|Flossie and I loving skiing!|
I volunteered for Skiku, a nonprofit that introduces skiing in the rural parts of Alaska. Not being from Alaska, I am not familiar with much outside of Anchorage so after I was told I would be traveling to the village of Kaktovik, I did some quick internet searches, first to find out where this place is, and second to learn what might be there.
Kaktovik is a village of only 200 people located on Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea, but when the sea is frozen it doesn’t feel like much on an island. Historically, Barter Island was a place Alaska Inupiats and Canadian Inuits gathered to trade and was and still is a place for whaling. Many know of Kaktovik today because of the great numbers of polar bears that can be found there. When whaling occurs in the fall, the polar bears move through town to feed on the whale remains, making Kaktovik somewhat of a tourist destination. I unfortunately didn’t see any polar bears.
This basic information gave me a rough idea, but still traveling to somewhere so far away and to a place where the culture is so different from that of my everyday life, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. First, I suggest looking up Kaktovik on a map right now to get an idea of just how far away it is. Next, take into consideration that I took a two hour flight on a 737 from Anchorage just to get to Prudhoe Bay before hopping on a small plane for a 45 min ride to Kaktovik. This is about as far as flying from Salt Lake City to Minneapolis, but I was still in the same state I started in. Alaska is enormous!
Landing in Kaktovik, it was clear and quite crisp, with a freezing sea breeze coming across the frozen water. The Brooks Range loomed in the distance giving some depth to this otherwise vast landscape. I was shocked to see some new F150s and Suburbans waiting for us at the airport. I didn’t expect cars on such a remote island. I learned however, that in the summer, barges can get in allowing things like cars to be brought up with less additional cost than say flying a car in.
The village itself is maybe 10 blocks long and 10 blocks wide with most houses being small, earth tone colored buildings intermixed with industrial buildings, the very large school, and a few businesses scattered throughout.
It was Easter Sunday so after getting settled in the school, where we would live for the week, we went to the community center for an Easter Potluck. I wasn’t sure how we would be received in the community. Here we were, a bunch of white kids from the city trying to teach them our own sport. This is what made me most nervous about the whole trip. I didn’t want to seem imposing, disruptive, rude, or inconsiderate. But, I was also intrigued about their way of life, their culture, and their values.
Of course in a village of 200 everyone knows everyone so we certainly got a lot of looks as no one knew who we were. I went straight to the wall to stand, feeling like I had gone back to a middle school dance, being the wallflower, waiting for someone to talk to. Slowly, we engaged in some small talk while people were waiting in line for their food. Eventually, we introduced ourselves to the group at large, inviting them all to come try skiing later in the afternoon.
We came back after the Easter Egg hunt, this time with our skis on, in order to drum up some interest for our program. Immediately, some young boys found me and told me how cool that looked and soon enough they were all climbing on the back of my skis wanting to get a taste of that free glide that every skier longs for. Suddenly, getting along seemed easy and I quickly realized just why we were there teaching those kids to ski.
We got about 30 kids that afternoon, putting on skis for the first time in their lives. There aren’t groomed trails so learning to ski on uneven terrain can certainly be a challenge, but every kid would fall down, get up, keep going, and all with a smile on their face or at least a look of determination. These kids all put a great deal of trust in us as they tried something they might not have even seen before, let alone experienced and that made me feel confident in what we were doing. I skied around, freezing to death, trying to help kids get up and giving them some pointers, thinking they too must be freezing or at least tired of falling. But, no, I couldn’t get them inside to save my life. I think these kids would have literally skied all night if I had not gotten so cold and eventually put my foot down.
I realized what skiing really means. As an elite athlete, skiing is my life. It dictates my day and is my job. I must race fast to make money, which means, I must train hard, eat well, stay healthy and so on, which often makes me loose sight of what skiing is really all about. I love skiing because I love that feeling of sliding across the snow on my own power and I think that is a universal love for all who experience it. The joy these kids got from making their way up the little bump we were skiing on and skiing down it was contagious.
We weren’t their trying to preach anything or tell them how they should live, we were simply there to teach them this amazing sport that can bring joy to anyone’s life. The sport that allows them to see and experience the incredible landscape they live in, to get outside the 8 months of a year they have snow on the ground, and to have fun with their friends. I think the kids, too, realized this after their first day out as they kept coming back for more.
As we skied with the kids everyday, we watched them make some great improvements and we could see the confidence they would gain in themselves the first time they would make it down the hill without falling. This reminded me of all the great things I have learned through skiing, making me feel even better about teaching these kids this sport.
We also had some laser Biathlon rifles, which was a really neat thing because, one it provided us something to do when everyone got too cold, and two, because many of the kids already have experience shooting as hunting is so important in their lives. I think they can relate to the sport as result. Having no biathlon experience myself, I enjoyed using the rifles and having races with the kids.
We ended up getting fogged in and were unable to fly out so we spent a few more days skiing with the kids. While I wasn’t too excited to be stuck on this remote island, I am glad to have had more time to ski with the kids as I think that last day there were some that really started to understand it and were truly enjoying skiing.
We left a lot of skis, boots, and poles in hopes that these kids do a little skiing on their own so next year when we come back they have improved even more!
I am very thankful for this trip as I’m sure I learned more than any kid I was teaching. I truly believe skiing is a great way to break down many culture barriers and to share joy in the simple pleasures of sliding on snow. I hope to continue to be part of Skiku and to spread the joy of skiing throughout Alaska.
|Charles on top of the hill|
|Practicing the tuck|
|Hanging with friends|
|The downhill tow was a real hit|
|Skiing on the Beaufort Sea with the Brooks Range in the background|
|Me and fellow volunteers Allie and Jonas|
|It's great when teachers help us out too. Here is one giving a tow to some students.|
|At the bone pile, where all the whale carcasses are put after the hunt and the most common place to catch polar bears in the fall. Check out the size of that bone!|
|Watching from the top of the hill|
|Some excited skiers|
|Giving some pointers|
|Enjoying the Sun|
|Skyler making his way out from the school|
|Kids of all ages enjoying skiing|
|Kids of skis|
|Skiing the runway|
|Taking a break|
|Boys being boys|
|Lots of skis|
|Kimberly, a skiing enthusiast|
|The little ones, my favorite!|
|Some of the young boys learning quickly|
|Getting comfortable on skis|
|Lars showing off|
|Paul leading a train|