“It’s not about skiing,” Shungnak School Principal Roger Franklin wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It’s much more, and it’s saving lives daily.”
Just don’t tell the kids that. The hundreds of them skiing and laughing and jumping and falling down might think you were crazy.
The Shungnak School is 150 miles east of Kotzebue on the Kobuk River. Shungnak is one of 27 communities that received ski instruction through Skiku, known in the Northwest Arctic region as NANANordic. The program brings world-class ski racers, elite high-school racers, and community coaches to rural Alaskan schools each spring, along with ski equipment and enthusiasm for teaching the students to ski.
NANANordic was covered by FasterSkier in 2012, the program’s first year, and in 2013 with the addition of biathlon to the program. FasterSkier also compiled links to videos made about the program in 2013 and 2014.
“NANANordic has bought a positive trend to this region and our little village,” Franklin continued. “This program helped our kids find different ways to find a positive outlet than a negative one. It has given our students a chance to live a healthier life style and much more. It also has a component for family time spent skiing and understanding their kids’ struggles in life. It also has helped our students to stop thinking about suicides and other harmful things.”
The statistics on rural Alaska are heartbreaking: rates of alcoholism, sexual violence and teen suicide are many times the national averages. In many areas the rates are so high that it constitutes a public-health emergency. So when Franklin says that NANANordic/Skiku is “saving lives daily,” it’s not merely hyperbole.
The program was started in 2012 by Lars Flora (a former elite racer and brother of Alaska Pacific University Head Coach Erik Flora), with the help of Robin Kornfield (who works for NANA Development Corporation), and Scott Warren, an educator with the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.
That first year, NANANordic visited four villages — Kiana, Noorvik, Selawik and Kotzebue — in the NANA region in northwest Alaska. The following year it expanded to all 11 villages in the Northwest Arctic plus Anaktuvuk Pass, located in the Brooks Range, Alaska’s northernmost mountain range.
As NANANordic grew and expanded into other regions, with the door open to further expansion, they needed a name that would be inclusive of the entire state. The directors settled on Skiku, a play on the word “siku,” the Iñupiaq word for ice. Within the NANA region the program is still called NANANordic, but for the sake of clarity both will be referred to as Skiku in this article.
As NANANordic grew and expanded into other regions, with the door open to further expansion, they needed a name that would be inclusive of the entire state. The directors settled on Skiku, a play on the word “siku,” the Iñupiaq word for ice.
This year, Flora and a veritable army of volunteer coaches — 80 in all — helped to bring skiing to over 3,000 kids, spending a week in each village, with many students skiing during school and again afterwards. The program has also begun a push to bring biathlon to village schools — a logical sport for the students, given the strong tradition of hunting in rural Alaska. They founded AK Biathlon as a sister organization to Skiku, brought on Zach Hall as the coach, and were able to purchase four infrared rifles to use with the kids.
Future of the Program
After the 2013 season, Flora became the full-time director of Skiku, allowing him to push the expansion of Skiku into more than twice as many communities in 2014. Such rapid expansion is complicated for a small nonprofit, and Flora plans to expand more in 2015, looking to Bethel, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region in southwestern Alaska.
“A lot of activity directors across the state are a little worried about our expanding to so many places,” Flora said. “What [they’re worried about] is that you put the focus on teaching kids how to ski, and then what happens is that your websites aren’t polished. We could easily pull back and keep it at 27 for next year and make sure we have everything perfect in the office, but among everyone involved we just want to keep going getting the program into more places.”
When asked about his priorities for future funding, Flora said that, in addition to expanding into more areas, he’d like to find a way to keep coaches in the communities longer.
“In the very rough draft we made up, we put [next year’s volunteers] at about 110,” Flora said. “But the time spent in villages is a key piece. You can’t just dump ski equipment at a school and think that the teachers or the admin will run a ski program for you. It’s been done before, and what we’ve learned is that a lot of those kids don’t really know how to ski. At the end of the day we want to make sure that they actually learn how to ski at the places we go.”
Photographer Brendan Smith joined the program in 2012 and 2013 as part of Healthy Portraits, an initiative by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a native-owned public health consortium. Healthy Portraits focuses on success stories stories in rural Alaska, celebrating those who are taking steps to improve themselves and their communities. Smith produced a video about his involvement with NANANordic.
“The whole experience was amazing,” Caitlin Gregg wrote in an email. “I really liked learning about the strong cultural history that the villages retain and teach all the youth. I left the NANANordic trip with so much excitement. The energy of the kids was amazing and I can’t believe how excited the towns were for us to be there! I look forward to spending even more time with the program next spring!”
APU Elite Team member Lex Treinen participated in NANANordic this year as an envoy of a club called club called K’enaanee Kkaazoot — a similar program started by former University of Alaska Fairbanks skier Heidi Rader in 2011.
“She had been doing gardening workshops in the villages on behalf of UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service and Tanana Chiefs Conference (the Interior non-profit native organization) and had always brought her skis,” Treinen explained in an email. “She saw that the kids were always interested. So I got to be part of the first K’enaanee trip in spring of 2012 and we went to Fort Yukon, Venetie, and Arctic Village. The next year we did a three-day trip to Ruby.
“This year Heidi decided to work through NANANordic,” Treinen continued. “Since they were expanding to regions outside of the NANA region, and got a grant that she could give to UAF students.”
Treinen went to the village of Nuiqsut, a village founded in 1974 in response to oil development on the North Slope. Treinen wrote about his experiences in UAF’s student newspaper, the SunStar.
A Rewarding Experience
All those interviewed for this story had positive things to say about the innate ability and enthusiasm of the students for skiing in a region typically dominated by basketball and snowmobiles. The volunteers couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement, many getting so much more from the experience than just the typical rewards of coaching.
Even Flora, who has been Nordic skiing nearly his whole life, feels the experience has changed him. In 2012 he had just finished a tough season of racing and immediately began NANANordic’s debut season.
“It was the perfect transition out of ski racing,” he wrote in an email. “It kept me involved with the ski world but opened my eyes to this amazing world that had nothing to do with ski racing. There was this deep rich Alaska Native culture that we got thrown into the first year and the NANA values started influencing our ski program in more ways than I can express.
“Basically this whole program has brought me back to my childhood memories of chasing around my two older brothers on skis and going on family ski trips,” Flora remembers. “I was so fixated on performance the last few years of my career, my performance started influencing my choices and decisions in a negative way. … My perspective on sport has changed. As a ski community we can learn a tremendous amount from villages in Alaska that can help us grow as teams, communities, and individuals. Skiku is as much about teaching kids how to ski as it is about our volunteers learning about a new culture, which can impact our own goals and dreams in life. ”
2014 Volunteers: Aimee Demientieff, Alice Knapp, Allison Phillips, Amanda Del Frate, Ana Jager, Andrew Kastning, Andrew Dougherty, Anna Rix, Annie Connelly, Bailey Arend, Bre Donovan, Brian Gregg, Caitlin Gregg, Caitlin Patterson, Carlin Rauch, Carly Craig, Catie Bursch, Celia Haering, Charles Renfro, Conner Truskowski, Dana Tower,Dave Stamp, David Apperson, Deland Anderson, Donny Donovan, Dylan Watts, Emily Decker, Eric Packer, Erik Bjornsen, Fischer Heimburger, Frances Pillifant, Galen Flint, Gigi Banas, Greg Jernstrom, Greta Anderson, Ian White, Jaime Bronga, Jan Spurkland, Janey Hoefler, Jarrid Huckfeldt, Jasmine Neeno, Jeffery Fox, Jim Oksotaruk, John Farr, Jonas Loeffler, Josh Smullin, Julie Truskowski, Kathleen Rehm, Keri Hull, Lars Flora, Laura Pillifant, Lauren Fritz, Lauren Hess, Lex Treinen, Libby Kugel, Marie Steringer, Marine Dusser, Megan Spurkland, Michael Sinnott, Molly Schouweiler, Nancy Hanneman, Nick Treinen, Odin Brudie, Paul Kovacs, Peter Madsen Kling, Rachelle Kanady, Reese Hanneman, Robert Rosser, Rosie Brennan, Ryan Terry, Sadie Fox, Samuel Dougherty, Sara Studebaker, Sikulik Johnson, Tamra Kornfield, Taryn Hunt Smith, Tully LaBelle-Hamer, Tyler Kornfield, Will Mans, Zach Hall