Skiing at Hatcher Pass
As many of you already know, I traveled to Alaska last week! It was incredible, and I'm thankful I had the opportunity to go up there. It's going to be hard for me to find the right words to describe this experience, but I know you're all excited to read about it so I'm going to try my best! I also took a ton of photos and videos, so head over to my Facebook page to view the shots that didn't make it onto the blog.
I've always wanted to visit Alaska, I just never found the right time to make it happen...until now! I first heard of the nonprofit Skiku/NANANordic through a few of my biathlon teammates who worked with them in the past. Skiku provides annual cross-country ski instruction to the children and communities of urban and rural Alaska. My team of 5 coaches (including myself) traveled to the rural village of Noorvik to teach the kids how to ski for a week.
To have my first trip to Alaska consist of traveling 30 miles above the Arctic Circle was a pretty unreal experience. I started the journey with an early departure from Old Forge at 3am to the Syracuse airport, I flew from Syracuse to Detroit, Detroit to Seattle, and finally Seattle to Anchorage where I was greeted by one of my fellow Skiku coaches. Thanks to Chris Lamb and Adam Loomis for hosting me in Anchorage! After spending the night there, Chris and I got up and headed to the airport at 4am for another early start. At the airport we met Arianna and Shannon (more Skiku coaches), did a few final packing adjustments, and then checked all of our luggage and flew to Kotzebue!
Officially above the Arctic Circle!
We had several hours to kill in Kotzebue, so we walked around the town, went to the grocery store, and grabbed some food at the Bayside Restaurant. I had a breakfast sandwich with reindeer meat, and it was delicious! Then we arrived back at the airport, met up with our final Skiku coach Carlene, and got our bags ready for our bush plane flight! This would be the smallest plane I've ever been on, and I was super excited. For reference, they weighed all of our bags, and then had to ask each passenger how much we weighed - that's how small the plane was.
Just a quick 20 minute flight over to Noorvik and we were greeted by the second grade teacher in the schools van! We unloaded the plane, loaded up the van, and took the short drive on the bumpy dirt roads to our home for the week - the Noorvik school. We slept on the floor of the library in sleeping bags, ate in the Iñupiaq Room, and showered in one of the classroom bathrooms. It was all we needed, really! Once we unpacked a little bit, it was off to ski around the town and scope out where we would be skiing with the kids for the rest of the week.
First ski in Noorvik, through the trees on the crust
Our home for the week
My bed for the week!
The first day of ski week was a whirlwind of a day. Since I had never been on one of the trips before, I didn't really know what to expect. Our typical schedule looked like skiing with two classes in the morning for an hour each, then a three hour break in the middle of the day, and then anywhere from one-three classes in the afternoon, followed by an after school ski where anybody could come!
Before you can ski, you gotta get your boots and skis! Here's a look at the kindergarten and first grade classes getting ready to get outside with the help of Coaches Arianna and Chris.
It was so much fun getting to know each of the kids we taught, and see them improve throughout the week. The most impressive group was the kindergarten/first graders. They went from never having skied before, to crushing their race on the last day! All of the kids smiles and laughs were infectious. I think I had a permanent smile on my face all week. I also got to teach the kids how to shoot with laser biathlon rifles a few times after school. They loved it, and a few of them were pretty natural shots!
Unfortunately there wasn't a ton of snow in the area, but we took advantage of what we did have. We ended up skiing behind the school in the woods, over to this frozen lake most days. A few of the other coaches and I ventured down to the Kobuk river and skied out towards the mountains one night. We all agreed that if the sun didn't have to set we would all want to ski until we reached those mountains in the distance. It was one of the first times I was skiing where I felt like I was truly in the wild. We were following a snowmobile trail, so obviously we weren't totally alone in the wild, but it was the closest feeling I've had while on skis.
Arianna, Chris, and I skiing along the Kobuk. Thanks for the photo Carlene!
Besides the skiing, we learned a lot about Noorvik and the people that lived there. The kids were always outside after school. We'd walk around and kids would be playing in puddles, jumping and climbing on the buildings, or riding their snowmobiles and ATV's around. We went to a cake walk one night at the Community Center across from the school. You could tell how much the village was built on family and supporting each other that night. I got to try some homemade caribou soup, which was delicious! We spoke with some of the adults in the community, and they told us how much the kids love ski week and that they were happy we made the trip up to teach.
One of the rooms we spent a lot of time in at the school was called the Iñupiaq Room. The Iñupiaq Room is where students learn their native language and culture. They had photos of the elders up on the wall so that students could learn about their family tree. One of the teachers told us that they learn about the different facial structures between villages or families so that you can recognize what region or village someone is from just by looking at them. The room was also full of books written from oral stories told by the elders in the village, so we were spending our down time reading up on all their stories!
A photo of some of the elders in the Iñupiaq Room
Another interesting thing I learned while in the village was that Alaska has a sporting event called Native Youth Olympics (click to learn more about the events) We saw a few students practicing the One-Foot High Kick and the Seal Hop in the gym one day after skiing, so I got to ask them questions and try those two events! If you head to the links I've attached you can read way more info about each event.
One of the best parts of the trip was meeting the schools custodian, Murphy. He was super talkative and beaming with positive energy. He told us many stories over tea in the evenings. He seemed very proud of how much work he put into his job, as he is the best in the region, he has traveled all around to different villages to fix their floors (gym floor staining I believe). One of his favorite quotes to say was "If a smile is your umbrella, only pleasantness will rain". When he came to say goodbye to us he was telling us how much he connected with us, and we felt it too. He said that he believes the world is small, but he hopes it is smaller so that our paths will cross again soon.
I found it really interesting when Murphy spoke to us about his experience at boarding school. For those who don't know, "as a result of the western expansion in the continental United States, the religious industry partnered with the U.S. and territorial governments in educating and converting Alaska’s indigenous populations. At these government and religious run boarding schools, Native children soon learned to read and write the English language. They were also taught American, European, and world history from a Western perspective, as well as the principles and doctrines of Christianity. Corporal punishment and other forms of harsh discipline were meted out consistently and forcefully to Native children who attempted to speak their language or practiced traditional ceremonies and songs." (National Resource Center for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Elders)
Murphy told us of a time where he yelled across the room to say "what's up" to one of his friends in his Native language. The teacher yelled at him and proceeded to slap his wrist with a ruler. You could tell by his face how much that affected him, and I can't even imagine the trauma amongst every other Native child who had to endure that. Murphy said that he's happy to see that the kids are learning their language and culture in school now, and that he wishes he could show his old teacher how they're encouraged now rather than punished.
Guys, Alaska is amazing. Being in the Arctic Circle was insane. But climate change is freakin' real, and I did a little research online to learn more about the affects on the Arctic. "Over the past 30 years, it has warmed more than any other region on earth. Satellite data show that snow cover over land in the Arctic has decreased. In addition, frozen ground in the Arctic has started to thaw out. Changes in the Arctic climate are important because the Arctic acts as a refrigerator for the rest of the world. The Arctic region gives off more heat to space than it absorbs from outside, which helps cool the planet. So changes in the Arctic climate could affect the climate in the rest of the world." (National Snow & Ice Data Center)
Noorvik from above, that's the Kobuk River above and below it. The larger looking lake below and to the right of the village was the lake we'd ski on every day.
Nome from above, I thought the breaking ice from above looked interesting.
It was obvious when we arrived, there wasn't much snow on the ground to ski where they usually ski. The locals were saying that this winter has been warmer than the past, and that the ice has been melting earlier than it used to. Turns out "Alaska smashed heat records in March and will likely eclipse a 54-year mark to post the state’s hottest March ever recorded, climatologists say." (Anchorage Daily News)
I won't get into it too much on here, as there is a lot I could get into. But it was very eye opening to be in a place that is so directly affected by climate change. The whole country and world is affected by climate change obviously, but it can be easy to ignore it when you live somewhere where the affects aren't as noticeable. This trip made me want to fight even harder than before to get people to vote on a sustainable future.
Noorvik Coaches and kids! From left-right: Shannon, Lulu, myself, Tessa, Chris, Arianna, Carlene (and Flat Lucas!)
It was hard to leave, especially when you have all of the kids hugging you and begging you to stay. They kept asking why we had to leave, and that we should come back in the summer. I knew as soon as I'd visit Alaska I'd be hooked. I'm excited to get back and volunteer more with Skiku/NANANordic. If I've convinced you to join a trip for next spring, head to their website to learn more! I also hear they're hiring a new Executive Director...so if that's up your ally, apply now before it closes! Well, I'm sure I didn't cover everything I wanted to..but I tried my best. Definitely head to my Facebook page to see more photos and videos! And feel free to send me a message if you have any questions or want to know more about a certain topic that I touched on in this post. Thanks for reading!