TRAIL, British Columbia - The sprinklers lurch to life on the tow rope hole, adding another obstacle to a par 3 that needs reinforcements about as badly as an F-16 in battle with a pinata. Of all holes.
The tow rope is one of those holes you could find only in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. It goes straight up a hill, hence the fully-functional green tow rope to assist your climb. Yes, a tow rope is one of those mechanical lines used to pull ski lifts up a mountain. And yes, it's smack dab in the middle of a golf
What do you want? It's the Kootenays!
You'll find yourself repeating this phrase only about a good two dozen times per day on a trip to this wondrous, anything but conventional golf destination. For no matter where you've been and what courses you've played, nothing prepares you for the Kootenays.
Of course, right now it's all about getting in your chip shot below the crest of the hill before the machine-gun-fire sprinkler whirls back around. On the green, only semi-drenched. Success!
This is our fourth course of the day, the sun's long gone and a gourmet meal awaits back near the clubhouse. Yet everyone insists on putting out to finish even with the sprinklers seemingly targeting putters now.
Everyone else in the group's Canadian. What do you expect?
Four courses, hours in a van driven by an adventure guide who doesn't mind taking a few bumps, two meals better than many offered in plush New York restaurants, too many bottles of local wine and beer, small-town Canadian bartending stories to make you convinced Tom Cruise picked the wrong locale for Cocktail ... And that was just my first day in the Kootenays.
Which just goes to show that some of the best golf adventures are the ones you never see coming. Go to Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, San Diego, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Vancouver, Washington D.C. ... fall in love with the Kootenays.
It doesn't make any sense. Especially to a devoted city slicker like me. I moved to the New York City area soon after college knowing it was where I always wanted to be, recently embraced the power of Las Vegas and well, tirelessly avoided Pokeyville every step of the way. I get queasy just driving through Boulder City, Nev., on the way back from Phoenix. And it's an all-world view. Give me the frenzy of Paris over the charm of Provence every day of the week.
Yet the Kootenays ...
Population-wise, the big towns in this mountain region make Boulder City look like a looming metropolis. It's 9,700 in Nelson, 3,500 in Rossland. Heck, it's two Canadians and 46 bears in some Kootenay hamlets. This area does not have a mega-highway running into it. It's eight hours drive from Vancouver on a lot of two-lane roads. When someone wants to build an A&W or Subway in these parts, it's town gossip for months, with city governments weighing long and hard on whether the place is going to detract from the community fabric.
"It's like living in 1965," says Cary Fisher, one of the leaders in developing the Trail-Rossland area. "We're trying to change that a little."
Part of that push for change involves golf. Fisher is involved in the project that will turn the nine-hole Rossland Course -- the course with the tow rope -- into a full 18. It's just, you hope they don't change things too much.
For much of the charm of the Kootenays is how different it is from anywhere else. This isn't one of those places that's trying to pass off a few average courses and a collection of empty hotel rooms as a golf destination. Instead, the Kootenays is the rare spot with relatively undiscovered and delightfully underpriced golf.
In a span of less than 24 hours, we went from a course overlooking lake and mountains as far as the eye could see (Balfour Golf Course) to a course with a tow rope, to a course with black copper slag bunkers (Christina Lake, one of only four course in North America with this strikingly unique obstacle). When the organizers of a media tour try to get you to play six courses in little over a day, and still talk about the ones they have to leave out, you know it's not a smoke and mirrors destination.
The Kootenays keeps surprising you. One of its towns, Nelson, includes enough high-end boutique clothing shops, sidewalk cafes and a restaurants with extensive wine lists to make you think you've dropped straight into a trendy Alpine village. Yet, there's also a definite small-town vibe.
It's Northern Exposure meets Rodeo Drive.
It turns out a bunch of hippies settled in Nelson, but as they got older and richer, they decided they enjoyed the finer material things in life, too.
"You can get a great shirt that costs $150 here,'' one local says. "The problem's finding a shirt that's 20 bucks."
The Kootenays tap dances between worlds. Chris Clarkson is a native who's seen the globe, led adventure tours through the rain forests of Belize and has now come home to open the Kootenays Lakeview Lodge, a 20-room hotel with all the luxury comforts. If anyone wants to see tourists running through the Kootenays, you'd think it would be Clarkson.
Only, he doesn't seem quite so sure.
"There's an old saying that bad roads bring in good people and good roads bring in bad people,'' Clarkson
says, smiling. "And I'm sure there's some truth to that."
Nothing's quite what you expect. The best tapas I've ever had? In the Kootenays. The most beautiful cart girl I've ever seen? In the Kootenays. Yet, this is also a place where a reporter will hang out with two guys from Community Futures, an organization dedicated to growing the community and in many ways reshaping its image, and end up shooting virtual deer in an video game at a local pub.
Come to think of it, that's what truly makes the Kootenays work. It doesn't try to be something it isn't. It's not putting on a veneer of sophistication, or anything else, for show. How many golf destinations can say that these days?
I wrote about a little town in Utah a few months ago, mentioned there were signs touting live bait in the local convenience stores and ended up getting a heaping of outrage from their PR-obsessed golf people. Never mind that the stores do advertise live bait.
That's a town that isn't comfortable letting golfers know what it is. The Kootenays embraces all its facets, from a surprisingly high-end hotel to a great out-there fishing spot. Maybe, that's the lesson for all those would-be golf destinations. Don't put on a front, let golfers experience the true community, and they might just fall in love.
Of course, that would take a little confidence in what your area is all about.
I'm too busy to debate theory at the moment though. Right now, I'm figuring out how to justify a TravelGolf.com office in the Kootenays.
Then again, bartenders school suddenly does sound alluring ...
May 30, 2005