September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

The Nightmare Week

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

It could have been worse. More people could have died. More homes could have been lost. So many more things could have went wrong. What did happen was felt deeply by a lot of people and will change the face of the some of the east coast for years to come but I constantly remind myself, it could have been worse.

When someone you love dies there is a (semi) formal process for dealing with your loss. There is a funeral, a gathering, food, and stories exchanged. Everyone is still free to take the time they need to come to terms with what happened and it's socially acceptable to grieve. That process is not so clear when we lose trees, or a disc golf course.

I'll be completely honest; I don't know how to feel. It's been more than 10 days. I am not raw with emotion anymore but I am still extremely emotional.

The problem is I don't what I am allowed to feel. Intellectually I know I am allowed to feel anything I want but in practice I am riddled with guilt and loss. We experienced the biggest storm in our history. Winds that topped 170 KM per hour in some places. Homes were destroyed, lives were lost, and properties were trashed. Trees that stood for 100's of years were tossed to the ground like pick-up sticks. The night before the storm my wife and I played a round of disc golf at our home course. I asked her, 'how many trees do you think we will lose this storm?'. She answered, '10', I said, '3'. When the winds finally dissipated enough to walk our land 40 some hours later I had to stop counting after 50 fallen trees, and we don't have that much land. A white pine that stood guard at the south side of our property for over 100 years was ripped from the ground. It was a beautiful tree that greeting me every morning and was my focal point every time I did the dishes. Its death was shocking.

On the second day after the storm I mustered the energy to clean one tree at a time. I limbed it, then cut it into long lengths so that at some point I could have it milled into lumber. I also started to count the rings in every tree as a way to honour its life. Most trees that fell here were over 80 years old. They had survived through all kinds of storms, both natural and manmade. They outlasted the railway here and in one night on one small slice of land dozens of them were gone. The view from my kitchen window was changed forever. Our house was just one of thousands like it that went through this. Still, I knew that we had got off lucky. We were safe, our house suffered no damage, and we had enough food, water, and gas to survive for quite a while. How could I grieve for my own trees when so many others had it so much worse.

On the morning of the storm I started reaching out to my friends and neighbours. Everyone I knew was alive and safe but stories started trickling in. Then pictures. Then reality. Shock, collective trauma, and an overwhelming sensation of not fully knowing what to do next. Major parts of my province without power, all of PEI without it. I started to teeter on the edge of depression with this overwhelming sense of helplessness. What do you do first? Who do you help? How do you choose? Within 24 hours we got our generator going and luckily had our truck with a power outlet on it. We moved food to one freezer and kept the sump pump going to prevent our basement from flooding. Then I started to clean some of the people I know who had lines down on in precarious places. I felt guilty for not doing more. Part of me still does.

After 48 hours reality really started to kick in. So many places were destroyed. So many people I know effected. No idea how to help. A constant sound of chainsaws working in the distance everywhere you went.

The phone kept ringing. Slowly I tried to contribute in any meaningful way I could. I decided I could clean one course that was only partially hit. Maybe that is one of the things I can be good at. So we did.

After 72 hours it was clear some places would never be the same. 3 of the 5 courses that were hit the hardest Were courses I had built. Both of my DiscGolfPark builds were destroyed. I struggled with grieving about them. Was I allowed to grieve disc golf courses when so many people were in dire straights? Who gives you that permission?

On the evening of the third day just before sunset I was walking with the dogs in the back yard and I decided I had to change my perspective. The only way I could move forward was to see this as an opportunity. I love building courses and this was a perfect opportunity to build a new one at my house. So I grabbed my saw and cut trees until dark.

When you don't have power the darkness is like a blanket that covers everything so quickly. It's hard to stay up late by candle light. Your life becomes centred around whatever light you can find. In all honesty the four of us in our house got along wonderfully. We played board games, I played guitar, we spent time together without our devices. There were cracks in the destruction that let the positive light in. You could start to see a road to recovery. It wouldn't be quick or easy but it was there.

After a four days my Mom got power and the kids found their way there trading our candlelight board games for hot showers, wifi, and oven cooked meals. I spent a couple more days just focusing on our course and property. Every day there was a task to do and so I focused on that. I was (and still am) getting constant updates from the PEI courses. They continued to be devastating. What makes PEI so incredible is the people. The fact that 4 private families own our 4 major courses (Hillcrest, Huck It, Kings Pine, Rose Valley) means that disc golf is being developed privately. In a lot of ways it has been a huge advantage. All of the owners love their courses and have put countless hours into making their product amazing. This was not just a business loss, this was a loss of something unmeasurable. I know how close to home these losses hit for each of them. Since they are all owned privately there isn't an endless supply of money to draw on, nor do the the course automatically become the first priority to deal with in a disaster. It was hard for each of them to know how to approach their own losses.

I am personally much more effective when I can physically do something, so offering nothing but my condolences is not very easy for me. I felt helpless without being able to offer tangible action. After 4 days the island government was still telling people not to even come to PEI.

It was about this time that I started to really question myself. Why do I think it's important for me to put my time into disc golf? Should I be doing something of more 'worth' in this world? Plus small thoughts started to creep in about climate change and the likely hood that a storm like this happens again. After all when some people now think of disc golf events in the maritimes they mention our two hurricanes in 4 years. They are not wrong. Even though we have had 4 major storms in 20 years, and this was our biggest ever, it seems likely they will happen again and I didn't (and still don't) know how to quell that thought.

Eventually I came to understand something about myself in this whole mess. I feel compelled to walk this path in life, just like I feel compelled to write. If people find pleasure in what I do or what I produce that is a double gift, but the reality is this is who I am. Writing things helps me process them. Building disc golf courses is what fuels my passion. When I built the course in Corner Brook, Newfoundland this summer I worked 14 hours a day for almost 6 weeks straight. I don't remember being tired but I remember that while I was building it was some of the happiest moments of my life. Same goes for running Nationals. There is pressure and a constant array of tasks but this work gives me purpose and direction and there isn't a day that goes by that I am not thankful to everyone who empowers me to continue. It took me 6 days after the storm to allow myself the freedom to accept that disc golf is not foolish or trivial but a matter of deep importance to me and to those of us who play. Condensing this into one paragraph makes it seem like this was an inevitable outcome, there were some dark moments when it was not.

Around this time a wonderful thing was happening around the country. People where hearing our stories and offering their help. Brandon Patrick and a whole crew of wonderful people put together an online fundraiser that took in over 100 donated prizes and raised over $21,000 in cash to be donated to the courses effected. Even though this was a drop in the bucket of what it will take to rebuild the courses this was a shot in the arm and the hearts to all of the course owners. It gave a moment of reflection as to how amazing this community is and how much they value the work we have done here. It was also an acknowledgement that what we have on the east coast is something truly special. This statement was almost unthinkable 10 years ago but it is a testament to everyone who has put time into making this game thrive.

I don't know if I reached the hopeful stage yet. There are still people on my road without power. There are a mountain of trees on courses that I love. CBU won't even begin the cleaning process until spring. Kings Pine will start the assessment later in the week with understanding that the next 6 months will be as hard of a climb as any we have put forward.  Even after that it will not be the same course. The entire episode still feels 'off'. September of this year would have went down as one of the nicest months in our history if not for a single 24 hour period. Each day post-storm seems surreal. You see people are the grocery or online and you have no context what they have gone through or are continuing to go through. I try to find tasks that I can accomplish so that I feel like I am making some kind of progress but lots of conversations seem trivial after having gone through everything. Sometimes it seems crazy that the world just keeps going on outside when you are so consumed by trauma. It almost doesn't seem real.

There are, however real stories coming into light about what people went through during the storm. Tidal surges that broke down front doors, rescues that happen at the peak of the storm, family homes lost and the sounds and sights that accompanied all of those things. There are so many more stories to be told. So many people doing heavy lifting with no one around to help. There are a lot of positive ones too. Most of the warming centres that opened all across the region are being done by volunteers, many of them from the community. So much of the chainsaw work done to free people or make things safe happened in the blink of an eye from people who would never accept money for their efforts. The goodness of neighbours was, and continues to be, on full display.

In my heart I know a forest doesn't really die. It gets transformed. Part of my grief comes from feeling like I lost something I worked for. Part of my guilt is selfish. I walk in the woods almost everyday and I know that a tree that falls today will only be fertilizer for the trees that come tomorrow. There are so many trees down its almost unfathomable. Some courses had 50% of their tree effected.  Half. That is a number so hard to come to grips with for me but I know it is a part of life. Birth and death, life, and loss. My grandmother used to say, In time this too shall pass. Like with a great number of things, she was right. For now I am dealing with my grief and so are so many people I know. Someday soon we will all get together and share our stories, and walk in the woods, and play holes that would have never existed otherwise.

For now I'm just focusing on one tree at a time.