunswick with maybe no better example than the "reversing falls" and the pulp mill that occupies the bird's eye view of those falls. Saint John is full of soul, and it doesn't take long to feel it. The city itself is plagued by many of the same issues felt across the Maritimes: outward migration takes away much of the local talent; there is a certain level of defeatism felt by those who stay; and the need to balance the heavy industry and natural environment in which is it located are always in constant battle. However, Shamrock Park is the perfect example of why Saint John is worth coming home for, and maybe even feeling optimistic about the future here.

Shamrock Park is currently home to two grass soccer fields, a wonderful baseball field, quite possibly the best turf field in New Brunswick (which just happens to be a football field), walking trails, tennis courts, community gardens, horseshoe pits, at least nine different tree species, and now a free-to-play disc golf course. It is located in a part of town that has gone through tough times and has come out the other end. Over the last decade or more, it has been the landing point for many new immigrants. The sports fields here are used by everyone and more times than we can count we heard the phase, "well, everyone in Saint John grew up at Shamrock". It seems that no matter what your lot in life is: if you called Saint John your home, you have spent time at the park.

The city of Saint John was one of the last major places in Atlantic Canada to not have a disc golf course. It certainly wasn't from lack of trying, though. There has been a proposal on the table with the city in some form or another since at least 2014. Over the years, there have been modest talks that never really amounted to much, but eventually the stars aligned and we found the perfect fit. It all started with our local champion(s). The first of these champions has to be Bryan Neary. Bryan has been trying hard to get disc golf into the Saint John river valley in some capacity or another for a few years.  We have been close to other locations but nothing solid was ever formed until now. Bryan is a wonderful human being who tries his best to make the world a better place. The mounting losses of no's for our disc golf attempts were really starting to grind on him, but luckily for us--and for all of Saint John--he stuck with it. Bryan also works full time and was not able to be at the course as much as he would have liked, but he does have the honour of volunteering on quite possibly the worst weather day we have ever worked through. Driving wind and rain didn't stop us from a full day of practice very early in the course building, and for just that fact alone he earned his stripes.

Our second champion is a north end local who grew up only a block from the course. He is one of those people who decided to stick it out in his home neighbourhood and do his part to make it better. Jeremiah Rasch is a new disc golfer and possibly the first person in Saint John to get a PDGA number. He is also a kind and humble human being. Most of the work that was done on the course happened in two-day stints where we worked back-to-back 16 hour days. Almost every week that we made the trip, Jeremy took a day off work and put in time on the course. The labour was nice, but the company was even better. Like almost all good Maritimers, Jeremy would tell me stories about the park, the neighbourhood, and in some cases, the sandwich shops where we would get our lunch. People like this make me appreciate the good projects even more. These two champions, along with a healthy mix of other locals, have already formed a board, set up league days, and are generally looking towards the future for all the ways that they can make disc golf thrive. One downside that I should mention is that Jeremy is solely responsible for the straight uphill walk to hole 16. Personally, I love a good staircase, but the general public not so much.... all jokes aside, we had to make some modifications when we built the course that are only temporary. Hole 15 will eventually move to its permanent position, and the walk will be much, much easier. For now, every time you take the stairs, you can curse us both.

Speaking of people, there are two human stories I would like to share that happened during the building of the course. The first came as we were mulching the fairways. For those of you who really know me, you will know that I love trees. I think deeply about them, how to preserve them, and which ones I can cut that will still contribute to a healthy forest. Shamrock Park has some semi-domesticated deer living in it as well as an abundance of wild life. The terrain is rocky and rugged but still much of it is covered with trees. Finding areas that we could grow into while not upsetting that delicate balance was a long and tricky process, but in the end, I felt very good about the decisions we made. Maybe one hour after doing our select cuts and mulching the downed trees, a young lady came directly to where I was working and yelled at me for "ruining nature". These interactions always make me sad because I spend so much time agonizing about these decisions, and forest health is very important to me.  I wanted to have a nuanced discussion with her about the decisions we made and the future of the forest, or about the loads of garbage that was removed from the forest as people had been using that as a dumping site for years. In this particular case, it seemed that she just wanted to be mad and walk away. I understood at least a part of her reaction. If, by any small chance, she ever reads this, I hope she can understand the long term vision we were trying to follow here. Fortunately for us, that was the only negative reaction we got during the entire project. Ever other single person who interacted with us was happy to see the park being cleaned, cared for, and understood the future potential that this course brings with it. The disc golf course breathed life into places where it had not been. That is a positive step for the future.

The second story happened on the last day of work. All of the materials had be secured and the only job left for the day was to mount the signs. The welcome sign is a 4 foot tall by 8 foot long sign that is mounted on two posts that had to be dug and concreted into the ground. Even though it was quite early in the morning, I had noticed out of the corner of my eye a man and three kids kicking around the park and taking pictures. Shamrock always has a nice trickle of traffic so I didn't think much of it, but as soon as I started to dig the first hole for the sign post, the older gentleman made a bee-line right for me. He took my shovel and started to dig a hole. He asked me (in very broken English and mostly sign language) if I spoke Arabic? To which I responded that I did not. After a few minutes, his son showed up, and acted as translator. For the next few hours, this family worked alongside me, helping me to mount the sign posts, tee signs, and a few loose ends I had left to do.  They told me they were only five days removed from Syria, and let me in on some of the hardships they had faced. The entire time they were so positive and so happy to be here.  They said they loved Saint John and were looking for work (they all immigrated legally, in case you were wondering). The father showed me pictures of all the stone work and concrete he had done in Syria, and every time I set a tool down, he picked it up and finished the tasks. At the end of the morning, I tried to pay him but he refused. I gave his youngest kids discs including a Stone's Throw stamped disc. They played with them all morning. Now every time I see that sign board, I will think of them and I only hope his kids become huge disc golfers. It also made me think of how similar humans are all across the world.  We just want peace, love, happiness, and a little work that makes us feel useful. I was so grateful that they came over that morning. I also had to laugh because when he asked me if I spoke Arabic I said no, and thought to myself "why would he think that?" Then I looked at the picture we took together and thought... "oh, that's why".

If you can't tell which one of these people is not from Syria, you're not alone

I will confess one more thing. There were a few times at the very start were I was frustrated with this project. I actually lamented that it seemed like so many of my builds the disc golfers have to make all the concessions, and not other park users, but by the end of this project, I think it was one of the most fun jobs I have ever been on. The public was genuinely excited, the company that I worked with were great, and the city staff listened and made actions on the things that we deemed important. I also got to create this really weird / semi-poetic hole beside a tennis court featured in this spot on CTV. For those of you who know my comparative studies on tennis, you will know how perfect this is for me. Overall, this was one the best projects I have ever had the fortune of being involved in. Every single person who contributed to it should feel great about what we were able to create here. This is another stone in the beautiful tapestry that is Saint John. Now it can change the lives of the people who will use it.

The next time you are passing through Saint John, make the time to stop at Shamrock Park.  You will be treated with some great disc golf holes, and with a true, genuine, Saint John experience.