Fairbanks, Alaska, is to golf as Scottsdale is to dogsledding. You want a Big Bertha-banging golf vacation?Pack the sticks and head to the Arizona desert. Jonesing for some signature Nicklaus or Fazio or, well, Jones?Dial up a beach sister, Myrtle or Palm.
Dynamic golf destinations, no doubt, but here's the rub: To me, they lack the intangibles of true scrapbook travel, those experiences so unique that their memories cascade in Kodachrome clarity with little more abetment than a scent, a taste or a dog-eared photograph.
Those were the sensations I was hoping for a few years back when I heeded the unruly call of the wild and headed north to Jack London's Alaska. I had always wanted to explore Denali National Park and the 20,320-foot hunk that is Mount McKinley. I was aching to see the Arctic Circle and the "last frontier" of the North Slope.
Thus, I arrived in Fairbanks equipped with well-trodden Vasque hiking boots, a new G. Loomis graphite fly rod and a bring-it-on mind-set. But, while buying a fishing license to catch the elusive King salmon, I heard of the existence of another rugged wonder: the North Star Golf Club, our continent's most northerly course.
The way the fellow who sold me my license told it, North Star was the Noah's Ark of golf courses, a singular work borne of astounding tenacity. He said that the nine-hole layout had been carved almost single-handedly from the tundra with a bulldozer, backhoe, rake and shovel by a man named Jack Stallings. When Stallings began the endeavor in 1990, he was seventy-one years old. Today he is still playing the course he built.
I was on my way to Anchorage— which with four courses qualifies as the Myrtle Beach of Alaska—so my clubs and golf shoes were already in the car. The way I figured, if a septuagenarian had devoted years to scraping it from the tundra, the least I could do was spend a few hours playing it.
I arrived at the six-wide trailer "clubhouse" to find the ruddy Stallings himself manning the desk. After learning that he'd made his fortune managing a trucking company during the heyday of the construction of the Alaskan Pipeline, I asked why he would spend his hard-earned retirement on a risky $1.4 million venture.
"I suppose it's a kinda halfway dream of mine," he said in measured, Carolina-accented lexis. "It's not—as my wife likes to say—a monument to myself. It's just something I wanted to do. I simply enjoy building things."
I paid him my $18, then waited outside for another golfer to show up. I generally dislike playing golf alone. I particularly dislike it in areas populated by wild bears. Eventually a kindred soul did arrive—also a North Star neophyte—and we set out on what soon became a keen lesson in survival.
The links-style course itself was elegant in its simplicity, with generous fairways, tall native red fescue rough and swift bluegrass greens. But the real hazards were more indigenous: Wedged neatly into a verdant valley rich in wetlands and low-lying scrub, the course is a sanctuary for moose, coyotes, red-backed voles, sandhill cranes, red squirrels, marsh hawks, muskrats, marmots, eagles and snowshoe hares. It's like playing golf in the Museum of Natural History.
One local rule allows for a free drop when a red fox or raven embezzles one's ball; another, which I was relieved to exercise, is a free reload when a shot lands dangerously close to a mama moose and her nursing calf.
Most astonishing of all, though, was the land itself. Due to the area's ever-present permafrost—which heaves and drops the land—North Star's topography is in constant flux. Fairways, tees and greens shift with such ferocity that they must regularly be rebuilt. To offset this, the crowned greens are piled two to three feet high—little match for Mother Nature. During our round, the putting surfaces were rife with two-foot-deep crevasses, prompting my pious playing partner to cross himself and whisper a swift Our Father after canning a ridiculous triple-breaking putt.
After finishing our second ninehole loop, I repaired to the clubhouse/ café/trailer. "How'd ya like it?" Stallings's baritone boomed. "Nothing like it anywhere, right?"
Indeed, I had found the last frontier, and it's an adventure, all right— especially from the back tees.