The following non-traditional workout comes from Andrew Kastning, head coach of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Kastning recently returned from his third trip to remote Northwest Alaska (where he visited Kiana and Noorvik) with the NANANordic program, which brings cross-country skiing knowledge and equipment to elementary through high-school students.
Having the opportunity to teach 8 days of cross country skiing to the remote villages of Alaska is both rewarding and demanding. It’s hard to pin down an exact ‘workout’ we do up there, because by the end of just one day, your feet burn, and your mental focus just got tested by 100+ eager Inupiaq kids, thirsty for time on skis. There can, however, be progress made toward personal growth depending on how you want to slice it.
Every day you’re there, you wake with the spinning sun to eat breakfast with the kids, some whom like to greet you with a speedy free climb to hang on your neck. Throughout the day you get 1 hour with each grade, k-12, to teach skating and play games. Almost all sessions match different grades together to get everyone out at least once, and to spread the demand for different boot sizes as far across the spectrum as possible.
So your day might start with eight too-cool-for-skiing 9th and 10th graders and sixteen energetic 2nd graders. They all request boots that are too big, and poles that are too small, so individual negotiation periods ensue during checkout, as we try to promote proper ankle support for skating, and adequate leverage opportunities for the ‘sticks’. The little ones need help properly fastening the boots, so you get about 8 squats tying bows, and strapping Velcro, followed by a quick sprint outside to catch the quick ones before they zoom off to the river bluff to hit a ‘fly’.
The curriculum throughout the day is a sliding scale based on age and ski aggression, all of which land you on a certain point of the learning curve. The goal of the whole experience is to catch that point on the curve and nudge it along through brief demonstrations, laps around the school yard, games, and zigzagging adventures through town.
Your heart rate doesn’t quite reach level 1 during all this, but your cheek muscles might get tested for smiling endurance. Your core strength can get a workout depending on how many tree well hazards your constituents find, and your legs can get a solid workout if you succumb to all the requests for chariot pulls. After an hour of this, it’s either a race or a plod back to the ski room to switch the gear out to the next group… and repeat!
When the final school bell rings for the day, a line of the 70 most enthusiastic kids shows up at your makeshift ski room, clamoring their way through the line to get another hour and a half on skis. Here you have free range to take the better ones on a distance ski up some icy river, or meandering toward a far hillside on the ‘snowgo’ trails. The young ones stay back and work with you on 1-ski balance with a piggyback ride, or jumping skills, or some food-chain style sprints of wolves chasing caribou (sharks and minnows). All this can leave you firmly planted in the teacher lounge chairs for the remainder of the evening, or you could go get schooled in basketball by the same locals you just schooled in skiing.
In 2012, this routine played out in 4 villages, last year jumped to 11 villages, and this year we expanded once again to 26 villages, each getting about 4 days of concentrated skiing! If you were still standing at the end of four days, there were a lot of 20-60 mile skis you could challenge yourself down the snowgo trail to the next village.
Some of these were into the wind across parts of the Chukchi Sea, others had a strong tail wind down a frozen river hopping from windblown patch to windblown patch. My first year I skied from Noorvik to Selawik (32mi) with Lars Flora, Reese Hanneman, Charlie Renfro, and Evelyn Dong and we ran into about 2,000 caribou sidling across the frozen tundra! Each of these trips left you with a sense of being in the middle of nowhere, on a grand adventure hoping to have a brush with raw nature. No matter how tired you got though, as you came gliding into the next village, you had to be sure to smile and exude a big love for skiing, because you were about to be overwhelmed with the next kids excited to cross country ski.
By the time I boarded the commuter jet back to Kotzebue this year, I felt like I had just finished a volume week at training camp. Be sure to inquire about volunteer opportunities with NANANordic and Skiku, for 2015, and you too can take part in this unique volume training camp while spreading the good vibes of sliding on snow!