AK: Solstice golf, Haines style

Tracey Harmon lines up for a swing. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Some Haines residents celebrated the summer solstice this year by playing… golf. The community took advantage of the late night sun to play a 9-hole tournament at The Valley of the Eagles golf course. It is not your typical manicured resort links, and for these locals, that’s more than okay.

Most golf courses are a triumph of landscaping over nature, but Valley of the Eagles is more of a compromise—high tides occasionally cover the greens, and coyote, moose and bear are known to make appearances.

This isn’t PGA. This is Alaska golf.

“It’s a nice game called “Whack *#$%,” Scott Sundberg joked. He was a was a teen champion in Idaho in the 80s, but then he moved to Alaska where golf is hard to come by. He nonetheless managed to make the longest drive of the tournament on the first hole.

No hushed reverence around the green. No caddies. No cleats. Just good-natured jibes, the ball game on a portable radio, and artificial turf where the grass won’t grow. Most eagles are the bald variety.

Players would really need the midnight sun if this wasn’t a 9-hole scramble, where players hit from the closest ball after each turn and all holes are played simultaneously. Brian Elliot is a member and plays out here a few times a week.

“That’s halibut golf,” he said, looking down the green. “When Alaskan guys take their shirts off… You might need sunglasses. There’s a lot of bounce.”

By day, Elliot is a sport fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so he knows his fish.

Even when things don’t go the way these golfers plan, they’re still surrounded by snow capped mountains rising over the river. The “rough” is covered in wild irises.

“This is definitely Alaskan golf,” Elliot explained. “I mean we have artificial greens. A lot of people scoff at that, but this has to be the most scenic course in the world! Yeah, there’s Pebble Beach and stuff like that, but we have our own little corner of the world here.”

But the course may not be around forever. It’s a gem that may be too hidden.

Stanley Jones is the owner and operator of the golf course with his wife Cathy. He sits in a pro shop that’s carpeted with artificial turf. He’s an unlikely candidate for a golf course owner like the banks of a remote tidal river are the unlikely home for a golf course.

“Well, I wasn’t a golfer when I built this course and it’s a stretch to say that I’m a golfer now,” Jones said.

Nonetheless, Valley of the Eagles was featured in Golf Digest and Jones says it’s the only Alaska course in a five-volume series of the world’s most significant courses. It took him seven and a half years to get permits to build a course here. Yet Jones said tourist traffic from cruise ships is sluggish.

“The people that come here and play are amazed at the beauty of it, and amazed at the course, and amazed that not more people come,” he said.

They may not get a chance: the property is up for sale. Jones is in his late 80s and he says the upkeep is too much for he and his wife and their one employee. There’s a contingent of the community that’s working to ensure it stays a golf course, but Jones says he’ll sell to whomever is buying.

Back on the course, the sunlight finally starts to dwindle and the clock inches towards midnight. As the heat of the day abates, things are starting to go right for Elliot’s team.

“Oh my goodness” Elliot yelled.

“Right down the middle! He striped it!”

It’s all for a cause. Proceeds from the tournament went to the local Chamber of Commerce, and they say they’ll be back next year if the course sticks around. This year they made $1,000 on the event.

A few players got a suntan, and even Stanley Jones, the non-golfing golf course owner, got out on the green to play.

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