by Andrew Penner
I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
Here, on this wild and remote shore of Haida Gwaii, a stunning links golf hole stretched out before me. Parading along an infinite run of ragged, wind-carved dunes, framed by seagrass, gorse and a few stunted pines along the steel-blue sea, this par-4 hole seemed like a dream. It was beautiful. I was captivated. And I knew I had found a virtually unknown, one-off place in golfdom.
Yes, I’d bet my billfold (it’s only wafer thin) that you’ve never heard of the Dixon Entrance Golf Club, possibly Canada’s most remote track. Not many people have. There are two souls – Willie and Craig – who play it regularly. More on them later.
Now, I’d like to tell you that Dixon Entrance is some mystical, half-remembered links laid out by Old Tom Morris after his fishing boat hit a perfect storm in the North Sea and he somehow washed up on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, where he happened to discover some of the purest, most spectacular linksland on the planet.
And then Old Tom went henceforth with his shovel into these heaving, faraway dunes and sculpted some breathtaking holes. His talented son, Young Tom, was there as well. And why not include a few other long-lost Scotsmen with names like Alistair, Eamon and William.
And after laying out the links, they had a wonderful time, drinking lots of Scotch, playing four-ball matches in their kilts, their pipe smoke drifting off across this dreamy and distant land. And then they went back to Scotland and the course lay undisturbed for 150 years.
Unfortunately, there are many holes in that wishful theory of how Dixon Entrance came to be.
For starters, Dixon Entrance is a rough-and-rudimentary nine-holer – with two sets of tees to vary the “front” and “back” sides – that was laid out in the early 1980s by the officers at Canadian Forces Station Masset (CFS Masset). The par-65 course tips out at 4,980 yards and circles one of the strangest hazards you could imagine: a massive “elephant cage.”
This cage – a colloquial term to describe a massive circular contraption with poles, antennas, wires and the like – is essentially a sonar setup used by personnel at CFS Masset to gather ocean intelligence. And considering that Dixon Entrance, which is the waterway that separates Haida Gwaii from Alaska, is disputed territory between the U.S. and Canada, maybe there is merit to monitoring the bobbing boats.
Unquestionably, the cage is a significant visual distraction at Dixon Entrance, especially for first-timers driving into the property. I believe my first line to Willie was, “Whoa, dude, what the hell is that?” But, like most golf course “warts,” you simply get used to it, and it doesn’t impede play on the course.
Another interesting tidbit about the elephant cage: This unique sonar technology was developed by the Germans during World War II, invented by Dr. Hans Rindfleisch. But, to keep it a secret, the Germans gave it a random code name: the “Wullenweber.” It was built at the German navy command, Nachrichtenmittelversuchskommando, which is the longest word I’ve written in my life and probably the longest word that you’ve tried to read.
In the 1980s, there were approximately 300 officers and their families stationed in Masset, hence the need for a golf course. A decade later a significant downsizing took place. Thanks to technological advancements, the station could be monitored remotely.
With the exodus – there are now just 10 officers working at the station – the future of the golf course was in serious jeopardy. Enter transplanted Scotsman Willie Youngson and Craig Russ, a sweet-swinging, fun-loving Haida man who enjoys tinkering with 50-year-old golf course machinery.
Haida Gwaii, as I found out, is an interesting place. Its very fabric is rich and multi-layered, starting with the Indigenous Haida people. Their existence here goes back thousands of years. Roughly half of the 5,000 people living on Haida Gwaii are of Haida descent. Their fascinating culture pervades the archipelago.
Haida Gwaii consists of approximately 400 islands. However, the two largest islands, Graham and Moreseby, are where the vast majority of people live.
Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands (the name was officially changed in 2010), Haida Gwaii is situated approximately 60 miles off the northern British Columbia mainland. There are two ways to get there: fly or take a ferry. Air Canada flies into Sandspit on Moreseby Island and Pacific Coastal Airlines flies into Masset, which is on Graham Island. Both flights depart from Vancouver and the flying time is approximately 90 minutes.
BC Ferries runs a daily crossing from Prince Rupert to Skidegate, on Graham. That trip takes some seven hours.
While sport fishing is a major draw on Haida Gwaii, the never-ending beaches, which are some of the longest in the world, paddling, hiking and wilderness experiences are other popular reasons for tourists to make the journey.
And, without question, visiting the remote Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve is a revered experience. Home to a number of ancient and abandoned Haida villages, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ninstints, Gwaii Haanas is a spectacular place that’s abundant in cultural history and decaying treasures. At a number of these old villages, towering totem poles, weathered by wind and rain, still stand. The impressive totem poles – carved with crests and symbols that have significant meaning to each village or tribe – are a distinct Haida trademark.
For anyone travelling to Haida Gwaii, visiting the Haida Gwaii Cultural Centre, which is located in a beautiful cove between Queen Charlotte City and Skidegate, is a must. Featuring a variety of galleries that highlight Haida culture, you’ll leave with greater appreciation and clarity in terms of understanding this special place and the Indigenous people who call it home.
For me, one of the highlights was meeting a couple of Indigenous artists in Old Masset, a quaint oceanside community that’s known for its world-class Haida artists. Master totem pole carver Christian White showed me his latest projects, a hand-carved Haida canoe and a massive totem pole that he and his team were readying for a ceremony.
Across the street in his beautiful cedar-scented shop, I also met multi-genre artist Jordan Seward, and was in awe of his intricate paintings, jewelry and argillite carvings.
A soft-spoken man, humble and forthright, Seward and I had a lengthy conversation that covered everything from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on his family to the joys and sorrows of being an artist. I left with a deep feeling of gratitude, happy that I could have met a man with a level of hope and humility that you rarely encounter.
But Haida Gwaii is full of authentic, unpretentious people who seem more than happy to proclaim the virtues of their Pacific paradise, share stories that cut to the chase, and open their doors to visitors.
My introduction to this type of hospitality took place just minutes after I arrived at the tiny, two-flights-per-week airport in Sandspit. Brenna Kowalchuk, who manages the tidy Willows Golf Resort (yes, there are two nine-holers on Haida Gwaii) with her partner, Ken Kowalchuk, welcomed me to the island warmly with a delicious steak sandwich and a beer in the parking lot of their tidy little course.
“The Keg is closed today,” she quipped.
You can count the number of restaurants on Haida Gwaii on one hand. And everything shuts down at 5 or 6 p.m.
Although the terrain is relatively flat and many of the greens are upside down saucers, a charming, small-town persona prevails at the Willows Golf Resort. The ocean borders the property and numerous improvements are on the way. A new RV park, B&B and plenty of renovation work on the golf course, including new irrigation and two new greens and tee boxes, will definitely enhance the experience. Thanks to the new owner – Andrew Purdey purchased the course in May 2021 – the future here has plenty of promise.
As for the future of the Dixon Entrance GC? The jury is still out. Willie and Craig, who together with a small group of volunteers agreed to operate the course in 1995 when the Canadian Forces no longer wanted it, are faced with many challenges just to keep the gates open.
An old musty trailer for a clubhouse, ancient turf equipment, a lack of volunteers (the club cannot afford employees), declining membership and minimal green fees “sold” all make for tough sledding.
But for Willie and Craig, it is ultimately their love of the game that fuels their efforts when it comes to keeping their course alive, year-round thanks to moderate winters. Although they do have some additional help from time to time, it’s often just the two of them bouncing around on the machines, tinkering with the equipment, changing the pins, chasing cows off the property, and doing other odd jobs.
It’s not all blood, sweat and tears. Willie and Craig get out to play three or four times a week. They are both retired, enjoy the game – by the book, I might add, with no gimmies! – and know how special their seaside course really is.
For them, their work – whether they are replacing divots or mower blades – is purposeful.
“Maybe you can get a government grant, or something,” I suggested to Willie as we sauntered up to the first tee on my maiden voyage at Dixon Entrance.
“We’ve struck out three times with that – waste of time,” said Willie, who opens up the clubhouse every morning so the golfers, if there are any, can drop their green fee money into the club’s honor box – $10 for 9, $20 for 18 – and trek around the links.
Later in the round, as we strolled up to the seventh tee, the potential for what this place could be was instantly apparent.
“Pure links golf holes in Canada are extremely rare,” I said. “And there seems to be plenty of dunes land here to create additional holes. You guys are lucky to have this place. In his next life, I’d wager Old Tom Morris wouldn’t mind spending some time here.”
Willie, gazing out over the shimmering sea, responded, “I hope he won’t mind sitting on a fairway mower.”
(This article first appeared in SCOREGolf Magazine’s 2022 Summer Issue. It has been republished here with SCOREGolf’s permission.)
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can follow him on Instagram here: @andrewpennerphotography