While most of his cross-country skiing brethren kicked up the last bits of snow at Spring Series in Craftsbury, Vt., Lars Flora was hard at work at home in Anchorage, Alaska, crunching numbers and finalizing details of his upcoming trip.
It would have been easy if he had been the only one traveling to Northwest Alaska, but Flora had 17 volunteer coaches and two doctors to accommodate, the NANA Development Corporation to run by, and about 650 kids waiting for him in four different villages.
NANANordic took all the focus and logistical smarts the two-time Olympian could muster. Yet every morning, the program’s potential in providing youngsters with cross-country skis was what excited him most.
For three weeks from April 9 to May 1, Flora and a crew of peers and supporters visited schools in the Northwest Arctic, about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage by air. Slightly bigger than the state of Indiana, the region has an estimated 7,000 people living in 13 villages.
Last year, Flora made it his mission to bring skiing to each town.
Similar initiatives, such as the RurAL CAP Ski Go Club program founded by Jennifer Johnston, introduced students in the Northwest to nordic skiing in the past. The program fell by the wayside a few years ago following Johnston’s election as Anchorage assemblywoman, and Flora saw a need to pick up the pieces. His program, he decided, would be even bigger and most importantly, sustainable.
“I felt [it] was a really good fit for the region and there’s no reason there can’t be ski programs up there,” Flora said in a phone interview from Anchorage. “It’s something they can [do] outside and go do something active somewhere. A lot of times, there’s no one taking them anywhere.”
Like many city-dwellings Alaskans, Flora, 34, had always dreamt about seeing “real” Alaska, that rural part of the state where natives speak Iñupiat Eskimo and live off the land in often brutally cold conditions. He made the two-stop, two-hour flight to the region’s hub in Kotzebue for the first time last fall, where he watched the community assemble for a high-school running race.
People drove up on boats and flew in on planes to see the event. Flora stood back amazed.
“Spending time up there, you learn the people are super-warm and nice,” he said. “And when there’s a sporting event or any type of event, the whole community comes together.”
Basketball was king, he said. Everybody played and followed its superstar athletes. But for some reason, skiing wasn’t ingrained in their culture. Flora wanted to change that.
“The interesting thing about it is these kids are super active,” he said. “They were just so eager to ski. Every day, the questions would be, ‘Where are we skiing today?’ We did afterschool sessions and we ran out of equipment most of the sessions. Kids would be lined up at the door pushing down the door.”
After a whirlwind winter, in which Flora started off on the World Cup circuit, placed fourth at U.S. Nationals in the 30-kilometer classic and suffered some unlucky crashes in two ski marathons, the Alaska Pacific University racer said there was nothing he looked forward to more than seeing his program, NANANordic, come to life.
Since convincing the NDC native corporation to sponsor him last spring, Flora made it his priority. He partnered with the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, rounded up influential athletes, attracted volunteer doctors and donations from one of his sponsors – the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of Alaska – and arranged to have food and transportation paid for through NMS Food Services, Alaska Airlines and Bering Air.
Fischer and Rossignol combined to donate 70 sets of equipment. Flora had the whole fleet transported between the four villages they visited – Kotzebue, Kiana, Noorvik and Selawik –and eventually left 20 sets in each.
Flora skied between the towns for a total of about 135 miles. After 3 ½ weeks up there, Flora said he was a little tired.
Each week, he and a few other coaches stayed at a given school, cooking in home-ec rooms and cozying up into sleeping bags at night. By day, Flora and about five members from his loaded staff, which included U.S. national team biathletes Sara Studebaker and Zach Hall, APU skiers Reese Hanneman, Charlie Renfro, Greta Anderson and Dylan Watts, and University of Alaska Anchorage ski coach Andrew Kastning, taught 100 to 150 students per day.
“Our first session was at nine o’clock and we were coaching all day,” Flora said. “[The kids are] basically all big hitters. They had been classic skiing on no-wax skis, but no one really knew how to skate ski so it was starting from the beginning, showing them how to put bindings on, put pole straps on, really starting with the basics.”
Most of his volunteers stuck around for about six days, coaching during gym classes and after school with students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Children played games, asked questions, laughed and caught big air on skinny skis. Flora said their enthusiasm was overwhelming, and many coaches noted that children in Anchorage or other ski communities didn’t get that excited about skiing.
Next year, Flora hopes to double the amount of villages and visit eight. Ultimately he wants to reach all 13.
“I was totally unfamiliar what it was like to be up in the villages and just getting to know the logistics part of running a program [there],” he said. “The dynamics between the school district and the native corporations, the teachers and the local community, it’s been a huge learning curve. It’s been really fun.”
A Balancing Act
The amount of work involved is what kept Flora from the SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury in late March. He had to decide whether he wanted to race there or in the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet, one of the most challenging marathons on the Worldloppet circuit. On March 17, he ended his season in Norway placing 59th despite a tough wax day.
In all, Flora completed four marathons last season. He was third in the Gatineau Loppet after a crash near the finish, sixth in the American Birkebeiner after a tangle around 40 k, and 31st in the Swiss Engadin.
Asked whether he chose the marathon route this season to prepare for trekking between villages in Northwest Alaska, Flora laughed.
“It wasn’t totally planned out,” he said. “Coming into the season, you always put the goal out there and once you commit to it, it’s like, ‘OK, you get to go to the World Cup and see what happens, right?’ I got through the first period and realized I missed some big training periods so that’s when I started thinking that the marathons were going to be my main thing. By the time I did all those marathons, I was in great shape. I had a blast.”
His desire to do more Worldloppets had been on his mind – that and what would be required up north. After their first stop in Kotzebue, Flora and Dylan Watts skied 75 miles to Kiana. They planned to cover the distance in one day, but teachers warned them otherwise.
“You’re going out on terrain you’re not familiar with and you’re right on the Bering Strait so the weather can chance in a second and can be blowing 60 to 70 miles an hour,” Flora said. “So we got a little nervous.”
They packed a sled with food and camping and safety equipment, including a radio, and pulled the 30-40 extra pounds behind them. They split the trip into two days, skiing five hours on the first and three on the second.
After that, Flora completed a 25-mile solo ski from Kiana to Noorvik in one day, and skied with Kastning, Renfro, Hanneman and Evelyn Dong for his last journey between villages.
Along those final 35 miles, Flora said he experienced the highlight of the trip when they came upon a herd of about two thousand caribou.
“I looked at Andrew and I was like, ‘I think I’m just going to ski right up to them,’ ”Flora said. “Andrew’s like, ‘So you’re going to be that guy? They guy who just splits the whole herd?’ Right when he said that, our friend Charlie came up and skied right through. He was like, “Let’s go!’ ”
With each skier approaching at a different angle, the herd spooked and ran by Renfro, who was ready with his camera.
“He had, I don’t know, two hundred caribou running right through him,” Flora said. “It was pretty cool.”
A day after returning from the region, Flora said they would immediately launch into planning for next year. At this point in his career, after some 17 years of elite racing, it was exactly what he needed.
“When I would wake up, this was the stuff that got me excited,” Flora said. “I lost that excitement to get out there and train, and once you lose it, it’s hard to get back sometimes.”
Last year was essentially an evaluation period in his ski career. He said it went “OK” considering the high he came off in 2011 with two top-40 finishes at World Championships, but in the end, he lacked training. At the Teva Winter Mountain Games in February, he suffered what he called “the worst bonk of his career.”
Three months later, Flora still has a strange sensation in his fingertips. His friend, ski racer and ER doctor, Adam Swank told him to give it a few weeks and see if the effects of dehydration, altitude and cold wore off. They didn’t, and Flora said he was going to work with a physical therapist on what he thought was a pinched nerve.
“My body doesn’t respond well going up and racing at eleven thousand feet,” Flora said. “That was brutal.”
As for next season, Flora said he’s still undecided as to whether he will continue racing or pursue a career in coaching. One thing’s for sure: he’ll be back in the Northwest Arctic with skis in tow next spring.
“When I started to see how much excitement and how much fun it was to pull this off with NANANordic, it was a good sign that I needed to move on and do something else,” he said.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.