It was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and a lot of children were wearing jeans. They forgot to bring snow pants again. But they wanted to go skiing anyway, and that’s why we were there, so we took them to skiing – even if some of the less dressed kids returned early.
I was in Nulato, a village of one hundred people called Koukon Athabascan, which sits on the lower Yukon River in the western interior of Alaska, voluntarily called a program as a ski coach Skiku – A playful depiction of the term Inupiaq for snow, Siku, And English words Ski.
Skiku aims to help – or, in some cases continue – a tradition of Nordic skiing in rural Alaska, both as a healthy pastime and as transportation.
In the years before the coronovirus epidemic, dozens of villages participated in the program, mostly receiving a visit by a group of coaches each spring. (Ski gear lasts all year.)
I have been involved with the event since 2015, when I first traveled from my home in Fairbanks to the village of Inupiat, Nurwick on the west coast of Alaska. I had never been to an Alaskan village before, many of which are primarily of Alaska origin.
This is not particularly uncommon for white, city-dwelling Alaskans, as if I had not been to small villages in the state. Most villages are not accessible by road, and without a specific reason for going, most people do not.
It has been unexpectedly satisfying in the intervening years to catch the game within the community. Some of the younger children – for whom seven years is literally a lifetime – never know a world Without it Annual tour from Skiku.
The best skiing school in Nulato was along a snowmobile trail that formed a one-mile loop. We repeatedly skipped this loop. The other coach and I turned to the back of the pack, as we found it impossible to stay warm while skiing with the youngest children.
The trail ran into a wetland before looping back through the forest, and it was good skiing by any measure. Although there is a well-developed road system within Nulato, with minimal traffic, the road is icy and inefficient for children who inevitably come down. Snowmobile trails generally make for much better skiing.
Roads also do not go that far, because all the roads in Nulato are local – that is, there are no roads in or out of the city. The only way to reach the village is by river or wind.
Although I have visited six villages as a volunteer ski coach, the photos shared here are from Nulto in 2020, Arctic Village in 2018 and two from Kakatovic in 2018 and 2019.
The Arctic Village and Kaktovic’s voyages were part of a separate (and anonymous) program, founded by Lars Flora, one of the founders of two-time Winter Olympian Skiku. Lars’s program is slightly different from Skiku’s; This includes schizoring – pulling and pulling dogs on skis, which is as much fun as it sounds – and skiing. But the general idea is similar.
Arctic Village sits in the foothills of the Brooks Range, just outside the southern border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration has pushed Open to fossil fuel development. Kaktovic is on an island in the Beaufort Sea, off the northern coast of Alaska and within the borders of the refuge.
The area around Kaktovik is called the coastal plain for a reason: in winter, when the sea freezes, it is one of the few features on a blank, white canvas, also uninterrupted by the sea.
Oil leaks of the north slope are not visible from the village, but the influence of oil money is abundantly clear. Kaktovik sits inside North slope borough, Which derives higher property tax revenue earned on oil infrastructure in Prudo Bay, as well as other revenue related to the oil industry. The school district has a lot of funding, and many resident shareholders Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, An Alaska Native company that handles several lucrative oil contracts.
The Arctic Village, on the other hand, is not a part of the North Slope Borough and does not benefit from oil development anywhere near the same range. Unlike the gleaming school in Kaktovik, it was difficult to find a toilet that worked in the school in the Arctic village.
(Sadly, there was Harold Kevoluk School in Kaktovic Destroyed by fire In February 2020. In rural Alaska, where schools serve as community centers for people of all ages, the school’s loss was monumental.)
Skiing in the Arctic Village was second to none. Most locals heat their homes exclusively with wood, which they gather through several snowmobile trails that wind through the village and into the surrounding forest. And since residents often have old two-stroke machines that lack the power to make steep hills without parting, the trails are all gentle, with no sudden turns on the slope – ideal trails, other In words, for skiing.
Kakatovic is a more difficult place to encourage skiing. The terrain is completely flat, and, with no significant topography, lacks the same appeal to ski outside the village on a wind-driven tundra. Instead, when we took the kids outside, we often leaped over hills made by multistory snowdrifts.
When I visited Kaktovik in early May 2019, we were unable to ski outside for the first part of the week due to a relentless wind gust. When the wind finally gave up, the other coach and I went for a walk in the dim sun at 11 a.m. and charged with the polar bear.
The rest of the week was spent with very limited time. When we skied, it was under the supervision of two bear guards from the village, who were armed with guns. (Kakatovic is a top destination to see polar bears in late summer, but this uneasy tension with bears is leading to growing problems with statues visiting the city.)
Misconceptions about rural Alaska in cities. At our worst, city Alaskans often see villages as foggy and deserted places. But, during my time as a ski instructor, I have found the opposite to be absolutely true.
There is a frequently repeated trope about the tight social fabric found in small towns. But in rural Alaska, this is something that is felt in subtle ways – the way older children help younger people without detecting resentment, or essentially for all children of all adult children in the city Are patrons.
During my time at Skiku, I have come to understand my home state to a much greater extent, improving my abusive understanding of its physical and cultural geography. Sometimes I think the program has real value: to let us be whites, to see city Alaskans in the villages to see what life really is, so we can stop apocryphal and reductive narratives. After all, without Skiku, it would be difficult for me to find a reason to spend a week in a different village every year.
But in the end my personal objectives do not matter, and the children are not concerned about whether they teach me about their lives. They just like to ski.