By Polly Keary, Editor
On a spectacular piece of property above Crescent Lake, some of the Puget Sound’s most famous sports teams and largest corporations come to build their team spirit by trying their best to shoot each other.
It’s all in good fun; the bullets are harmless balls of paint, and the fun can be had any month but December, when the courses are closed.
And although elite athletes and giant corporations often use the course, it’s affordable enough to bring kids out for birthday parties, or rowdy crews for bachelor parties or the sheer all-ages fun of playing army in the woods.
Driving to Eastside Paintball, one enters a gated driveway off High Rock Road that leads to an enormous home that belongs to the field’s landlord.
Behind the impressive house, incongruously enough, is a military-drab mesh wall that extends nearly the length of the property.
On the far side of the house, in what was once a stable, RD Means, a young, dreadlocked entrepreneur, gets people set up to play in the series of courses on the other side of the net.
The courses include a lot of obstacles, some of them manmade like the large plywood baffles and inflatable objects that fill most of the open space. But on the wooded hillside, trails run off through thick brambles and trees, offering natural cover, as well.
Armed with 10-pound compressed air guns loaded with half-inch balls of paint that look a lot like small fishing bobbers, and wearing protective face masks, teams set out to shoot each other, and not get shot themselves.
“To play paintball, two or more groups, as many as five groups, start at opposite ends of the field and try to eliminate the other team,” explained Means. “You try to hit them in the back, chest or head.”
Sometimes the goal is just to have players left on the field when the other team has all been eliminated. Sometimes the goal might be to move a flag from one point to the other, or it’s simply each player for him or herself, with the last one unsplattered the winner.
The courses look like pretty close quarters, about an acre apiece, but it’s surprisingly hard to hit someone who is standing still 20 yards away, much less running and ducking behind objects.
“These are like an old musket,” said Means. “They don’t shoot straight. They’re more like a compound bow.”
The courses extend down a wooded hill to a marshy lowland, and include a variety of terrain, all of it daubed with bright colors of paint. Playing paintball is a fast-paced and physical sport that can exhaust even a college football player after a couple vigorous hours, Mean said.
“We play five games an hour, and you’ll walk or run two or three miles in an hour,” said Means.
Two hours of play is $35 per person, making a day on the paintball course a lot less expensive than a day skiing.
Corporations love paintball because it builds camaraderie among coworkers, said Means. And, he said, it works.
“We see groups struggling, maybe bickering, and at the end they are loudly talking about their strategies, about how they got this guy, or that one,” he said. “Our goal is building strong teams for the real world.”
But paintball can be a lot of fun for anyone, he said.
“We get to be part of birthday parties, and bachelor parties,” he said. “People dress up in costumes. They’ll put the bachelor in a dress and go play.’
“The best one was that group of nine-year-old girls who came out to play in tutus,” said Eric Gratien, the field manager.
The field is popular because it’s close to Redmond and other east side cities, and about 8,000 people a year come out to play.
So it’s interesting to learn that the primary goal of the business wasn’t actually financial success.
Joe Means, a Marysville firefighter, helped his son RD buy his first paintball course near Marysville after high school, reasoning that even if it didn’t succeed it would be a great business education and likely a lot less expensive than a business college.
“I wanted a live laboratory for putting into practice what he learned growing up, about how you have to treat two groups really well, your employees and your customers,” he said. “I didn’t expect the business to be very successful. Most successful entrepreneurs fail the first time. But it was way more successful than I expected.”
The course in Marysville closed over a zoning issue, but the Monroe site is better anyway, because of the location, said Means.
“Monroe has been good to us,” he said.
The course is closed through December, but reopens in January.
It takes a minimum of 10 players to play, but for anyone who can round up a team, it’s a fun and exciting way to pass an afternoon, said Means, standing in front of a giant cedar on the course with a psychedelically-colored, paint-splashed trunk.
“It’s kind of a beautiful madness,” he said.