(Note: This is the first of two articles on the NANANordic project, innovated by Lars Flora in 2011. Stay tuned for another piece on the addition of biathlon to the program.)
If you ask Lars Flora, there’s no “No” in NANANordic.
Founded by Flora, a two-time Olympic skier from Anchorage, Alaska, the program is designed to be fluid and adaptive in its effort to establish cross-country skiing in rural Alaska. If thousands of kids want to get on skis, bring the equipment to them. If adults, including military, want to learn as well, let them.
“It’s kind of the way it works out there,” Flora said of the NANA region in the Northwest Arctic, about 550 miles from Anchorage by air. “Things happen and the program evolves every day.”
With about 7,000 residents, 90 percent of which are Iñupiat (the northern-most aboriginal people in the world), the region spans some 38,000 square feet above the Arctic Circle. Locals and suppliers generally travel between NANA’s 11 incorporated villages by bush plane, but Flora wanted to ski the distances.
He did so last year, assembling a team of 17 volunteers to visit four villages with a fleet of skate skis, poles and boots. They spent about five days in each, teaching grade-school students the basics during the day and sleeping in classrooms at night. He logged 135 miles, not counting his on-snow time with the kids.
Upon returning from a successful first trip last spring and gearing up for the next one in 2013, Flora met with the NANA Development Corporation (NDC), which oversees all things related to the region. One of 13 regional corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the NDC primarily encourages economic growth while preserving 10,000 years of history.
A big fan of Flora’s goal to bring nordic skiing to the region (and all of Alaska), NDC Vice President of Communications and Marketing Robin Kornfield (mother of former University of Alaska Fairbanks skier Tyler Kornfield) asked Flora to commit to four years with the program. Done, he agreed.
And what about visiting all 11 villages this year?
“About half the people who know what it’s all about running programs in these areas said, ‘That’s way too fast to grow. It’s too many places,’ ” said Flora, 35. “We usually say yes to everything and when new opportunities come up, we try to find a solution and make it happen.”
Sure enough, the program grew in its second year with more than 40 volunteers flying north to put in roughly 10-hour days with enthusiastic youth and teens. In 17 days, NANANordic touched down in all 11 villages (plus Anaktuvuk Pass in the North Slope region), getting 1,500 to 2,000 children on skis – up from 650 the year before.
“We had more interest than we knew what to do with,” said Eric Packer, a volunteer coach and Anchorage native who trains with Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School T2 Team. “It was really inspiring and motivating for me as an athlete to see that.”
After a long season of competing at home and abroad, Packer was one of dozens of well-known athletes, including U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen and U.S. Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee, Sara Studebaker and Hannah Dreissigacker, who jetted to northern Alaska to help Flora. Packer was stationed in Buckland and brought there by a bush plane.
“The nearest town is 70 miles away by snowmobile so you’re pretty far out there,” the 22-year-old said. “It was a really neat community, really tightly knit. The public school is the biggest building, so it uses the school as its hotel.”
The NANANordic volunteers shared quarters with military personnel from Arctic Care, a health and medical service that aids villages via Black Hawk helicopters. With little convincing, about 100 of the service men and women also tried skiing.
“They were out there, we were out there, and everybody stays at the school so we asked if we could give them ski lessons,” Flora said. “They were all into it.”
With a four-year sponsorship commitment from Teck, a Canadian mining company, Flora was able to purchase about 230 sets of equipment, building on his quota of 70 last year. Just as it had previously done, NANANordic left 20 pairs of skis, boots and poles in each village, giving the four school districts they visited last year a grand total of 40.
In places like Buckland, skiing was a completely new activity. That didn’t slow down most students, already comfortable in the outdoors.
“The kids were really self-reliant and picked it up super fast,” Packer said of the hour-long school sessions.
Additional ski time was offered after school, and Packer estimated more than 70 percent of the students came back for more.
“The bell would ring at 3:30 and at 3:31, we’d have a line out the door,” he said. “That kind of excitement that was really cool.”
Seeing the growth and adding new elements of the program like biathlon and four untimed races, was rewarding, Flora said. Students in Kotzebue, NANA’s largest village with about 3,000 residents, got a little too cold before their race and jumped the gun, but the coaches let them go.
“They’re fun races. They’re participation,” Flora said. “Basically the last day of the week, we put bibs on the kids and made a little course.”
Next year, Flora is thinking about organizing a larger race, like an invitational. However, transporting people between villages isn’t easy; a few students could easily hop on a bush plane, but 30 to 40 would require several trips.
“There were a couple kids asking if they could make a ski team at the school,” Flora said. “I think there was 30 high-school kids wanting a ski team. … One of the goals is to have skiing as part of the school district.”
In the Bering Straits region just south of NANA, skiing and biathlon are already in the schools. According to Flora, the districts are interested in integrating classic skiing into their programs, which he intends to help them with.
The relationship has already become mutually beneficial. For the first time in 20 years, two skiers from the Bering Straits ventured to NANA to ski. A high-school senior, Asa Bergamaschi, and Sikulik Johnson, an eighth grader, came as volunteer coaches, and their experience was just as essential as that of the more elite athletes.
“I received probably 100 emails with people who wanted to go out and then I had a few coaches recruiting for me,” Flora said of the volunteer-gathering process. Next year, he anticipates they’ll have an online application.
“It’s this adventure combined with teaching kids how to ski so it’s really important for us to have some people who are here in Anchorage and know how to run programs and work with school districts,” he said of his staff.
In terms of a vision, Flora hopes the sport truly takes hold in the region in the next three years. Beyond that, he’d like to spread the love to the rest of Alaska as well.
“The whole idea is to actually get ski programs across Alaska so we’re putting a system together that can expand to other regions,” Flora said. “Someone asked me, ‘How many villages will you plan to do next year?’ We might try to pull off 30.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue to focus on his program headed by five other directors (Charlie Renfro, Andrew Kastning, Dylan Watts, Zach Hall, and Tamra Kornfield) and keep it manageable. Later, he might consider joining forces with similar initiatives, like the Ski-Go Club in interior Alaska, run by Heidi Rader out of Fairbanks.
“There’s 200-plus villages out there and if we’re going to start programs in all of them it is going to take the nordic community to make it happen and the whole state coming together,” Flora added.
It might seem like a tough task, but it’s one he’s excited about. Flora will review the program the coming weeks to formulate future plans while continuing to pursue a degree in environmental science. He also works in the development office for the Alaska Pacific University ski team with his brother and head coach Erik Flora.
In June, Lars will represent NANANordic in Greece after the U.S. Olympic Committee selected him to visit the International Olympic Academy (IOA). The Committee chose three programs across all sports to attend the IOA Young Participants Session, and Flora will spend more than two weeks there on behalf of his mission.
“I’m definitely dedicated to keep going on with this program,” Flora said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
— Audrey Mangan contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.