September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

The Corner Stone of Newfoundland Disc Golf

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

When Kendrick Lamar released his latest album, ‘Mr Moral and the Big Steppers’ it took me a few days to find the time to really listen to it.  When I did I was blown away by his level of self awareness and honesty.  I went through a range of emotions on my first few listens from shock, sadness, and an overwhelming amount of gratitude.   I was convinced that this album could single handedly reshape the world- or at least our part of it.  For the days and weeks that proceeded my first listen I scoured some of the corners of the internet waiting for the ball to drop and to see the ripple effects of this monumental piece of art.  With each passing day it started to become more obvious that things would just continue to plod along as they always had despite the something amazing that I had just experienced.  In a lot of ways my latest trip to Newfoundland is exactly the same.  What appears life changing to me will probably not register as anything more than a blip on the radar of the grand scheme of life for everyone else.

I’m writing this on the ferry ride home to the mainland after a month on the ‘rock’.  The bulk of that blissful time was spent in Corner Brook, the second largest city in the province.  I was fortunate enough to have been hired by Disc Golf NL to build the province’s first full 18 hole course on what can only be described as a course builders dream property.  Mature trees offer shaded canopies over rocky hillsides that lead to an abandon rock quarry.  There are beautiful views around so many corners that it is hard to keep track of my favourite ones.  For the first week I was there I saw a moose almost every day.  The first one startled me so much I almost turned on my heel and bolted… to where I don’t know, but by the third one I was well versed in silence and had it not been for the fact that my thumb was over my camera I would have captured some great shots.

It didn’t take me long for me to embrace the soul of this province.  It’s a place where you carve beauty out of stone, where you make do with the limited resources that are available to you, where every hard place is just an opportunity disguised as a challenge, and where beauty is so ever present that it is incumbent upon you to look up as often as you can to take it all in.  I have loved and cherished every course I have ever built, and truly every job I have been granted, but no single accomplishment has ever given me more pride than completing (phase 1, hopefully) of the Corner Brook course. Every aspect of my skill set, work ethic, and vision was put to the test and because of that I was rewarded with the greatest job of my working life.  I got lucky with a lot of things on this trip; we had perfect weather, a group of passionate players, and at least 2 municipalities that believe in my vision.  I also have a wife who trusts me and carries a lot of weight at home when I am gone.  Without her this would not be possible, and although she does not accompany me on these trips, it is through my partnership with her that I am afforded the opportunities to try and create such ambitious projects.

This project was certainly ambitious.  There are very unique challenges presented by any Newfoundland landscape but the area around Corner Brook has more than its fair share of steep hillsides and rocky terrain.  Couple those with the fact that this is the first time I have hired a local company on the island to satisfy my very specific building needs.  The first few days of any new project are always a delicate balance of patiences and persistence but a few things became abundantly clear; first Newfoundlanders are even more resourceful than I had been giving them credit for, and second there was no way that 1 month on this site was going to do it the full justice it deserved.  My best strategy was to focus on all the things that could be accomplished and to work with the machines I had available.  After a few close calls with black muck, sinkholes, and rocky outcrops we found a rhythm that would ultimately produce the backbone of our 18-hole course.  There were 2 tee pads that I could not access with the machines I had available to me so my years of training in the art of brute strength and ignorance really kicked in.  After a day of lugging buckets of gravel up hill through moose paths I think I earned some respect from my machine driver.    He told me the next morning that he would have cut down every tree in the forest before he’d lug gravel up a hill like that.  From that point on it seemed that I was exactly stupid and determined enough to get this project done.

There are so many moments on this project that I will cherish forever that it is hard to pin point just one of them.  The overall blend of kindness and curiosity that fills seemingly every Newfoundlander will stick with me.  If I was anywhere near the parking lot no less than 3 people a day would bee line over to me and ask me what was going on here.  Their use of the word (or phrase) ‘laug’ (aka la, lough, lah) and their sideways head nod to express what I can only assume was acceptance of my efforts always made me smile, and their ability to turn 2 syllable words into single syllables never ceased to fill me with joy.  My typical day started at 530am and ended at 9pm with one break for a take out dinner.  – You might not think of this immediately but Corner Brook has a bevy of excellent restaurants, including the islands best sushi and several other delightful options. Each day was filled with simple tasks that required all of my energy to accomplish.  In my word it was pure bliss.

Sandwiched in the middle of all this bliss was a quick trip to St. John’s for a meeting with the planning department, city forester, and local councillor.  The meeting can only be described as sub-optimal but it got done and it moved us at least a little closer to seeing a full 18-hole course in the capital city. When I left I was doubly thankful for the people in the province who offer their help to me and for the City of Corner Brook and their belief in this project.

There was also 4 day detour to Stephenville, the site of the island’s first course.  I was joined there by my daughter who flew over, and 2 familiar faces (Jenn and Chris) from the mainland (or at least an island that I visit more often). Stephenville has now become a familiar site to me as every visit to Newfoundland includes a stop there (and Dannys bakery). This trip we put on another fantastic event, added 16 tee pads to the 'Jet' course, and once again sampled the local culture. There was one small moment that sums up my experience here as well as my foolish approach to working. When I arrived onsite to the 'Jet' course it was close to 6 am. I was told someone from the town would meet me with a machine and we would accomplish all of the things on my list. No one was around and the few phone numbers I called lead to no real progress so I did what I often do, I grabbed some buckets of sand and started carrying them up the hills to tee pads I could mount. After about 45 minutes of carrying these heavy loads a driver arrived with a loader and asked me what I wanted and where? I told him, 'In an ideal world you would get me gravel and sand and we would build everything with the machine', not really expecting to get any response but much to my surprise he replied with, 'I can do that' and we were off. Nine hours later we had created 16 wonderful new launch sites for the course and my 45 minutes of early morning labour seemed inline with my gifts of brute strength and ignorance. The next couple of days I tidied up the loose ends on the course and tried my best to make it shine. Overall the improvements made an already solid course into something even better that absolutely fits the wonderful people who will use it the most.

The event in Stephenville went smoothly despite early morning rains on Saturday. We had a great crowd and had battles for first place in almost every division. There is a wonderful and dedicated group of players who use the courses there and so many of them have contributed to the overall growth of disc golf in Newfoundland that it would be foolish to pick out just one. However there is one group that I would like to mention. It is a group of moms and their sons. On the surface that statement in itself is something wonderful but this is no ordinary group. This is one of the most dedicated group of disc golfers you will ever find. The boys easily play over 300 rounds a year and can be found on the course in almost any weather accompanied by their mothers who enjoy walking the course daily. The boys are special olympians and they have all found a new passion when they discovered disc golf. During this event many of the moms played too (some for the first time ever) and by all accounts they all enjoyed themselves. They have this magic way of finding joy in the small victories out there every day and their pace of play keeps them moving threw the entire round. When I reference that anyone can play this game and enjoy it I often think of their smiling faces. If every course had only a fraction of people who found happiness in it like they do I would build forever.

After a successful conclusion to the Stephenville event we were back to Corner Brook to do the finishing touches on (hopefully phase 1 of - I feel like if I keep mentioning this it will come true) the course. The backbone of this course is amazing. In addition to being the only 18 hole course on the island it is also the only wooded course here. Building in the woods can cost a lot of money, so when you have a limited budget and you can't easily achieve length you add obstacles; in this case, trees. So many trees.

At this point in my building career I have developed a philosophy and a style. One of the pillars of this mindset is that the healthiest forest will make the best course and not the other way around. The Corner Brook course has so many amazing trees that it was quite possibly the best surprise of the trip for me. It was easy to keep a healthy canopy intact while weaving our way up and down the hillsides. One small downside of the course is that in the middle of the usable land there is a 6 minute walk over some crown land that breaks the course up in two. It's not the end of the world but players who wish to play the full course need to mentally prepare for that walk. On my last few days of building I focused my energies on the walking path and created 5 different kinds of stairways, some out of reclaimed wood, some out of the land itself, and some (my favourite) out of stone. They are all simple solutions that may go unnoticed at first glance but they all contribute to the entire experience.

This course has two distinctly different feels. The woods, or as we list it on Udsic, the 'Blue' loop, is heavily wooded with a precision shot off of every tee pad. The quarry, or the 'Orange' loop, is mostly open holes with unique rock features, beautiful views, and a 'top-of-the-world' shot. Both sides make this course fun and challenging and will play completely differently depending on the time of year and daily weather.

The tournament here was a perfect start for the course. It was filled with a small but captive audience who could see past the rougher-than-we'd-like fairways and straight to the gems that are present there. It was another great day of competition with scores that varied wildly depending on if the players hit their lines or not. A shot in the woods that misses by only a few inches can easily turn into a 6, and judging by many of the peoples score cards (especially hole 17) you can see this came true more than once.

When the events were done we had a small social celebration at one of the downtown pubs. My daughter and I left by 830 pm and took in one last walk around the city. The course is now in the very capable hands of the Corner Brook disc golf club run by the John card (Jon, John, and Johnston) and at least a couple of Nicks. (I am certain people in Corner Brook / Newfoundland have a bevy of names but apparently in our group this 2 are by far the most popular). Each of the people who are a part of this group have something amazing that they bring to the table and because of that this course will thrive. Never forget that it is groups of people like this who keep the spirit of our game alive.

Some day we may look back on the Covid portion of the disc golf timeline as one of the biggest turning points for our game. This course felt like something even more pronounced, although the foundations of this growth for me personally had already been laid with Rose Valley and Kings Pine. Corner Brook certainly feels like the start of something else. I write this blogs to try and shed light on my experience as a builder and to share some of the truth that I have come to terms with. For a long time our game seemed undervalued but there is now a pathway forward to changing that. I believe I am a good builder and that I can offer value to any place. I feel as if my services are worth something and that any place that chooses to hire me has made a wise investment. Every time I build something like this I think of how many people will benefit positively in the future and that keeps me going. This was a long trip though and the time away from my family was tougher than I thought it would be. I don't want to get to philosophical here but disc golf is a game for the future and understanding its value is the best way to ensure its foundations are strong. If you get the chance to play Corner Brook, do it. While you are there image what it could be like if we put as much investment into this game as we do baseball or hockey. Some day I hope we can look back at this point in time and realize how lucky we are to have discovered this game when we did but really we are only scratching the surface of what is possible.

Thanks for being a part of this.