NANANordic is an amazing program that brings skiing to remote villages in Alaska, with volunteer coaches from among the ranks of elite athletes, coaches from all levels, and essentially anyone who skis and wants to share their passion for the sport. Last year I visited the village of Selawik, and based on the positive experiences I had there, I decided to sign up for a 2-village segment this year. It’s exhausting, often trying, and very-little-down-time experience, but completely worth it for the chance to share skiing with so many enthusiastic young people and bring them outside to play on the snow. I also find that the outlook of being a coach – being the one in charge, who people come to with problems, or who the 5-year-olds want to hold the hand of when they’re scared of the downhills – is a refreshing change in perspective after being the “athlete” all year.
To start the trip, I flew from Anchorage to Kotzebue, spent a few hours in Kotzebue, and then continued on a small airplane to Noatak. See the map below for the location of Noatak and Kivalina.
Noatak is inland, surrounded by lakes and small rivers, with a population of 514. The school principal picked us up at the airstrip, drove us to the school, and showed us our accommodations for the next 5 days – the Napaaqtugmiut school library! We spent the afternoon organizing equipment, and then took an evening loop around town on skis to check out our surroundings and figure out where we’d be taking the kids to ski the next day.
I’m going to try not to swamp this post with too many photos, but here are a few. (Additional photos from my trip can be found at my just-released personal blog www.caitlinpatterson.blogspot.com.)
My fellow coaches in Noatak, from left Libby, Sam, and Tyler
Expectant skiers, with basketball in the background
Coach Libby playing games with kindergarteners
Coaches Tyler and Sam pulling trains of kids
Tyler was a favorite playmate when we walked around the village one evening
The following morning, after a brief scheduling meeting with the teachers, it was time to ski! Each class rotated through to ski once during the day, from kindergarten to high school, and we usually had two classes at once, sometimes such diverse groups as 1st graders with 11th graders. The older students are actually great with helping the little ones, plus they could go off on longer skis with their teachers or play games. On one of the last days all of us coaches played basketball on skis with some of the high-schoolers and it was extremely fun – the high-schoolers playing had gotten good enough at skiing, and they’re extremely good at basketball, so that the coaches could go all-out and not hold back any speed or agility during the game. Needless to say we were pretty tired after 45 minutes of intense games…
Each day we skied with the kids for anywhere between 4 and 8 hours, and on a few of the mornings a few of us coaches went for pre-sunrise crust skis too. The kids of all ages were great, and our most difficult times during the day were always when it was time to get everyone back inside, because they wanted to keep skiing!
Looking back at the school on a pre-sunrise ski
Arctic light before sunrise
Sketchy bridge, which Tyler and I had to cross for one of the pre-sunrise crust skis
Happy faces after skiing!
Tyler and the girls
A group of very proficient skiers by the last day in Noatak
After 5 days in Noatak, when our coaching there wrapped up, a group of three of us – Sam, Marcus, and myself – chose to ski from Noatak to Kivalina. The ski was 50 miles along a snow-machine trail between the villages, which is called the “stake trail” because of the wooden stakes posted every 50-100 feet marking the route. Marcus chose to take the trip through an NNF auction and he was a great addition to our group for coaching the kids as well as our village-to-village ski. The ski started off with gradually rolling terrain, soon becoming larger hills as we climbed up towards a pass over low hills (by Alaska standards, hardly even a pass, in not-really-mountains). From mile 20 through 45, the terrain was close to entirely flat, with very gently rolling hills of tundra grasses. The last few miles were along riverbanks and over a frozen marshland to the peninsula where the village of Kivalina is built. While the first half of the ski had good snow coverage, the 2nd half involved some pretty low snow, including one short section where we just walked across the grass on our skis, and many miles of stepping around grass tussocks, unavoidable agility training. Luckily the weather was fairly mild, other than a bit of wind on the higher terrain, and it was sunny and nice all day. We carried all of our own food and water, and did not have any snowmachine support, which is not exactly ideal, but the person we had hoped could follow us was not available that day.
The most memorable experience of the ski involved a bit of a mix-up with the GPS distance measurements from Marcus’s watch. We knew we had about 50 miles, which is 80 kilometers, to ski. Throughout most of the ski it seemed like we were making slow progress, and after 5 hours of skiing, the watch told us we had reached 40 kilometers (we believed), so the halfway point. We tried to keep our outlooks positive, but 5 more hours of skiing sounded brutal, having calculated before leaving that it ought to take 7-8 hours to ski the trail. A little while further along, we saw a plane landing in the distance, which gave us a spark of hope, and then about 30 minutes of skiing later, we could just make out a few buildings on the horizon. Kivalina! And thus Marcus realized that his watch distance units must have been in miles, not kilometers, so at the 40 mark we had been 4/5ths of the way through our ski instead of half. You have no idea how easy a 7 hr 20 minute ski (start to stop, including short breaks) feels after believing from about hour 4 through hour 6 that it would be a 10-11 hr day!
Starting the ski at 6:30am meant that we were out in time to see the sunrise
Marcus (left) and Sam climbing towards the pass on our 50 mile ski
Kivalina was my next village for coach-volunteering, so after the long ski I stayed in Kivalina for another 6 days and met another set of awesome young skiers. Kivalina was in the mainstream news a few years ago because it is a village that is at risk from rising sea levels, and there is a relocation project under study. It’s a small town of 374 people, and the entire town is built compactly on a small section of a spit on the edge of the ocean. The first 24 hours in Kivalina we had some down time to recover, as we waited for the rest of the Kivalina coaches to arrive. It was Easter weekend, and the community of Kivalina welcomed many visitors to join their Easter celebrations, which included “singspirations”, church services, and community meals and pot-lucks. We visited the community center and joined several of the meals, in which our hosts supplied us with muktuk (uncooked whale blubber) to try, as well as delicious caribou stew, cranberry sauce, and several more mainstream foods like potato salad and chicken soup. An elder by the name of Joe regaled us with whaling stories during one of the meals, and then our coaching group was lucky enough to be able to watch two whaling boats getting launched later in the week.
Everyone was extremely friendly and inviting, and the kids especially in Kivalina loved to climb all over us, hold hands while skiing, watch Reese Hanneman and anyone else doing tricks, and have us watch them skiing down the hills or trying tricks.
Waiting for the first ski session in Kivalina
This fast group made it all the way to the river one day after school, a considerable ski
“Junior” preferred to play on the slide rather than let me help him ski, but he wanted to wear those ski boots!
Skiers heading back towards Kivalina
Playing on a hill next to the runway
Coach Megan dumping colored pins to get ready for the next round of “biathlon” games
Reese watching the whalers prepare to launch, after helping them push the boat off the ice into the water.
Me and my friend Geraine “Rainey”
Rainey taking a break from skiing
Katie and one of the kids making faces!
Lily borrowed my phone to take pictures while skiing
Shannon, Lena, and Tasha demonstrating one of the Alaska Native pulling games played in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics
Coach Reese and an elementary class after they delivered thank-you cards to us on the last day
These trips are experiences I’ll never forget, and I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for skiing with so many inspiring kids and to take a little peak at life in the Arctic.