The story of Yellowknife's long-forgotten mini-golf course
The 19-hole mini-putt once attracted 8,000 visitors a year. What happened?
To a dog walker or cyclist on Yellowknife's busy Frame Lake Trail, it might first appear as a tiny patch of green felt, emerging from the melting spring snow.
On closer examination, they might spot the frozen shape of a giant curling rock. It's the centrepiece of Hole 8, and a devilish obstacle to would-be champions.
These are the remains of the Wade Hamer Mini-Golf — a 19-hole, par 55 mini-putt in the heart of Yellowknife.
At one time, the course attracted as many as 8,000 visitors over a brief northern summer. But for nearly a decade, it's been in deep hibernation with no one willing to revive it.
Each spring, it re-emerges, its long-sturdy foundations slightly worse than the year before. For the man who conceived it, it's occasion to ask again: who will bring the mini-putt back to Yellowknife?
How mini-golf came to Yellowknife
The Wade Hamer Mini-Golf was the brainchild of Ter Hamer, a local benefactor perhaps best known for his role in developing Yellowknife's hockey culture with a series of clinics and trophy competitions.
The course was named for his son who died in an industrial accident in 1987. While going through old photos, Hamer found a picture of his son playing mini-putt in Calgary, and had the idea of building a course North of 60.
"When we set out to build it, we thought we'd have a five or six-year building program," said Hamer.
But after shopping the idea around for an afternoon, "we were already oversubscribed," he said.
Over the course of a single weekend, 143 volunteers poured foundation, lay felt and crafted obstacles that still stand 30 years later.
The 19 holes were dotted with local icons from Yellowknife's now long-lost boom times — the Giant Mine headframe (since toppled), the Centre Square Mall (now emptied), a bucket of KFC chicken (struck from the menu).
On its opening day, YTV celebrities PJ Jazzy Jan and Michael Q presided over a free mini-putt tournament for the coveted prize of a getaway at Edmonton's Fantasyland Hotel.
"At our grand opening, we had almost 1,000 kids," said Hamer. "The place was just swarming."
Trouble in paradise
But the Wade Hamer Mini-Golf had failed to win over some crucial backers: the City of Yellowknife.
"The mini-golf existed despite the city — certainly not because of the city," said Hamer.
Sitting on an otherwise unused rocky outcropping next to a one-time public beach, the course was intended to be run on a non-profit, by donation basis.
But Hamer said the city charged him "an arm and a leg" for the property, more than the golf course, ski club and the soccer club combined.
That resulted in little money left over for the course's number one problem — vandalism.
"There are three things one can count on during summers in Yellowknife: midnight sun, mosquitoes ... and vandalism at the city's mini golf course," reads a 2011 report in The Yellowknifer newspaper.
"It was a gang called the Midnight Tokers," said Hamer. "We did catch one young lad. He had done $5,500 in vandalism, and he was fined $75."
That vandalism only accelerated in the early 2000s, when weekly incidents were leaving Hamer with thousands of dollars of repairs.
"I put a sign on the door — 'Door's open, nothing inside worth stealing.' Somebody went inside and took six dozen used putters, worth nothing, and threw them in the lake," he said.
He added a new lock, but the lock itself was stolen.
"Why people would try to trash a group organized to help kids … it defies comprehension."
Sold for $1
Hamer threatened to walk away several times over the vandalism, but when his wife needed a heart transplant, he knew it was time to go.
"It was hard, but it was necessary," he said. "My wife's health trumped everything."
He moved to Alberta and sold the course for one dollar in 2004 to the local Kiwanis Club. But despite promises the course would become the "cornerstone" of its work, the club folded the following year, and the course went into limbo.
In the years that followed, various non-profit societies took up the mantle, but none were successful in operating it.
By 2010, the city was demanding more than $5,200 a year in property taxes, more than the course's salary costs for an entire year. The Centre for Northern Families, then operating the course, went to council begging for tax relief.
"I don't want to be throwing good money after bad if we know that something is absolutely unsustainable," said then-councillor Bob Brooks at the time.
"It's a real stretch to define the operation of a mini-golf facility as a municipal service," said then-councillor David Wind. "It's basically recreation and entertainment."
Two years and several rounds of vandalism later, and the course was largely abandoned. Faulty wiring burned the clubhouse down, and the Centre for Northern Families closed up shop.
That was the end of the Wade Hamer Mini-Golf.
'This would be the summer' to revive course: councillor
Today, the foundations laid by volunteers 30 years ago still support the occasional game, though mosquitoes and rotten plywood have replaced Yellowknife landmarks as the main hazards of the course.
Steve Payne, a Yellowknife city councillor, looked around it for the first time in decades. He played his first ever round of mini-golf on these greens.
"I didn't realize all this stuff was here," he said while stepping over Hole 12. "I thought it was taken down years ago."
With COVID-19 restrictions keeping families in town and leaving kids with more free time than ever before, Payne said it's surprising the course is still sitting idle.
"If there was ever a summer to revive this, this would be the summer."
Anyone hoping to revive the course would have Hamer's full support. But the city has expressed little interest in the idea.
The city administration would not provide CBC with the most recent tax assessment for the property, saying it would be a subject for lease negotiations.
"No interest has been expressed for this site in recent years," Alison Harrower, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in an email.
In an interview, Greg Littlefair, the director of planning and development for the city, wouldn't provide a lease cost estimate either. He said those prices are determined on a "case-by-case basis."
Even though expanding opportunities for tourism and family programming are included among the city's objectives, Harrower said the mini-putt "is currently not identified as a priority."
But true to his nature, Hamer is still optimistic.
"It could be rebuilt," said Hamer. "I think it'd be great for the town. It'd certainly be great for the kids ... As long as somebody could control the vandalism, I think it would succeed."