September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

Picking up the Pieces

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

Lots of people have written about what it is like to build a disc golf course. It's a wonderful endeavour finding lines and designing them into something that is real, challenging, and can be enjoyed by lots of people. It is quite a positive experience that presents its own challenges and equal rewards. Rarely do we ever get to hear about what it is like to rebuild a course that has been destroyed and the unique range of emotions that come with it.

During the first week of December in 2022 I had the opportunity to do just that. Almost 3 full months after the most powerful and destructive storm in living memory hit the maritime region of Canada I found myself starting the process of cleaning up the damage and making 1 of our courses playable again. I decided I wanted to share that story with you.

The course we are talking about is my first ever official DiscGolfPark course, located at Cape Breton University outside of Sydney, Nova Scotia. The original design was an ambitious forest course that was created using a variety of heavy equipment including Mulching machines. It was guided by the principals of sustainable forestry, which basically means that areas of heavy tree cover were thinned, the largest trees on site were saved, and all materials were mulched instead of burned or carried away. Two main ideas were always carried forward; leave as much shade cover on the ground as possible and leave the healthiest trees standing. There were several other ideas that contribute to any course I build but they have more to do with flow and course criteria (that is a conversation I would love to have with any one of you in person as it is quite philosophical). Overall CBU was built around the idea that a healthy forest makes for the best and most successful disc golf course. Despite the unfortunate events, and the somewhat cruel irony that two of the hardest hit courses with both DiscGolfPark courses, I still think this philosophy is my guiding principal going forward.

When you are planning a new course you deal in dreams and ideas. You talk about what trees you want to save. When you are rebuilding after a disaster you deal in pragmatism and talk about what you can salvage. You also have to face heartbreak and an overwhelming feeling of loss. New courses have potential, rebuilds do too but that feeling isn't visible until you have passed through the gates of acceptance.

I was glad I didn't get to CBU until weeks after the storm. Acceptance at that stage was already a given. The hardest thing about Kings Pine (one of my truest and deepest loves in the disc golf world) was that when I first saw it after the storm I was still clinging to the hope that it wasn't that bad. I personally love all of my courses as much as I love my dogs (which is just a half notch under the amount I love my wife and children). If you know me at all comparing my courses to my dogs is a huge statement. So the grief process associated with the death (and potential rebirth) of any of my courses is no small feat.

The clean up for CBU seemed hurculean in its scope. It was manageable though. Once I had assessed it, walked it about a dozen times, and gathered my thoughts around what needed to be done it wasn't hard to make a plan on how to do it. Then reality started to settle in and some of the logistics became clear that I hadn't fully thought about. The first thing is that after a storm the list of needs in the community is vast. There are many things that take priority. They all have to do with keeping people safe, warm, and fed. It is harder than you might think to simply find a machine and a driver who can divert their time from crucial humanitarian needs towards a leisure activity like disc golf, even if it is one that people like me deeply believe in. However we got lucky that the CBRM is a large enough place and that just enough time had elapsed to eventually find the things that we needed. The work started in late November and was aided by some unseasonably warm weather.

The next difficult task that doesn't become clear until you start the work is how do you decide where to end it? There are so many trees down in every direction that once you start cleaning the fairways become much wider than you had ever anticipated and the stack of trees seems never ending. We eventually worked into a rhythm of cutting ahead of the machine to help establish the pathways we needed to clear. We saved the hardwood logs to be used at a later date for things like benches, bridges, firewood, or even edging on the sides of fairways. Softwood was mulched or piled everywhere that made sense.

This is the right side of fairway 3. As you can see the damaged trees go on for what feels like ever

Eventually we got to a point with the machines were were felt like 98% of the shots the average player takes would land in a spot that was safe. Trees that couldn't be mulched were pushed into piles well off the fairways in hopes that we could either salvage more wood by hand later, or that nature would slowly take its course and decompose all of the organics.

It also became evident fairly quickly that even with money not all problems are easily solved (maybe with an unlimited budget they could be but as of right now I still have not had access to unlimited funds). Trees that are standing absorb more ground water and once they are lost that ground and surface water finds a new course. The bigger the machine you use to clear the debris the bigger the tracks that are left in the ground. Identifying the perfect tool for the perfect job is an art form all in itself and one that my 20+ years of landscape experience has helped me to identify. It's still tricky and messy.

After 10 days with a machine and close to 100 labour hours we had a playable course again. A local group of disc golfers and wonderful all around humans stepped up to help continue the efforts over the next 6 months. The effects of this storm will be felt here for the next 20 years or more but I can happily say that CBU has a functional disc golf course again that the locals can enjoy.

Emotionally I still don't know if I have processed this. I realize that some people will be able to go on our website and read through articles that make this process seem lineal and somewhat straightforward. In my head it was anything but that. It is a complicated and layered mess that has to be sifted through and sorted out so that a new plan can be employed to create a course that may have little resemblance to the original. I have to be ok with that too. It's harder than you might think for me to leave some ideas behind and move on to new ones without being hurt, resentful, or overwhelmingly attached to them.

New ideas can be very exciting once you allow yourself to be unattached to the old ones. There is now a series of lines and length available at CBU that simply were not there 6 months ago. New trees will get the chance to flourish and at least 1 of the traditional holes now plays a bit easier. I have no idea how these courses will age. The trees that are leaning or on the ground will decompose at such a rate that I can't really envision what the forest will look like in a decade or more. Right now my eyes are fixated on the destruction and I haven't been able to focus as much on what is still standing. I am sure one day in the future that focus will be reversed.

Rebuilding for me also means you have to have a memory like a goldfish. Just because you created an iconic hole that you thought would challenge players for years to come you have to forget about it and learn to live with the pieces that are left standing. These things seem so simple in theory but in practice they weigh on you (or on me at least). I lived through disc golf in the west coast when the pine beetle was ravaging forests. The destruction there was much slower and in some cases turned championship level courses to sawdust. I am not sure that one disaster is preferable to another but accepting the cards that you are dealt seems to be a lifelong journey.

On my last day at CBU during the rebuilding process I was cleaning up tee pad number 1 and getting ready to take some pictures for my final assessment when a car with 2 young men pulled up. It was still very early in the morning and I didn't think anyone would be out to use the course yet, but as they boys got out of their car they made their way straight to me and asked if the course was open yet. It turns out they had just started playing a couple of weeks ago and had never played CBU in full before (they played 5 holes while the machine was still onsite). I said the course was open and after chatting for a bit they were on their way. It occurred to me that those 2 players had none of the baggage for this course that I carried. Their experience here would be one based around the lines that they saw in front of them and the opportunities that they were presented with. Their personal course records would be kept on this layout alone and for them (and others like them) that would be perfectly fine. It was good for me to see that and realize that after all of this destruction there was still a dedicated disc golf course at CBU that has some amazing trees, challenging lines, and very fun shots. It is only my attachment to the concept of what 'should have been' that brings me pain. My hope is that CBU better helps me personally understand how to rebuild a course so that when we are ready to rebuild the massive destruction on PEI I will be armed with more tools than before. I have heard it said that, "Above disaster awaits opportunity" and to go forward I have to embrace that.

Thanks for listening