Battle at the Sandpits: YK’s Paintball Revival

The city’s boom-and-bust sport has always suffered short booms and long busts. This summer, it’s back — again.

Rewind a decade and local paintball was a thriving scene. A sport’s health in the Northwest Territories is almost always directly linked to the puns in its tournament names (soccer’s Merry Kickmas, fastpitch’s O-Down). Paintball, with the exceptionally-named Polarball territorial championship, was doing just fine.

Since then, the empire has collapsed. Nick Donovan, the man who ran a little paintball enterprise in Yellowknife called YK Paintball, left town seven years ago. A revival in 2012 sputtered, fizzled, withered. Summers of a hundred players gave way to a desperate half-dozen. It was a desert out there.  

Which is appropriate, as the Next Revival of Paintball is here and it’s conquering the sandpits.

One-man show

Venture into Yellowknife’s dog-and-truck barrenlands last Sunday and you’d have found an odd assembly of inflatable obstacles (ever seen Wipeout?) manned by 15 gents launching the city’s all-new paintball club.

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“You know what? I was hoping for six people. We’ve already exceeded that,” declares Kyle Pond, Yellowknife’s latest optimist.

Pond has dragged these marvelous inflatable ‘bunkers’ up from Calgary, no doubt at great expense (I thought bunkers were something you dug, not something you inflated, but we’ll go with it). Pond has rallied the troops. His family is manning the barbecue. His seven-year-old is asking when he can have a go. (Dad, from behind the safety netting: “You DO NOT come in here without a mask on, OK?”)

Inflatable bunkers elevate the game

Pond saw this coming. He knows paintball in the city is always a one-man show: whoever has the enthusiasm and means to haul it back into existence.

“It’s a lot of work for a lot of nothing, except the love of the game,” he says.

To be fair, he’s not entirely alone. James McKay is helping to run the show and itching to get going as the first safety briefing of the new era is held.

“Last time I played it was just running through the trees, none of these bunkers,” says McKay. “This makes a huge difference. This is an actual sport. When you’re running around playing in the trees, it’s not nearly as fun.”

“It’s like playing in a hockey league as opposed to street hockey,” is how Pond describes bunkers versus no-bunkers.

Vegas bound?

The games I saw lasted well under a minute. Two small teams of men, one at either end of the rectangular playing area marked out by the safety netting. All these obstacles in between. And still, one side (invariably the same side — clearly need to go away and do their homework) would take a pasting inside a few seconds, and that was that.

Some people may need a little time to shake off the rust.

Pond and McKay, on the other hand, have spent years travelling around Canada to play. They talk wistfully of organizations like the CPPL (Canadian Professional Paintball League), which operates comparatively big-time events out of Alberta, and of Yellowknife’s apparent proud record in national championships.

“We’re hoping to play competitively throughout Alberta… BC… Las Vegas,” says McKay.

That would suit some local dog owners down to the ground. Those places are rarely frequented by Yellowknife pets, whereas the sandpits are one of the city’s designated off-leash areas. You can see how trouble might be brewing.

Only two dog walkers passed by the paintball while I watched on Sunday, stopping briefly and appearing untroubled.

However, there is Facebook unease.

“Warning for people who go to the sandpits with their dogs,” proclaimed the NWT SPCA’s Facebook page on Monday night.

“There was a paintball game this past weekend and as a result there are hundreds of paintballs laying around out there. This is toxic to dogs. Please be aware of this and clean up any you may find.”

Paintballs in the sand

In the comments, a photo of a resident who appeared to have rounded up dozens of stray paintballs.

Wild horses

Players claim the balls’ contents are not toxic, contrary to the SPCA’s assertion, and are biodegradable — though it doesn’t help their case that, on Sunday, they were using a brand of paintball actually named Toxic. Earlier in the year, when the paintballers were looking at using the City’s soccer fields, Pond says the toxicology of the balls and how the fields might be tidied after use were central issues. (Perhaps prompted by visions of tie-dyed soccer players.)

The soccer field plan doesn’t look like it’s on the immediate horizon, not least because the rental fees are expensive. The City and the paintballers are working on permitting for their current sandpit operation. Pond has pledged to keep their area as clean as possible, adding that rule-breakers will be ejected.

Kevin Pond, paintball optimist

Both he and McKay say all the dog owners they’ve spoken to have been understanding, and the response — to their faces — has been positive.

“A lot of people have never seen this before,” adds McKay.

“Last week, we had a lady out with horses. She stopped by and was asking questions. She seemed pretty pumped.

“She said she wanted to trade the horses for some paintball equipment.”

If you’re interested, you’ll need $50 to rent a gun for an hour or two while you try the sport. Playing for a season is likely to mean around $500 for equipment of your own. Rock up to the sandpits around noon on a Sunday or, better, check the Yellowknife Paintball Facebook group for details.

And take your balls with you when you leave. Consider that advice for life.

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