by Michael Bowen

As a sport, lawn bowling isn't entirely on the level.

Oh, sure, it seems fair enough: Somebody rolls a spherical target - smaller than a billiard ball, it's known as the "jack" - about 35 yards down a putting-green-like surface, and competitors, taking turns, are supposed to roll their 3-pound "bowls" (midway in size between a softball and a cantaloupe) as near to the jack as possible.

Piece o' cake - except that the bowls, which are lopsided, roll kitty-wumpus in relation to the tangent of the hypotenuse. They don't go where you want them to go, each one leaving in its curving wake a slightly flattened arc of Kentucky bent grass, winding off-course in little green contrails of failure.

"Now for a short jack, I shorten up my stance, like this," says club member and greenskeeper Rich Gaffey, crouching low.

To start an "end," you see, the jack must first travel at least 23 meters past the so-called "hog line." (On the border of the green at the Spokane Lawn Bowling Club, the line is marked by the cutest little plywood piggies.)

Gaffey brings his bowl seamlessly to the turf so that it never bounces, not like mine. Still, I was pretty proud of coming within two feet of the jack until Gaffey placed his bowl within one. Yet, on his next release, he grumbles "too narrow," his bowl traveling too close to the centerline; by the time it reaches the other end of the "alley," it has veered six feet off-line.

Just then, with pinpoint accuracy, I leave one of my bowls about 45 feet short of the jack. "That's promotable!" Gaffey exclaims, explaining in the next breath that any bowl, no matter how far short of its goal, can (theoretically, at least) be knocked closer to the jack.

Yet squinting toward the far end, it's surprising how poor our depth perception is when peering at bowls clustered 30 yards away. "I've been known to bring binoculars," says Gaffey, and it seems like lawn bowling punctiliousness until we stroll down the alley and discover that bowls which appeared close to the jack aren't even in contention (and vice, unfortunately for me, versa).

The alleys are only 14 feet wide. What if I roll my ball all the way off-course?

"Here at the club, we have a little tradition," says Gaffey. "If that happens, you have to put a quarter in the kitty. Plus somebody usually rings a bell, too, just to put an emphasis on your embarrassment. Or you could just blame it on the wrong bias."

At the Memorial Day tournament here in Spokane, Gaffey expects teams from Seattle and from Canada - Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton - to attend. Teams of three players will compete in 12 to 20 ends, with matches lasting up to two hours.

"Notice how I stay on the mat until the ball has come to a complete stop," Gaffey says, and I assume this is some detail of etiquette until he makes clear that, in tournament play, one's teammates are only allowed to shout bits of information and strategy as long as the ball is still moving and the thrower remains on the throwing mat.

Gaffey ordered his set of four bowls from Scotland and paid $215, though the SLBC clubhouse - inside the historic 1912 Public Baths building - has starter sets for about $100.

On the alley next to us, a foursome has clustered 16 indistinguishable-to-me bowls around their jack, every one of them black, their distinguishing marks quite small. Making use of more distinctive markings seems like a no-brainer. But lawn bowlers must be a hidebound constituency of traditionalists, because nothing gets their ivory (or cream) trousers in a twist more than the idea of color. Gaffey even advocates that, during tournament play, teams actually wear shirts that are green or blue - "in solid colors, of course," he adds, not wishing to sound like some wild-eyed revolutionary.

But get this - that $215 set of four bowls that Gaffey special-ordered? They're not black. They're not even dark brown. They're sea foam green.

Canadians have picked them up at tournaments and pronounced them "ugly" on the spot. And Gaffey admits it can get a little embarrassing when he leaves all four of his bowls at some distance from the jack, "like a bunch of popsicles all around."

But why quibble? The day I visited SLBC, it was a beautiful, sunny day. When I released my throws, Gaffey's golden-haired mutt, Babby, usually gave chase for a few steps, then lost interest. (His Husky, Cooper, was off in the bushes, waiting to pounce on any careless marmots.) The bowling green was well-kept -- "I mow it diagonally, three times a week, usually down to about a quarter-inch," Gaffey says - and people were laughing as they used body English to urge their bowls closer to the jack. The Spokane River babbled nearby. Lawn bowling seemed like a slice of relaxation pie cut just for me, far removed from the traffic rushing past Avista HQ on Mission. I realized I could get into this bucolic reverie of genteel competition. Suddenly lawn bowling wasn't just for codgers anymore.

Grabbing for Grebes -- When birder Marian Frobe takes a group around the Pine Lakes area this Saturday morning at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, what kinds of birds does she expect?

"Black terns, marsh wrens, pied-billed grebes and coots," she says. "We're hoping that the Eastern Kingbird might be back from Argentina. They aren't in yet, and of course they arrive later than most other birds, but they should be back by the 22nd." Willow flycatchers and Bullock's orioles should also be flitting about at Turnbull this weekend.

As for flora, Frobe says that "Things are blooming so fast now, I'm not sure. Things that are usually around are almost done now. Wild onions and lupines will be blooming. Camas might be."

Bird-watching wanna-bes must call Frobe at 328-0621 for information about the walk's starting time and location and for advice on what to wear and bring. "It's easy terrain," she says, "but you have to be able to walk about two, two and a half miles.

"An experienced bird watcher will know what to look for," says Frobe, "but I'll try to help any novices to recognize species. Part of what I do at the refuge are what we call 'point counts,' where you stand at a certain point and listen for a set number of minutes. I demonstrate to people that you can identify a bird by voice, by hearing it."

Frobe reports that the refuge's various lakes are full of birds this time year - ducks, blackbirds, marsh wrens and more. There's a boardwalk with interpretive panels that takes walkers out into the marshes. Some, of course, will confine themselves to the five-mile Auto Tour Route.

"We've sometimes seen as much on the Auto Tour Route as elsewhere - but of course we're out very early in the morning, doing our point counts. You can see moose, coyotes, elks -- but I have to emphasize, this isn't a guarantee. You have to get out of your car. People come back to the bookstore and say, "Well, we didn't see anything.'

"And we ask, "Did you get out of your car?'

"'No, it was too hot.'

"Well, I say, 'If it was too hot for you, it was probably too hot for the elk.'"

During the walk Saturday, Frobe will make sure that you get out of your car and that the elks don't overheat.

The 16,000 acres of the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge are located on Smith Road, two miles off the Cheney-Plaza Road and 4.5 miles south of Cheney. Visit or call 328-0621.

Railroad History on Bikes -- You can get a little education with your exercise during the "Railroad History on Bikes" event on June 19 at Turnbull NWR near Cheney.

History seekers will pedal their mountain bikes over seven miles of paved and fine-gravel roads as Dr. Charlie Mutschler, university archivist at EWU, provides commentary about the history of the Spokane, Portland & amp; Seattle Railroad. Constructed in the 1910s to carry grain, livestock and lots of passenger traffic from Spokane to the Tri-Cities and on to Portland, the SP & amp;S was a spin-off route from the much larger Northern Pacific Railway.

As part of the Rails to Trails effort transforming former rail beds into bike paths for 130 miles from Fish Lake to the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River outside the Tri-Cities, the Columbia Plateau Trail State Park traverses four miles across the northern end of Turnbull.

Gene Kiver, professor emeritus of geology at Eastern and board member with the Friends of Turnbull, comments that "You'll be able to see the old telegraph poles, and the places where wire is strung as part of the old rock-fall detector system. You'll just be ridin' the rails, you know, and Charlie will talk about some famous train wrecks that happened along this stretch of the old SP & amp;S."

While the ride is free, donations to support environmental education at Turnbull will be gratefully accepted. Class size is limited to 18. Call 235-6448.

Publication date: 05/20/04

Newport Rodeo & Festival @ Newport Rodeo Grounds

Fri., June 25, 1-9 p.m. and Sat., June 26, 12-9 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.