Coaching for Skiku

As the ski racing season wrapped up in Craftsbury, VT in late March, I prepared to head to Alaska for the beginning of April. My first week in AK would take me way up north to the village of Point Hope, for volunteer coaching of the local school kids as part of the Skiku program. During the 2nd week of my stay, I planned to visit my brother Scott in Anchorage and play in the mountains on backcountry skis, nordic skis, and on foot.

This spring was my 4th year (non-consecutive) of volunteering with the Skiku program, which also goes by the name NANANordic in the NANA region of AK. During the 4 years, I’ve travelled to 5 different remote, native villages – Selawik, Atqasuk, Noatak, Kivalina, and now Point Hope. It’s a unique opportunity to see a different way of life than you might find in the big cities or towns of much of the US. I also find it to be a rewarding, albeit challenging, role reversal to switch from being the “athlete” during 51 weeks of the year to being the coach for dozens of enthusiastic kids. It’s refreshing to put aside athletic self-interest (ie thoughts of: I must rest for my next workout, I must recover and eat well), and instead do everything I can to be energetic and help dozens of young skiers get the most out of their time on skis. Not as many elite racers have helped with Skiku recently, as compared to past years, but there’s an excellent selection of coaches drawn from the skiing community of Anchorage and the larger towns, including junior nordic coaches, high school and college ski racers. Meeting fellow coaches and learning about their skiing backgrounds is also a fun part of the trips.

Point Hope coaches L-R: Bucky McDonald, myslf, Matias Saari, and Katie Hickey. Missing from this photo, Aaron Tooyak. Photo from Katie H.

Point Hope, located right on the edge of the Chukchi Sea on the northwest Alaska coastline, experienced some very cold and windy weather in April this year. Luckily the people of the village were very inviting and friendly, which helped us be able to handle the wind and cold. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and used a few hours that night to scout out skiable terrain in and around the village. It’s a different type of skiing than the average nordic skier faces; there is no grooming, instead we’re relying on snow-covered village roads, packed-in snowmobile paths, and windblown crust. The windblown crust can be some of the best skiing, but we’re always struggling to find places that are smooth with consistent snow, rather than areas with large drifts or irregular fins of hard snow surrounded by powder.

Matias encouraging one of our students, during a plenty-windy and yet still outside ski session

Monday, Tuesday, and Friday we guided class groups through 75-90 minute outdoor sessions on skis. After school, we led more ski excursions for a few hours, venturing to the snow fence on the outskirts of the village but never too far away from shelter in case the wind picked up. Wednesday and Thursday, unfortunately we were relegated to indoor activities due to the -20F windchill and the fact that there were not really any wind-protected areas for skiing. For the indoor days, my fellow coaches and I set up obstacle courses involving basketball dribbling, running slalom, bean bag biathlon, and an assortment of other activities. We also let the youngest kids, up through about 4th grade, put on either one or two skis and play indoor games on the skis; it was a little bit crazy and stressful with so many hard objects on the game floor, but actually went really well and we all had fun.

After a string of exhausting and exhilarating 8 hour days on skis, the week was suddenly over. Friday afternoon we held one last after-school session, wished the students a happy spring and that they’d keep skiing, and packed up the gear to be returned to the school storage room. Saturday morning the coaches had a chance to take a longer ski around the village and out to the cemetery, which was beautifully decorated with whale bones. Saturday afternoon we flew back to Anchorage, tired but feeling a good sense of accomplishment for the great times on skis we shared with the students of Point Hope!

Fun and games! Bucky taking a spill while racing in the relay on the last day.
Elite racer-coaches get at least as tired as everyone else! Tyler Kornfield and I taking a brief rest between skiing sessions.
Rearranging some obstacle course hoops in the gym, while the little ones test out the skis. Photo: Katie
Setting out the rules of the indoor one-ski games. Photo: Aaron


Awesome group of boys and girls, these kids skied during and after school at every chance they could get. They were also some of our best obstacle course racers.
We were lucky enough to be invited on a whale-watching flight from the village out over the ice. Mostly we admired the textures and patterns of the ice, but I actually did see a whale, even if I didn’t get any photographic evidence of it!
A few magnificent hides of polar bears were all we saw of the animals during our week in Point Hope. Probably for the best, I would not want to encounter one of these while skiing!
Skiing on the crusty edge of the Chukchi Sea
Snowy and whale-bone encircled cemetery for the village of Point Hope
Paying respects to what must have been fantastic whaling boat captains, whose graves were marked by these large jaw bones.
Small planes to get in and out of the villages. 
Crossing the giant Yukon river, and heading back to Anchorage

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