If one takes a stroll in the hills behind Whitehorse General Hospital, they’ll find what looks like a short road that runs up the slope behind the hospital area toward and through a gap in the ridgeline.
Beyond that they will notice a sort-of clearing that opens up hillsides, a small valley bottom and what look like very wide cut-lines through the bush.
It’s mostly overgrown now, with some parts no longer identifiable.
In time the cleared area will completely vanish, but in the early 1970s this area of rolling and steep hills was one man’s dream and the first golf course development in Whitehorse.
George Van Vugt was Whitehorse’s first landscaper.
There was a time when not a single blade of grass, flower, bush or shrub in Whitehorse had been planted or seeded by anyone other than Van Vugt.
When he arrived in 1960, Whitehorse was a conglomeration of unpaved streets made out of mud or dust, wooden sidewalks, basic wood frame houses and unfinished yards full of rocks, weeds and more mud and dust.
Originally from the Netherlands, Van Vugt left his family in Montreal to head north at the invitation of his brother Leo, who was part owner of a construction company in Whitehorse.
His brother met him in Edmonton and the two drove up the Alaska Highway.
“That was a terrible experience,” Van Vugt remembers 51 years later.
“I was worried about my family, left alone in Montreal, and Leo was driving me up this endless gravel road to some remote corner in the northernmost part of the world,” he says.
“It was the last place I ever thought I would go and the further north we drove up the highway I began to think it was the last place I thought I would ever want to go.”
But when he arrived in Whitehorse and looked around, he recognized opportunity in the rocks, mud and dust.
Returning to Montreal, he convinced his wife, Willi, and three children to head north, where he established Decora Landscaping.
For two decades Van Vugt worked on the greening of Whitehorse. With no identified source of black dirt available close to Whitehorse, he started hauling from a location on the Annie Lake Road and noticed the Annie Lake Golf Course.
Van Vugt had never played golf but the combination of a sport and landscaping intrigued him. He found a set of clubs and played a few rounds on the rugged course. He enjoyed the game, but he wasn’t overly fond of the course.
“It wasn’t much of a golf course. It was a lot of rough and they had oiled sand greens. It was adequate considering where we were, but I thought it was too rough and too far away for people to really use it much. I thought it might be a good idea to build a better one, with proper greens and fairways, close to town.”
He started looking for a suitable location and eventually found himself wandering through the hills behind Whitehorse General Hospital.
The land wasn’t perfect but it was available and there were no plans to expand the city into that area. Access was gained along an old road that started on the Grey Mountain Road and ran along behind the hills towards Lake Laberge.
He built a shorter, more direct access behind the hospital and starting clearing out fairways for a nine-hole course in 1969.
One of his neighbours in Riverdale turned out to be a former golf pro who had experience in designing courses. Van Vugt put him to work.
“It was the first professionally-designed course in the Yukon. It had a lot of hills and I couldn’t afford to seed the fairways right away so it was like a huge sand trap with grass greens,” he says.
“Once I had the greens established and the tee boxes built, I could start putting grass onto the fairways. I worked on that course for three years, using my own equipment. When I finally had the greens ready I invited people to play.”
The project ran into two problems for which Van Vugt was unable to find solutions: a lack of golfers in a city with a population of just over 10,000, and a wealth of vandals.
There were a few enthusiastic golfer, but their numbers couldn’t financially support the course. Still, Van Vugt was optimistic that would change as the city grew.
Then vandals drove onto the course one night and destroyed the greens and tee boxes. Van Vugtrepaired them. Vandals came back to destroy them again. Police were unable to identify the person or persons involved. No charges were ever laid.
Disheartened, he finally abandoned the project in 1974. In 1980, he sold his business and, like most Yukoners at that time, retired “outside”.
The course was left to gradually return to its natural state. Today, snowshoers, skiers, hikers, walkers and bikers travel along the former fairways, unaware of the origins of the trails.
A few years later another group of golfers started planning a public golf course and in 1987Mountainview Golf Course, located near the subdivision of Porter Creek, was opened.
The only other golf course in Whitehorse, privately built, owned and operated, was opened in 1998. Meadow Lakes Golf and Country Club is located on the Alaska Highway south of the Whitehorse downtown area.
John Firth is a writer and history buff who lives in Whitehorse.