Paintballers aim for a permanent peninsula home

Making a mark

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2006

 

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  Players trade war stories while waiting for others to finish a game as traffic passes on the Sterling Highway. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Stephen Olendorff sprints to a sheltered firing position in a junkyard in Soldotna during a spirited game of paintball with about a dozen other weekend warriors last month. A high-tech cross between a game of tag and a water balloon contest, the object is to be the last person to dodge pellets of water-soluble paint.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In a salvage yard next to the Sterling Highway on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a dilapidated 1970s-era crane truck with a faded powder blue paint job and rust around its deflated tires stands riddled with neon green splatter marks.

The trees surrounding it, junked-out RVs, wood stoves and trailers filling the salvage yard are pockmarked with by paint stains, as well. The sounds of passing traffic mix with punctuated pop-pop-pops as the crane truck awaits its first return visitor.

That visitor is 9-year-old Elias O’Connell, who was the first to be eliminated during that Saturday’s first game of combat paintball.

“I got hit, but it bounced off the side,” the wide-eyed youngster exclaimed when asked about the first game. It was his first time playing paintball.

 

Splatters of paint mark the windshield of a long-dead truck as paintball players prepare to start a game in a junkyard in Soldotna last month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The salvage yard game, made possible by a handshake-style deal between the property’s owner and the owner of a paintball shop in Soldotna’s Peninsula Center Mall, represents what has become a sort of Saturday tradition for central peninsula paintball enthusiasts. The location changes, but the concept remains the same: a bunch of friends and acquaintances get together, strap on face shields, load up their paintball guns, then spend the rest of the afternoon shooting the crap out of each other.

For Roger Fischer, a 24-year-old Peak Oilfield Services employee who hunts in the winter months, paintballing is a way to test his combat mettle.

“It’s like guerrilla warfare. It’s cool to think of how I might do if I was really out there,” Fischer said.

Fischer, who owns his own paintball gun and gear, takes the game pretty seriously.

“I always get like five kills, dude,” he said before the first game.

 

Jesse Tapley rubs his neck where he was tagged with a paintball. Players wear protective clothing and face masks but occasionally a ball will find an area of exposed skin. "It doesn't hurt too bad, kind of like a bee sting," Tapley said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The two dozen or so paintballers gathered on this Saturday divide into teams by drawing paintballs from a hat then donning either a blue or a red Velcro armband and move to opposite ends of the yard. The team members move methodically toward each other across the field, hiding behind whatever is available as the paintballs fly. Get hit and you’re out. The last team with unpainted members wins the round.

 

With backup from a partner, Josh Winters bolts to a safer location.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Fischer’s team, the blue team, won the first game and lost the second. Wins and losses aren’t really the point, though. According to hardcore players like Fisher and newbies like Kenai Peninsula College students Jerry Meeck and Steven Olendorff, this is just a great way to spend an afternoon.

“We’ve goofed around, but this is the first time we’ve done it for real,” Olendorff said. “It’s more fun than I thought it would be.”

Paintball’s past

It is fun, not necessarily the business benefits possible from capitalizing on a ripe youth market in an adventure-ready area like the Kenai Peninsula, that drives games like this one.

 

Winters uses hand motions to guide another blue team member to safety during an advance on players representing the red team. Arm bands declare a players allegiance.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jeremy Jones, who played on the day in question and plays as often as possible at as many locations as are made available by willing property owners and paintballing friends with land to spare, manages a paintball and snowboarding supply store owned by his father, Joe.

“I got my dad into it about eight years ago,” Jeremy said. “A friend of mine and I took a couple guns and we just went back in the woods. Dad got really into it after that.”

Ron’s Rent-It Center sold paintball supplies when the two began, but supplies were scarce, he said.

 

Dustin Croft's mask tells the story of how he came to be in the right place at the wrong time. Players call themselves out, raise their hand and walk off the playing field once they've been shot.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“We knew there needed to be a real paintball store in town, so we started selling out of our garage and went from there,” Jones said.

 

Dustin Croft scans the woods for an opponent from the relative safety of an abandoned building he was defending with other members of the red team. In some games, players split into two sides with one defending a base. Other games are free-for-alls with the last shooter standing the winner.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

That was about three years ago. Now they have the store, Action Pursuits, which has become home base for the area’s scattered paintball crowd. It opened last October in the Peninsula Center Mall and has seen scores of previously underserved customers with an interest in paint-bearing projectiles walk through its doors to peruse merchandise, solicit paintball gun repairs, replenish supplies of the washable ammunition, buy face shields and browse through gear. It is also the place to find directions to the next Saturday matchup and the place to drop $5 for a gun rental to participate in one of them.

“We’ve been building not so much a client base, its more like a friend base of hardcore paintballers,” Jones said of the group outings. “For the last three months we’ve gotten more serious about playing every weekend.”

Maps to the Saturday games are posted at Action Pursuits or directions are given over the phone. The games don’t cost anything, but paintball can be expensive. Most of the players own their own guns, some of which have been tweaked with top-end add-ons.

“I’ve probably got $400 in mine,” said Dustin Croft, a player who wears blue camouflage gear for paintball games. Croft also pays for trip wires and paint mortars to set up in the woods.

“It’s anything you can conceive of,” he said.

Paintballing doesn’t need to be quite so expensive, though. Ammunition, Jones said, generally costs about $55 for a box of 2,000 paintballs, and a new paintball gun — a “marker” in paintball lingo — will cost between $100 and $150.

Cost is certainly a factor for potential paintballers. Safety is another, but it’s not nearly the issue concerned parents or skittish amateurs may expect, Jones said.

“I would recommend for them to come out and watch it and see who their son or daughter is playing with,” Jones said, noting that injuries are more likely from falling over something than from being tagged. “Paintball is actually one of the safest sports out there.”

So it’s safe, but those bruises are painful to get, right? That was a concern for Jones when a friend first proposed playing so many years ago, but it was an issue easily overcome.

 

Players trade war stories while waiting for others to finish a game as traffic passes on the Sterling Highway.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I was like, ‘I don’t know, sounds kind of painful, I’m not really into the pain thing.’ But my friend just gave me a gun, I got to shoot my dad legally and I was hooked ever since.”

It takes some extreme overkill for the games to bring serious pain.

 

Gas cylinders power the marble-sized paintballs, which are stored in hoppers on the semi- or fully-automatic guns.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I got hit once, like seven times in the chest,” said Fischer, the player who calls his shots “kills” and enjoys the comparison of paintball combat to guerrilla warfare. “That one kind of hurt.”

Fischer said it was worth it — pain or no pain, the game is too much fun to pass up.

Paintball’s futures

It’s fun that could cost. If the players hadn’t gotten permission for their Saturday afternoon excursion in the salvage yard, had been contacted by Alaska State Troopers and had played on property with “no trespassing” signs, they could have been charged with trespassing in the first or second degree, according to Greg Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

Trespassing is a criminal misdemeanor that can lead to 90 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, or both. If there is intent of criminal mischief involved in the trespassing — which could be defined as shooting paintballs at someone’s property — the misdemeanor could be bumped up to a Class A charge. That one carries a possible year in jail, a $5,000 fine or both.

Jones and company have paid serious attention in the past few months to permission for paintball outings, and places like Building 100 in Kenai are why. The building, a former greenhouse near the Wildwood Pretrial Facility with acres of actionable paintball land surrounding it, is commonly known among paintballers as “the asbestos building.”

“Paintballers have been using it frequently for the last 10 years. It’s probably one of the most renowned paintballs areas around on the peninsula,” Jones said.

The building’s owner, the Kenai Native Association, only recently discovered the property’s popularity, and the group was not thrilled.

“They do not want paintballers out there anymore,” Jones said. “It’s a bad situation because some paintballers keep going out there, they just keep chopping the lock, and eventually somebody’s gonna get a ticket.”

Whether or not someone caught trespassing is given a ticket has a lot to do with the discretion of the officer and the wishes of the property owner. At this point, KNA is quite clear in its wishes.

“Anyone caught trespassing out there on KNA land, we will turn the matter over to the troopers,” said Vernon Stanford, KNA’s president. The group posted signs around the building a few months ago to stop paintballers from playing there. “We’re responsible to almost 600 shareholders.”

This is the type of thing the Joneses hope to avoid by leasing the area, which KNA and the Joneses are in talks to do. Rocky’s Lodge in Ninilchik has a speedball field, as does Anchorage, and Action Pursuits would like to see the building’s grounds become the home to a permanent paintball course. Speedball fields, like Anchorage’s 907 Paintball, have similar bunkers on either side of the field, which means no advantages for either team. Professional paintball teams use these sorts of courses.

“It’s really easy to referee and it’s really easy to contain,” Jones said. “A lot of people in Alaska just like to play in the woods, so what we really want to do is start a course. If you had a really good course, people would really go for that.”

Jones said the possibility of a course in the area, the games he and his friends organize each week, the opening of 907 Paintball and the fact that Rocky’s will soon open its speedball field could make for a bright, painted future.

“I would definitely say now is the time to get out there and get playing,” Jones said.



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