Some of the residents of Chéticamp, Nova Scotia, were tired of driving 120 miles roundtrip over Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail to the nearest golf course located in Ingonish. Other villagers wanted to add an exciting tourist attraction to their modest Acadian town. So they bought, begged, and borrowed enough land to build a nine-hole golf course. Nine more holes were added a few years later and Le Portage Golf Club was born.
I had the great pleasure of walking 18 holes with one of the course’s founders, Roland Chiasson. Roland was “mucho homme,” toting his bag on his back for the entire round. I was huffing and puffing right behind him, wheeling my clubs on a trolley.
After a delightful morning of golf filled with wonderful sights of the Chéticamp mountains, Roland and I joined his brother Bernie in the clubhouse and I received a Le Portage history lesson.
What’s “Le Portage” mean? “Portaging” refers to the practice carrying a canoe overhead to avoid land obstacles … or to reach another body of water. Hundreds of years ago, the Micmac Indians and the Acadian settlers had to engage in portaging to reach Chéticamp. So to pay homage to these canoe toters, the golf course was dubbed “Le Portage.”
Golf Conversations: Roland, thank you for showing me around your golf course today. Not only was it a lot of fun to play, but the scenery was spectacular as well.
Bernie Chiasson: Did you par it?
GC: I think I parred three holes.
When did you decide to build Le Portage?
BC: We started thinking about it in the mid ‘70s. We made a study of Dundee Golf Course first. Robert Moote was the architect there; we got in touch with him through Enterprise Cape Breton.
Roland Chiasson: That’s a federal agency that you go to for monies depending on what you’re into: whether it be golf courses, or community centers, or museums. You go through this Enterprise Cape Breton and they look after the federal monies that come into the Cape Breton area.
GC: So from the beginning, private money wasn’t part of the equation?
BC: No. We were a community that was involved with the arena. And a sub-committee was involved with the golf course.
GC: The arena? Is that the building next to the parking lot?
BC: Yes. I was president of that for 12 years while we were planning the golf course until they opened the first nine in 1987. First, we had to find the properties; there were about 51 properties that had to be dealt with. That was a hard thing. Some of the people connected to the arena were scared that we were taking money away from them.
GC: I’m confused. What happens at the arena? I’m not familiar with the arena.
RC: The arena is community owned. We relied on federal monies to get it going. And after that, donations from the local people. We do a big money-gathering Bonanza Draw, we call it. That gathers about $40,000 that sustains the arena. It’s a money-losing proposition.
GC: Yes, but what happens in the arena?
GC: Ohhhhhhhh, hockey! Of course. What a stupid I am!
BC: Sorry — you’re from North Carolina!
GC: Ok, now I get it! Hockey.
BC: Big time! That was the first thing; a lot of people pledged money to build the arena. The golf course started that way, too. At the time, I had about 12 guys that donated to buy land. They paid $1000 each, so I had $12,000 to play with to buy the land.
GC: And then you went to Las Vegas to do some brainstorming?
RC: Some of the land was donated. Not all the land was bought. Some donated their land for a lifetime membership, for example. Some donated their land for nothing.
BC: There’s a lot that donated for nothing.
GC: That lifetime membership … does that include a hot dog when you make the turn?
RC: Not at all.
GC: If you donated your land, you don’t even get a hot dog?
RC: As a matter of fact, those that got lifetime memberships were not golfers.
GC: So it was done just for the community’s well-being?
RC: Just for community.
BC: They knew it was a good thing because it was connected with the arena. When you’re a Canadian, hockey is the first thing … after you start walking, you put your skates on.
GC: Yes, after you stop breast feeding in Canada, your mother hands you a hockey stick.
But was there an interest in golf in the community?
RC: Ingonish is where we used to go when we wanted to golf.
BC: We would play 3 or 4 times a year in Ingonish. We played tournaments there.
GC: This was at Highlands Links?
GC: So you thought, “Hmm, it would be nice to have a golf course here at home?”
RC: Correct. Nothing compared to Highlands Links but we wanted to have something. At first, it was just a 9-hole thing. The vision was: let’s start with 9 and use the arena as a clubhouse. Bernie and the boys went around and canvassed everybody that had land that we could expropriate. And to see what we could buy to get what we needed to make the course happen.
GC: How much did the government give you?
BC: We met with a lot of government agencies for grants.
RC: The local politics is this: if you have a member of Parliament that is from your region, you tap his office. Because he was elected by you and he’s going to go get whatever monies you require, within reason, to develop something in your area.
At that point in time, the golf course was seen as a tourist-inviting thing … and adjacent to the Highlands Links, it would be an add-on for golfers visiting Cape Breton. So government agencies looked at that potential.
GC: What year did you start the planning?
BC: We started in the late ‘70s. Terry Burns was working at Dundee at the time; he came over here and took charge of building the course for us.
RC: He was the superintendant. You know Terry Burns?
GC: Do I know Terry Burns? Does the Cabot Trail run through Cape Breton? Yes. I interviewed Terry a few days ago.
RC: Terry Burns. A good man. A hard worker and he gets people to work…
BC: And he knows his courses.
GC: Ok, so you went to the federal government and you had private people participating. How much money did you need to raise before you were ready to start building?
BC: Well, we needed about $50,000 to even think about it. Then we went to the government and got $90,000 for the Winter Work program to cut trees down and level the land.
GC: You said Terry was involved with it but did you hire an architect to lay out the routing?
BC: Yes, Robert Moote, who did Dundee first.
RC: And he knew Terry and Terry had worked with him. So hand in hand, they started tearing things apart. When money is raised in a community — if you’ve raised $50,000 or $70,000, the government says, “We will match that.” So that’s how it started. We went out with pledges, got them from the community. Then we went to the government and said, “Ok, here’s our check, where’s yours?” So they match it and that was enough money to hire Bob Moote and Terry Burns to come here.
BC: In those days, we built the first nine holes for under a million dollars. When they did the second nine, it cost them three times what it cost for the first nine.
GC: And that was because…?
RC: There was ten years difference between the first nine and second nine. ’87 and ’97 is what we’re talking about.
GC: How many people from the community were employed to build the first nine?
BC: It changed every year. We used to have about 10-12 guys in the Winter Work program one year. Then the next year it might be only 8. The government would say, “You only get $75,000. Next year, you get $100,000.” That’s the way government works.
RC: It goes by a priority system. The golf course was at the top of the heap, in our minds. But there were other projects that needed to be looked at. All monies couldn’t come to Chéticamp. A little bit had to go to Margaree, a little bit to Inverness, a little bit to Pleasant Bay.
GC: You guys must have been very excited at the prospect of having your own golf course.
RC: Oh, yeah. It’s still like a dream come true. When we got that first nine, we were like, “Whoa, how did that happen?”
BC: I live right next to No. 11.
GC: I think I peed over there this morning.
BC: I used to photocopy the deeds of everyone’s land and I’d put it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
RC: Everybody owned a little parcel of land. If there’s a parcel that a guy doesn’t want to sell or give, you have to get on your knees for him to give, because you need that parcel.
GC: Who did the begging?
RC: He did the begging!
BC: I did the begging!
GC: Bernie, show me how you beg!
BC: I can’t do it anymore!
GC: Those days are over, eh?
RC: It was a lot of work by a small committee of people that had a grandiose plan. They knew people in the government that they could tap. No patting on the back to Bernie, but he knew a lot of people. He’s the type of guy that can walk into a house and sell you an iceberg in the middle of winter.
GC: How much of the land was donated?
BC: I’d say 30% was donated. We only paid $200 an acre for the land.
RC: That’s pretty good.
GC: It’s spectacular land.
RC: If you look at it now … but back then, that acre for $200 wasn’t worth anything because it was in the middle of the portage here. It was a swamp type of thing. There were a lot of pieces of land that weren’t worth anything.
BC: People thought their land was worth something; but in an area that was swampy, we had to do a lot of drainage. Some of the landowners were easy to talk to because they thought a lot about the community. But some that look for money, you have to go smooth with them and sometimes…
RC: You can’t piss them off.
BC: No, that’s the last thing you want to do.
RC: Am I allowed to say that?
Will that be bleeped out?
GC: I don’t censor my effing interview subjects.
Would you say that the golf course started because of a love for golf or because you thought it would be a good tourist draw?
RC: It was first love for golf.
BC: Love for golf! But then we thought about tourism too.
RC: You have to bring them in, because that’s a source of money. But for us, it was the love of golf.
BC: We love golfing. Back then we had to go Highlands Links in Ingonish.
GC: That’s a hike to Ingonish.
RC: Yeah, it’s a long day. And at that point in time, they didn’t have carts, so we used to walk the course and then drive back.
GC: I interviewed Lloyd Donovan yesterday at Highlands Links; he told me that it wasn’t that long ago that they got power carts.
RC: That’s right.
GC: Lloyd also told me that they were trying to keep you guys out of there – that the Chiasson brothers were trouble makers.
He said, “Let them build their own course. Keep those guys out of Ingonish!”
RC: It’s been a long road and lot of work by a lot of people.
BC: We are living in a community where you have a lot of volunteers.
RC: All the labor was pretty much donated. The golf course is here because there’s a lot of people that donate their time and energy and make it work.
I got a couple of the local politicians here and stood them on top of the hill here and said, “Have a look at what we have here … and picture a clubhouse on top of this hill.”
It took a lot of barking but eventually we got another $100,000 or so from the Provincial government. It’s just to say that if you don’t push it that extra mile, we wouldn’t have the clubhouse here. So either put yourself a little deeper in debt for the right reason and say, “Now, it’s done – let’s think about how we’re gonna pay for this.” But don’t go halfway trying to save money.
GC: That type of long-term thinking usually makes the most sense in business.
RC: The hard part was convincing the board that that was a good idea. And it has to come not from me, but from the community.
GC: It’s a beautiful course; you and the community should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished. This could never happened in the United States. Maybe 80 years ago but now everybody…
RC: Is for themselves?
GC: That’s it.
RC: Here it’s still a big deal because we’re a proud people. It’s an Acadian community. Acadian surrounded by Scottish and Irish people.
BC: You go to town and you look at the lawn grounds … people take pride. They don’t have big, expensive homes…
RC: But whatever we have, we treat well.
BC: It’s well taken care of. And this course is well taken care of. We have good workers.
RC: I say for the amount of people they have working, they’re doing a marvelous job.
BC: Ingonish has twice the manpower that we have.
GC: So when the first nine opened in ’87, who hit the first tee shot?
RC: It had to have been one of the politicians.
GC: How was your first nine in ’87; do you remember?
RC: We parred everything.
BC: I lost a few balls.
GC: You know, if you want to put people to work, you should send them into the woods and look for the golf balls I lost today.
RC: It’s for sure if we had $10 million to burn, we could make the course look prettier.
GC: Aesthetically, you don’t have to do anything. But if you do get $10 million to burn, call me and we’ll meet in Vegas.
RC: Aesthetically, it’s perfect. You just need to tell golfers to hit the ball straighter.
BC: Yeah, don’t go in the woods, it’s not the place to be.
GC: But this course isn’t a tight course. There’s plenty of room here. It’s just that I stink.
RC: You had too many balls in your bag!
GC: I was at Bell Bay the other day and I sliced one into the woods. I was playing with the pro, Ted Stonehouse. He was such a nice guy – he’d go into the woods to look for my ball. He couldn’t find my ball but he came out with 8 others.
So he kept replenishing my golf ball supply. My goal for today was to lose all the golf balls that Ted gave me. And I think I did.
RC: Well, you tried!
GC: If I may paraphrase Yoda from Star Wars, I didn’t try … I did!
So after the course was built, what was the reaction by the community?
RC: The community was very, very proud. A lot of them had to be taken around because some of them didn’t golf at the time. There was a small group that were avid golfers, but there were a lot that weren’t.
GC: They just wanted to do this for the good of the community?
BC: Even some members of the arena who weren’t golfers at first, now they’re the first ones off the tee. It changed a lot of people’s attitudes about golf.
RC: It was a learning process. People didn’t know what golf was about. In the community here, there might have been 20 of us that went to Ingonish to go golfing.
GC: They thought golf was just for rich people?
RC: Yeah, I think so.
BC: Then they started playing. And it took a while before women started getting involved.
RC: And to get a junior program going. We have some really great golfers now in the young ones.
BC: And our pro and General Manager, Dave Deluzio, is doing a great job with the juniors.
RC: We’re very fortunate; we just got Dave this year. He’s excellent with the kids. You’ve met him; he’s gregarious, he likes to talk, he’s got a good personality. He makes everybody welcome. But the key is with the kids: he has a way about it. He’s a good teacher and encourages everything.
GC: Yes, Dave is a super guy. You’re lucky to have him. I can’t say this enough: it’s a beautiful, beautiful course. I tip my visor to the people of Chéticamp.
RC: Thank you. We’re a little saddened when we look at the parking lot and there’s only 4 or 5 cars. Bernie’s got one, I’ve got one. That’s a problem. I think at one time we peaked at 400-and-some members when we opened the back nine. That was good for here. That’s a lot of women and a lot of juniors.
GC: Well, I’m certainly going to do my part to get the word out about Le Portage.
BC: We appreciate that.
GC: It’s nice to see a community get behind something like this. Is the course run for-profit? Is the government involved at all?
RC: Our government’s not involved at all anymore. Unless we submit some project that we need monies for, it’s run by a local 12-member board. Half of them are for the golf course; half of them are for the arena. They hired, for example, Dave. They hire the staff. They hire the greenskeeper.
There are still monies to be paid to the federal government. Every year we make a payment. I think there’s a balance of about $375,000.
GC: But is the course run as a profit-making venture?
RC: We hope by the end of the year that we have enough to pay everybody, to put the fertilizer down, and pay down the loan, and come out on the green side. That’s what we hope.
GC: And anything that might be left over goes back to the course?
RC: Yes, but sometimes we’ll make double payments on the loan.
GC: If Donald Trump shows up here and says, “I’ll give you $20 million for your golf course.” Who gets to say “yes” or “no”?
RC: The community would say “no,” I’m sure.
GC: Good! He wouldn’t like the windy conditions here; it would mess up his comb-over.
BC: We want people to be able to afford to play our course. Our memberships are $850 now.
GC: That’s great! I’d move here tomorrow if I wasn’t allergic to moose dander.
Bernie, how often are you out here?
BC: I play every day.
GC: Every day???
RC: Yes, he plays every day.
BC: It’s not going to last forever.
RC: He’s fully retired and that’s what the retirees do: they play every morning. I’m semi-retired so I try to get in at least 4 or 5 rounds a week.
GC: When does the golf season end? October?
BC: October, yeah.
GC: It must be spectacular here with the fall foliage.
RC: Oh, it’s nice. And usually here, we have a better fall than spring. September and October can be very nice.
GC: Messieurs: Le Portage est magnifique! Merci beaucoup!
RC: You’re welcome. It was our pleasure.
Be sure to visit Le Portage’s web site. It has spectacular photos and flyover videos of the golf course. Along with the other courses I enjoyed during my Cape Breton Golf Adventure, Le Portage winds its way through some of the most beautiful and wild landscapes to be found anywhere in the world.