If ever there were a laid-back game, built on strolling through the woods, hanging with friends and sipping a little beer, that would be disc golf.
But on the city's most popular course at Westchester Lagoon, the mellow feel has faded. Where once evenings used to bring slightly granola-fied 20-somethings with their fluorescent discs and bottled beer, a larger, rowdier crowd has moved in. Things aren't so laid back any more.
Westchester's popularity has taken off, and so has its reputation as a place where people -- even underage people -- can drink openly. Public drinking is illegal. Personally, drinking a little beer in public doesn't get me worked up, but more than once this summer, I've run across a group of sauced disc players in their late teens, carrying 40-ouncers of beer. They haven't been friendly.
A little pot smell now and then doesn't bother me either, but over by the fourth hole these days, the smell of marijuana hangs in the air just about every sunny evening. Beer bottles and cans litter the woods around the course. Players dart across Minnesota Boulevard. They throw Frisbees through tunnels in "tunnel challenges" that aren't officially part of the game. In one case, a tunnel Frisbee sent a surprised biker over his handle bars.
Last week, while walking down Chester Creek trail just east of the lagoon, I watched a teenage golfer in a flat-billed ball cap chuck his beer bottle into the woods. We were in sight of a trash can. I opened my mouth to say something. He turned and gave me a look that said, "You want a piece of this?"
I didn't say anything, but the situation became very clear: The coolest game is getting increasingly uncool.
Was I overreacting? Maybe I was getting uptight in my old age. I called Matt Forney, the head of the Alaska Disc Golf Association, and told him what I'd noticed. I thought he might be defensive, but he wasn't. He'd noticed the same thing. He invited me to walk the course.
We went out Monday. I watched Forney fire off a couple of discs and tried my best to toss a few. As we walked, he picked up a dozen beer bottles and cans and put them in his disc bag. He doesn't drink on the course, he said. That's more popular with a growing group of less serious players.
The disc golf association maintains Westchester with the help of the city parks department. It doesn't have the resources to patrol the course. On average, there are at least 400 rounds of Frisbee golf played there every day in the summer.
About a month ago, he said, he'd been out on the course when the team of golfers behind him started breaking the rules. Just like regular golf, disc golf has etiquette. You wait for the player in front of you to finish the hole before you take your shot. The group behind him wasn't playing that way.
"Someone, a number of times, threw a disc at me."
He decided to say something. They were young men in their late teens, all drinking, he said.
"I was surrounded and threatened. At that point it became clear that the issues occurring at Westchester Lagoon had gone beyond the association."
He wrote a letter to the Anchorage Police Department, asking it to enforce laws against public drinking on the course. If problems at the course don't get better, he said, the association will consider pulling out of the whole thing.
Lt. Dave Parker, spokesman for APD, said the department just learned there's a problem. More police will be around the course in coming weeks. Seems like the perfect job for the bike cops, I thought.
The city parks department also has concerns about Westchester. Park planner Josh Durand is organizing a group of people to look at disc golf in the next few weeks. Immaturity and alcohol are at the center of it, he said. There have been a few similar complaints about the course at Kincaid.
"I went to college in Colorado, and I used to play Frisbee golf," Durand said. "You would notice a few people drinking, but they were always really discreet, and it didn't impact the users of the park."
Westchester's popularity with golfers and other users compounds the problem, he said. Adding another course -- something the association would like -- might help ease the crowding, but it would have to be managed so it didn't get out of hand. Like Forney, Durand thought some police presence at Westchester would be part of the solution.
Really, though, what a waste. If we need police to keep Westchester in control, the course has become too expensive to keep. Police might improve the situation for a few weeks, but ultimately the disc golf community will have to own the problem.
The popularity of disc golf is growing rapidly in Anchorage, so it would be a shame to start closing courses. Players need to consider whether having a disc in one hand means there has to be a beer in the other. Westchester shows that not every player knows how to act like an adult with alcohol on board. It's time for the sport, as a whole, to grow up.
Members of the public interested in giving input on disc golf in city parks can contact park planner Josh Durand: durandJA@muni.org