Last week, I lived for a few days in an Alaskan school to teach the students how to ski through a program called NANANordic. NANANordic and its sponsors provided skis and coordinated different instructors to do week long visits to all 11 villages in the NANA region this spring. I was one of five instructors sent to the village of Noorvik, armed with about 60 sets of ski equipment. We worked with kindergarten through 12th graders both during their gym classes and after school hours. The kids loved it!
This kid’s name is Smiley. Fitting, don’t you think?
The NANA region contains 38,000 square miles, 11 villages, and is home to the Inupiaq People. I flew into the largest town, Kotzebue and then took a small bush plane to the village of Noorvik, which was the first town in the nation to be counted in the 2010 census: population 668. This was my first visit north of the arctic circle and my first visit to Alaska.
The scene at a village airport (Selawik). Villages are connected by snowmobile highways, rivers, and bush planes. For the most part, there are no traditional roads for cars and trucks except within villages.
As our plane landed, we parted a large herd of caribou which separated to either side of the runway.
Within 15 minutes of landing in Noorvik we found ourselves put to work handing out skis, boots and poles. Our team leader, Andrew Kastning from UAA, had put out a message on the town vhf radio that there was Sunday afternoon skiing available for the kids and a full crowd showed up within minutes. NANANordic had first visited Noorvik in 2012 and the kids couldn’t wait for the skiing to come back this year. Despite bringing a wide selection of gear and sizes, we often didn’t have quite the right sized gear for everybody, but it didn’t matter. They were happy to make it work, even if the boots were 3 sizes too big or the skis were two feet taller than they were. Every day after school we would outfit over 50 kids with skis then have to turn the rest away once we ran out of gear.
Passing through downtown with a gym class during the school week.
The most popular and our most commonly visited ski site was the beech of the frozen Kobuk River at the edge of town. There was a big hill that created hours of entertainment for some kids and gave others the freedom to ski across and explore fish camps and tributaries on the other side. One morning we even saw a moose running across the river.
Part of my role with NANANordic was to introduce the skiers to biathlon. I brought a rifle out to the river one day after school for a show and tell to talk about the sport. Biathlon originated in northern cultures as a means of hunting and could still be very applicable today.
We also adventured into the forest behind the school. I bet these little trees are over 60 years old and grow slowly in such a harsh climate.
Notice the Brooks Range in the background. You are looking at the northernmost section of the Continental Divide.
Sticks in the air! It took me a little while to get used to some new lingo: “sticks” were poles, “sliding” meant skiing downhill, “skates” sometimes were skis, “flying” meant hitting a jump, and a “snow go” is the same as a snowmobile.
We devised an organized gear storage system for the week in the back closet of the gym. After all the villages have been visited, NANANordic will divide up all the skis and leave some in each village. Part of our job was to think about who in the village might be interested in coordinating and caring for the gear after we left. We tried to encourage some of Noorvik’s older students to form a student run ski club to fill that role.
Noorvik Instructors: Odin Brudie, Frankie Pillifant, Dylan Watts- coach with APU, myself, and Andrew Kastning- ski coach at UAA. Odin and Frankie live in Juneau where they have spent years running a junior ski program (and hopefully a future biathlon program!) through the local 4-H club. Frankie also works in the NANA region’s Red Dog mine and had some great stories about life there.
At this time of year, the sun stays up in the arctic until about 11 pm, and the town kids would be outside playing during all daylight hours. If they weren’t outside, there was a good chance they were playing basketball in the school gym- which is an incredibly popular sport in the area.
One couple in town, Dave and Audrey, invited us to their house for dinner several times and offered us some local specialities including muktuk (whale skin and blubber).
They were very generous and also shared caribou stew (above), wild swan (“arctic turkey”), salmon, and wild blueberries, food they had harvested themselves.
The most impressive part was that they invited us over while they had an 11 day old newborn, Helen. Check out her traditional Inupiaq swing, made from rope, canvas, and a wood frame.
The first day we were in the arctic, we saw a couple sled dog races, including the finish of the multiday Kobuk 440 race in Kotzebue.
Some teams were still passing through Noorvik and stopping at an aid station there when we arrived.
Check out these sealskin pants. Very warm.
At the end of our stay in Noorvik, we had the option of doing a village-to-village ski before flying home. We skied 35 miles to Selawik on one of the snowmobile “highways” and our new friend Dave supported us on a snowgo. We carried packs loaded with food, water, dry clothes, and a few survival supplies. We also carried a rifle for safety. A real life application of biathlon! During the ski we saw a caribou herd and spotted wolf tracks in the snow.
The ski took almost 6 hours and despite mostly flat terrain, I bonked hard at the end. It was too cold to stop for very long to refuel. Luckily we had muktuk to snack on. During the first few hours, we were skiing thru mist and couldn’t see much in front of us. Most of the route went over flat tundra terrain without trees.