The Arc of the disc 

Folf just keeps growing. Can it grow up?

Joe Kipphut arrives in a Forest Service green Chevy crew cab, a thick canvas jacket fending off the crisp morning chill. He’s quickly out of the rig and smiling, bright eyes undimmed by 27 years working as an agency man.

We exchange greetings, and he offers a handshake.

Six years ago, while I was working at a Missoula Youth Home, Kipphut, a recreation specialist and resource forester on the Lolo National Forest’s Missoula District, provided the four boys in my care with work projects—painting gates, mending fence and, on a good day, burying posts to form tee boxes in the clay soil of the Pattee Canyon folf course.

On this April morning, perhaps half of our hard work remains unvandalized and in the ground. A dormant picnic area lies to the south. A maze of trails, used regularly by scores of Missoulians to bike, hike, ski and folf, sprawls off toward the west and north. A half mile to the east, a loose cluster of newer homes is barely visible through the trees. On all sides, old growth and re-growth ponderosas and Douglas firs tower above native grasses and just-blooming glacier lilies.

Kipphut stands on a well-worn dirt spot. Over the seasons of the past century, he says, this clearing has served as a softball diamond, a base camp for hundreds of wildland firefighters during the fires of 2000, and most commonly as a walkway. In the winter it becomes a groomed thoroughfare for cross-country skiers.

“Pattee Canyon is the epicenter of the most contentious 10 or 15 acres on the district,” says Kipphut, who has been responsible for managing this meadow since 1985.

“Everybody loves this stretch of ground—it’s gentle, it’s rolling, it’s close to town, it’s shady in the heat of summer, and it’s pretty.”

For decades, Pattee Canyon has provided Garden Cityites with a backyard respite to recreate and relax, just 15 minutes of driving (or 45 minutes of cycling) from downtown.

A group of four disc golfers approach our stance at the first “tee box”—the broad, well-worn and amorphous dirt area that years ago served as third base for softball-playing picnickers. But the recreational trends of the day have changed.

“Folf is by far the biggest recreational use of the district, bar none,” Kipphut continues. “I bet there’s more folfers than hikers in the Rattlesnake. It’s tremendous.”

As district manager of all of Missoula’s “developed recreation areas,” Kipphut keeps his eye on more than 150 gates and dozens of trailheads, as well as Missoula’s trifecta of close-to-home Recreation Areas: Blue Mountain, the Rattlesnake and Pattee Canyon. Over the years, recreationists have used public lands for an increasingly broad array of activities, and traditionally under-funded and slow-to-react bureaucracies like the Forest Service are left scrambling when new user groups bring unique and potentially conflicting interests to the table.

The recently and rapidly spiking number of users is alarming Forest Service officials and other groups wanting their share of the Pattee Canyon pie.

“The numbers, the demand, the interest, surprised us,” says Kipphut. “Its kinda like the mountain bike. We were all surprised and not ready for the technology of the mountain bike.”

To best serve the users of the coveted and contentious Pattee Canyon, Kipphut needed to know how many disc golfers were using the course, and a recent national study helped facilitate the count.

As part of a system-wide Forest Service attempt to assess the number of people using the nation’s forests, Kipphut carefully concealed an infrared camera on the course to count the number of disc golfers passing through. Well-hidden in a place unlikely to be used by non-disc golfers, the sensor kept its electronic eye on the course for a single 24-hour period.

“It was a weekday, in early May, when school was still in session, and it counted 240 people,” he says. “It surprised me.”

That was two years ago, the first time—and last—the Forest Service formally tallied district course users. These days, continuously refilling parking lots overflow for much of the day on sunny weekends. It is no surprise that a controversy brews amid the vast spectrum of solitude seekers, adrenaline junkies and dog walkers who frequent the area.

While the imprint of the course itself is nearly insignificant—tee boxes from which to throw the disc and baskets or posts at which to aim—the area is battered by the surging popularity of the sport. Some days as many as 500 people walk in small groups through the same landscape, throwing hard discs at targets, compacting soil, trampling vegetation and driving errant discs into nearby objects like trees, and occasionally cyclists or hikers.

The most common complaint the Forest Service receives about disc golfers is that they damage the resource. Trees are scarred, unauthorized trails are tamped in and the bottleneck areas around tees and targets are worn bare. In the cold months, cross-country skiers get annoyed when their carefully manicured ski trails suffer from footprints and dog feces.

Off the course, parking space is at a premium.

“Yes, folfers have impact,” says Kipphut. “But how much impact do you consider that asphalt road and the construction that went on for picnicking? I mean how many picnickers do you see here today? Or any day?” The answer that morning was none; the answer most days is not many.

True, but the beer cans, broken glass, Coke bottles and cigarette butts that regularly clutter the 15 acres infuriate people both inside the disc golf community and out. Although the Forest Service has no money for on-course trash removal, Kipphut is unperturbed about the litter.

“The trash can be picked up, and it is,” he says, referring to responsible folfers who carry trash bags on their daily rounds and pick up after their litterbugging brethren. “But long-term, we’re looking at soil compaction and loss of vegetation, things you can’t fix with a trash bag.”

Last year the controversy came to a head when disc golfers discovered that the course’s first few wooden targets had been felled with a chainsaw. Disc golfers assumed that cross-country skiers were the vandals, but Kipphut (an avid cross-country skier who, despite his 19 years on the district, says he has never thrown a round of disc golf) had cut them down to reduce conflicts on this very busy stretch of land.

“The course is closed in winter, but nobody reads the signs,” he says, adding that he only brought in a chainsaw because the posts were stuck in the ground. “It wouldn’t have been a story if it had been, ‘Forest Service pulls five posts out of the ground,’” he says. “It was only a story because a chainsaw was involved.”

As the snows melted last spring, the severed targets were replaced—some with propped-up branches, others with well-buried fence posts. But the course failed to regain the feel of an established, sanctioned folf arena—until last week. From the vantage of the first tee box, Kipphut can see that things have changed since he left on vacation the week prior. The 19 mostly tattered targets that made up the Pattee Canyon course have been replaced with bright new wooden posts with painted red tops. Hellgate High School seniors Joey Sullivan and McCoy Conner have just completed the first phase of their senior project: installing durable, visible targets.

“We wanted to do something worthwhile, and make an improvement,” says Conner, who, along with Sullivan, has frequented the course since seventh grade. Still, due to the not-always-flattering reputation of the sport among non-players, the two feared an uphill battle in convincing their teachers of the project’s worthiness.

“I think a lot of teachers at Hellgate think that folf is just smokin’ joints, drinkin’ beer, and havin’ a good time,” says Sullivan. “But I play just like some people play basketball—it’s a serious sport. We play it as seriously as golf.”

Maybe so, but disc golf shares many ties with its hardballed predecessor, like that fact that many people of many ages drink many cans of beer while playing the courses.

“With Pattee, you’ve got a narrow, windy road, with joggers and bikers going up and down. Combine that with alcohol and young people, or drinkers of any age who are driving down that canyon and I just don’t want to see a tragedy,” Kipphut says. “I’m asking the sheriff’s department to come up and patrol both courses [on foot] for minors in possession.”

High school kids—drinking or not—may indeed compose the bulk of disc golfers in Missoula, and possibly in the country. But every day, Missoula’s two premiere courses at Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain see a wide demographic, ranging in age from pre-teen to the retired, who also find great satisfaction in the arc of the disc and thus huck it often. Take 41-year-old Scott Keith.

“There’s a secret legion of regular Joes who come out here regularly and do it for exercise,” says Keith, commander of one of Missoula’s longest arms. “And it’s not just kids, but old guys—I call ’em old guys but they’re my age—and I appreciate the fact that they’re doing it amongst the hellions out here.”

Another long-timer is 15-year disc golf veteran Shawn Woodland. As the folf disc purchaser for High Country Sports in Missoula, Wooden supplies hundreds of Missoulians with their folf discs of choice.

“We’re moving tons of discs, doubling what we did last year, and it’s not even summer,” he says.” Woodland placed his second 500-disc order of the year in April, and anticipates at least four more purchases before the prime season wraps up in the fall.

Two standard discs will set you back $12, while professional discs run about $15. “People are really buying up the better plastic,” he says, a choice that yields throwers a more resilient, further-flying and potentially more accurate disc. Such low prices allow dedicated disc golfers to carry a veritable quiver of any-wind, any-angle discs in specialized shoulder bags.

On his “almost daily” rounds, Pat Scharfe carries what he calls a “superstitious” 13 discs, although he typically throws only four or five on a given round. “I know what they all do, but executing it well is another matter,” he says.

Thirteen may sound excessive, but it isn’t enough for some. Attend one of the dozen or so regional tournaments and you may see one of the nation’s best (or most compulsive?) throwers lugging a specialized disc bag, complete with wheels, 50-disc holster, umbrella, portable chair and beer cooler.

In other words, the game has come a long way since the first plastic discs—Wham-O’s “Pluto Platter”—were sold en masse in 1951. Endless theories abound as to the origin of the flying disc, but many credit the Frisbie Pie Company with molding the first tossable pie tins in the 1870s. But “Steady Ed” Headrick is widely recognized as the father of disc golf proper, patenting the first “professional” model while volunteering his time at Wham-O in the 1960s. Headrick stayed active in his sport throughout his lifetime, proudly referring to his group of cronies as “Frisbyterians.”

“When we die, we don’t go to purgatory, we just land up on the roof and lay there,” he wrote shortly before his death in 2002. Ed’s wishes for his cremated remains to be incorporated into folf discs has been honored, and for $210.00, a limited-edition, two-disc set of “Steady Ed” discs can be purchased online at www.discgolfassoc.com.

And while this founding father may now be in part lying on a purgatorial roof somewhere, it was his clairvoyance into the psyche of the sport’s enthusiasts that remains most insightful.

“All disc golfers want to do is play [disc] golf! Not be directors of an organization!” he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel two years ago. “We are on the eve of an exponential growth in our sport, and we still have that problem. The board of directors at our recent meeting would have much preferred to be playing disc golf than listening to this old man pontificate about the future, and so would I.”

The frustrating truth of Headrick’s commentary is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than within Missoula’s own disc golf community, a loose-knit group with an extensive history of disorganization. This aversion to formalized relations has historically created unproductive interactions with Forest Service land managers; not surprisingly, the agency functions more smoothly and legitimately when a go-to person can represent the interests of a particular group.

“Think about the Missoula SnoGoers, Missoula Nordic Ski Club, Friends of Pattee Canyon, Backcountry Horsemen and I’m missing 20 others, but talk about getting organized for getting something done on the land,” says Kipphut. “These guys show up at the meetings and they write the letters. Rarely does a folfer come to me.”

But as disc golfers point out, only recently has a new level of organization become necessary. A single decade ago only a few people would throw the courses on a given day, and conflicts were therefore few and far between.

In the 1970s, few had ever even considered turning the game of golf into a disc-based game. But a few disc-hucking Missoulians constructed as many as five courses in what is now the middle Rattlesnake’s Lincolnwood neighborhood, with spray painted trees and ribbons marking the holes. Over the next decade, more and more Missoulians were turned onto the sport, and a similarly informal course was constructed in the Pattee Canyon Picnic Area, playing directly through the campsites and targeting highly visible old-growth ponderosas with early versions of the now-specialized discs.

“First double ribbons were tied to trees, then there were paint rings,” says Kipphut. “We were busy out there cutting down the ribbons, wondering, ‘What the heck is going on?’”

Soon, the government agents saw discs flying through the air, and it all started to make sense. After being approached by Kipphut and others, disc golfers blended tree-colored paints to hide the unsightly markings, and the course was shifted out of the picnic area and toward its current location, with posts, and no longer live trees, used as targets.

By the early 1990s, the Missoula Disc Golf Players Association (MDGPA) formed, organizing tournaments, posting names and phone numbers on course billboards and installing (and maintaining) course fixtures like baskets, posts and tee boxes. While about a dozen locals were instrumental in making this group productive—Jon “Z” Seliski, Aaron Moser and Pat Scharfe, among others—no one contributed more toward getting disc golf into the public eye in a positive light than James Ledyard. Ledyard is perhaps Missoula’s most motivated disc golf advocate, recently assisting with the installation of eight disc golf baskets on the Bonner Elementary School playground as part of an after-school position with the Flagship Program. This fall he will teach the University of Montana’s first disc golf class, HHP 124, tentatively titled “Beginning and Advanced Disc Golf.”

But despite his continued effort to bring more people into the sport and to improve the play of Missoula’s two most popular courses, Ledyard has grown weary with what he feels is a lack of peer and administrative support in elevating the sport into a more respected activity.

“I feel like the guy who pushes the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down once we get it to the top,” he says.

Frustrated with what he sees as a community eager to use the no-cost course but unwilling to carry its share of the maintenance load, Ledyard believes the sport suffers from the inherent transience of a majority of those who play.

“Think of the nature of the typical folfer,” he says. “Perhaps they’re a high school kid going off to college, or college kids who are graduating in a couple years. These guys don’t have the motivation to improve the course, and the folks who’ve been around are burnt out from watching that rock roll down the hill too many times.”

As a result, MDGPA has petered out, leaving no phone numbers on the course’s signboards, no one for the Forest Service to formally work with (Ledyard and friends still gets calls when there’s a conflict, though), and no one to push the validity of disc golf in Missoula to a higher level. Without a visible and active organization, recreational disc golfers have irregularly continued to make improvements to the course over the years, when they see fit, without clearing the changes with the public land managers. Representatives from both the disc golf community and the Forest Service acknowledge this problem.

“We need to make sure that [disc golfers] work with us, it’s important,” says Andy Kulla, resource staff officer with the Lolo National Forest since 1992. Kulla has applied for a federal “Capital Investment” grant to revegetate trampled fairways, encourage native grasses and harden tee boxes and trails.

Interestingly, nobody with whom the Independent spoke in the disc golf community was aware of Forest Service efforts to make the course more durable. Many were even surprised at the news, despite the fact that they share similar ideas for what improves a course, like hardened tee boxes and appropriate signage.

But while there is a significant overlap of goals for the course, those managing the land also maintain different criteria than those managing their forehand.

For instance: “We’re not looking to improve the course, or expand it either,” says Kulla. “We just want to protect the rustic setting.”

Disc golfers, on the other hand, would like to see posts replaced with baskets, well-established tee boxes with signage indicating etiquette, distance and par, as well as improved trash collection facilities. Until a group forms and is willing to jump through the proper hoops to make this happen, improvements are unlikely, even if the net result would be a mutually appreciated—and better preserved—landscape.

Sitting in her downtown office, Missoula Director of Parks and Recreation Donna Gaukler seems eager to talk about the philosophies underlying the disc golf community.

“Lack of organization is inherent in these kinds of sports,” she says. “They thrive on not being conformist, and I kinda like it.” But if people hope to use public lands, they need to get their putts in a row.

“Take the skateboarders,” she continues. “They also don’t like to organize, but they made their presence known. Now the skate park is in our master site plan for McCormick Park.”

Gaukler says that in her 13 years of working with Missoula’s Parks and Recreation Department, no one has ever asked about the feasibility of installing a disc golf course on city park land, excepting perhaps Kipphut.

“I’ve played it, and I’ve considered it,” Gaukler says. “But I’ve never been approached. Were we to have [a course], it would be more developed than Pattee or Blue Mountain, and might even have paved pathways because of all the foot traffic and soil compaction.”

These statements should be well received in the disc golf community. In locations throughout the U.S. and other countries where wildlands like those found in Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain are increasingly rare, disc golf courses exist on golf course-like settings, with mowed fairways, city-sponsored signage and a level of recognition on par with ball golf.

These types of formal, low-elevation courses exist elsewhere in the state, too. Bozeman is currently constructing a $500,000 disc golf course on city park land. Billings sports two formal courses, one in a city park. Great Falls has a grassy course on city park land. Even Frenchtown’s nine-plus hole “Ft. Wenty” is well-signed, a perk that allows first-time course users to find their way. In contrast, the only way visiting folfers with no preexisting knowledge of the unsigned Pattee Canyon course would be able to find their way would be by picking through a confusing maze of hardened paths.

Missoulians have recently been asked to vote their preferred recreational endeavors into existence. Just over a year ago, a $14.5 million levy to renovate the recreation facilities at Fort Missoula failed to pass at the ballot box. More recently, voters supported a referendum to build an aquatic center, a skate park and teen rec center as part of the massive McCormick Park renovation. Activity-specific recreation groups have found ways to get their facilities built simply by demonstrating a community need. Until Missoula’s disc golf community learns to represent itself in the formal arenas that fund and ultimately legitimize their sometimes misunderstood endeavors on a community-wide level, the strained courses at Blue Mountain and Pattee Canyon will continue to simmer in user conflict, overuse and missed opportunity.

photo@missoulanews.com

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