Finding a Foothold for Nordic Skiing in Rural Alaska

It was minus 40 levels Fahrenheit, and a lot of the kids had been carrying denims. They forgot to carry snow pants once more. But they wished to go snowboarding anyway, and that’s why we had been there, so we took them snowboarding — even when a few of the much less appropriately dressed youngsters turned again early.

I used to be in Nulato, a Koyukon Athabascan village of a couple hundred folks that sits on the decrease Yukon River in Alaska’s western inside, volunteering as a ski coach with a program known as Skiku — a playful portmanteau of the Inupiaq phrase for ice, siku, and the English phrase ski.

The aim of Skiku is to assist create — or, in some circumstances, proceed — a custom of Nordic snowboarding in rural Alaska, each as a wholesome pastime and as a type of transportation.

In the years earlier than the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of villages participated in this system, most receiving one go to by a group of coaches every spring. (The ski gear stays year-round.)

I’ve been concerned with this system since 2015, after I first traveled from my residence in Fairbanks to the Inupiat village of Noorvik, on Alaska’s west coast. Before that I’d by no means been to any Alaskan villages, lots of that are predominantly Alaska Native.

It isn’t notably unusual for white, city-dwelling Alaskans like me to not have been to the state’s smaller villages. Most of the villages aren’t accessible by street, and with out a particular purpose to go, most individuals don’t.

It has been unexpectedly satisfying in the intervening years to observe the game take maintain inside the group. Some of the youthful youngsters — for whom seven years is actually a lifetime — have by no means identified a world with out annual visits from Skiku.

The greatest snowboarding in the Nulato was alongside a snowmobile path close to the college that fashioned a one-mile loop. We skied this identical loop repeatedly. The different coaches and I took turns behind the pack, since we discovered it unimaginable to remain heat whereas snowboarding with the slowest youngsters.

The path went out into a wetland earlier than looping again via the forest, and it was good snowboarding by any measure. Though there’s a well-developed street system inside Nulato, with minimal site visitors, the roads are icy and unforgiving for the youngsters who inevitably fall down. Snowmobile trails typically make for a lot better snowboarding.

The roads additionally don’t go as far, since all of the roads in Nulato are native — that’s, there aren’t any roads in or out of city. The solely solution to attain the village is by the river or by air.

Though I’ve visited six villages as a volunteer ski coach, the pictures shared listed below are from Nulato in 2020, Arctic Village in 2018, and two journeys to Kaktovik in 2018 and 2019.

The journeys to Arctic Village and Kaktovik had been a part of a separate (and unnamed) program based by one in every of Skiku’s founders, Lars Flora, a two-time Winter Olympian. Lars’ program is barely totally different from Skiku; it incorporates skijoring — getting pulled by mushing canines whereas on skis, which is simply as a lot enjoyable because it feels like — and kite snowboarding. But the final concept is similar.

Arctic Village sits in the treed foothills of the Brooks Range, simply outdoors of the southern boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration has pushed to open to fossil fuel development. Kaktovik is on an island in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast and within the boundaries of the refuge.

The area around Kaktovik is called the Coastal Plain for a reason: In the winter, when the sea is frozen over, Kaktovik is one of the few features on a blank, white canvas, uninterrupted even by the sea.

The skiing in Arctic Village was second to none. Most of the locals heat their homes exclusively with wood, which they gather via the many snowmobile trails that wind through the village and into the surrounding forest. And since residents often drive older two-stroke machines that lack the power to make it up steep hills without a run at it, the trails are all gentle, with no abrupt turns on the slopes — ideal trails, in other words, for skiing.

Kaktovik is a more difficult place to encourage skiing. The terrain is completely flat, and, with no significant topography, going for a ski on the wind-hammered tundra outside of the village lacks the same appeal. Instead, when we did take the kids outside, we often built jumps on hills formed by the multistory snowdrifts.

When I visited Kaktovik in early May 2019, we were unable to ski outside for the first half of the week because of a relentless wind storm. When the wind finally let up, the other coaches and I went for an 11 p.m. walk in dim sunlight and got charged by a polar bear.

The rest of the week was spent with a much-limited schedule. When we did ski, it was under the watch of two of the village’s bear guards, who were armed with guns. (Kaktovik is a top destination for polar bear viewing in the late summer, but this uneasy truce with the bears is leading to increasing problems with emboldened bears coming into town.)

Misconceptions about rural Alaska abound in the cities. At our worst, city Alaskans often view the villages as bleak and uninviting places. But, during my time as a ski instructor, I’ve found exactly the opposite to be true.

There’s a oft-repeated trope about the tight social fabric found in small towns. But in rural Alaska, it’s something that’s felt in subtle ways — the way the older children help the younger ones without a trace of resentment, or how all the adults in town are essentially guardians for all of the children.

During my time in Skiku, I’ve come to understand my home state to a much greater extent, improving my humiliatingly dismal understanding of its physical and cultural geography. Sometimes I think that’s the real value of the program: to get us white, city Alaskans out to the villages to see what life there is actually like, so we can stop perpetuating apocryphal and reductive narratives. After all, without Skiku, it would be hard for me to find a reason to spend a week in a different village each year.

But ultimately my personal motives don’t matter, and the kids aren’t concerned with whether they teach me about their lives. They just love to ski.

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