Skiers flock to Northwest Alaska for NANA Nordic
From the sidelines along Front Street, it was difficult to tell who was having more fun during Thursday's NANA Nordic session with Kotzebue Middle School. It might have been the class of 8th grade girls - but the raucous laughter and energetic effort from the volunteer troupe gave them a run for their money.
Volunteers come from all over Alaska and the rest of the country. They have a variety of age levels and achievements - from college ski coaches and Olympians to high school athletes - but all share a common Nordic passion.
Each class had about 50 minutes to get their skiing in. So following a warm-up trek along the sea ice, the group ditched their poles for a few rounds of ski-bound caribou and wolves. (You may remember a familiar youth game - sharks and minnows - with a similar premise.)
A few rogue wolves tried to tag caribou as they fled across the ice field, everyone hustling and dodging on their skate skis.
These kinds of games actually have just as much or more teaching power than practicing the technical form and conditioning of skiing, said volunteer Jim Oksoktaruk.
Kids start to play and laugh, he said, and suddenly they've forgotten they're on skis and they start to automatically adjust to the equipment.
Oksoktaruk, who skied competitively in the '80s and '90s and currently lives in Anchorage, grew up in White Mountain. The World Junior Champion competitor remembers traveling to the Northwest for ski competitions during his own school days, and is eager to see the sport revived in a region so perfectly suited for it.
That's what NANA Nordic aims to do. Currently in its second year, the program expanded in 2013 to spend a week in 11 Arctic village schools. Its three week-long sessions in the NANA region will serve about 2,000 students from elementary to high school.
"It keeps you active," said Kotzebue eighth-grader Abby Hunnicutt, who said she didn't mind adding the sport to her usual volleyball and basketball preferences.
Program leaders, like Olympian Lars Flora of Anchorage, hope the program's annual instruction and equipment donations will lead to permanent Nordic programs in northwest schools.
For now, the mission is getting kids on skis and out into the spring air and sunshine for a little activity.
"I think it's a good thing," said Kotzebue's Kristen Williamson, 14. "It's really fun."
Some students spend up to three hours a day on skis, if they participate in the one-hour school day session and the afterschool program.
The volunteer group is an eclectic mix of enthusiastic skiers - most of whom sport an impressive athletic resume as well.
That includes former Olympians and Olympic hopefuls - like 20-year-old Sam Dougherty. He plans to take his world-class biathlete skills to qualifiers for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
But last week, he was sharing them with Kotzebue.
"I'm feeling hungry..." Dougherty roared, facing a group of eighth-grade "caribou" before he took off after them on his skis.
"It's a great way to see my home state in its full splendor," Dougherty said later. He said it's been great to see the youth transition from timid first-timers to enthusiastic new skiers as they gain confidence throughout the week. It ends the season on a high note, he said, with a program that comes together for the simple purpose of getting kids on skis.
There are 40 volunteers in total, spread out over three sessions in the northwest. The first was last week in Kotzebue, Kiana and Ambler. This week volunteer teams traveled to Noorvik, Deering, Noatak, Shungnak and Anaktuvuk Pass. Next week they're on to Selawik, Buckland, Kivalina and Kobuk.
In Ambler this week, the last day of skiing overlapped with the second day of the Kobuk 440 dog race. Throughout Friday afternoon, it wasn't uncommon to see a line or two of elementary-aged skiers popping over to the checkpoint grounds to check out dogs and mushers as they hustled to see to their teams and fuel up on food and sleep.
That evening, Nordic volunteers and their young new friends met up at a community s'mores fest, enjoying spring's returning light around a bonfire while race activities continued in town.
For more about the NANA Nordic program and opportunities within it visit nananordic.com.
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.