Late winter in Alaska can be a magical time. Days are getting longer, frozen rivers are still blanketed with snow, and in many places, conditions are near-perfect for cross-country skiing. Yet while sports like basketball and volleyball have long been popular in rural Alaska, skiing simply wasn’t a thing until recently in many remote villages, where everyone and everything must be flown in on tiny planes.
A nonprofit called Skiku is on a mission to change that. Founded in 2012 by Iñupiaq skier Robin Kornfield and Olympian Lars Flora, Skiku is introducing a growing number of Alaskans to cross-country skiing and biathlon, a sport that combines skiing and shooting rifles. Along with its sister organization, NANANordic, Skiku has delivered planeloads of ski gear—along with Olympians and other world-class athletes—to 55 Alaskan villages and counting. The athletes stay for a week each year, coaching local students and their families, but the donated skis, boots, and poles remain in the communities after they fly away.
“The majority of families in Alaska aren’t going out and buying their kids ski gear,” says Calisa Kastning, executive director of Skiku, whose name combines the Iñupiaq word for ice, siku, with ski. “But if the gear is available, skiing can be so valuable to these remote communities.”
Roger Franklin, principal of the Shungnak School in Shungnak, Alaska, says the program helps students build confidence, improves their physical and emotional well-being, and has helped increase school attendance. It also offers kids a healthy activity and positive role models in places with some of the nation’s highest rates of substance abuse and suicide. And it does so while allowing Alaska Native kids to stay on their homelands—and connect to them in new ways.
So far, Skiku has gotten skis onto the feet of 8,000 kids and 500 adults, 98 percent of whom are Alaska Native. From the banks of the Yukon to the Arctic coast, students ski not just for fun and exercise, but also to go ice fishing, hunting, or traveling from village to village.
One of the few parts of rural Alaska that had a vibrant ski tradition before Skiku is the Bering Strait region, an 80,000-square-mile school district in northwest Alaska. In the 1970s, a teacher from New Hampshire named John Miles arrived there with eight pairs of cross-country skis stashed in his luggage. Over the next few decades, he introduced hundreds of students to the sport.
Paul Lincoln, who grew up in White Mountain—an Iñupiaq village of about 200 people on a peninsula jutting into the Bering Sea—was one of Miles’s students. After Lincoln clicked into his first pair of skis at seven years old, “skiing pretty much consumed me,” he says. Most villages didn’t have television at the time, and at first skiing just seemed like a fun thing to do in the winter. But Lincoln soon realized that it could offer him more. He eventually got a skiing scholarship to Dartmouth College, became a member of the U.S. Biathlon Team, and competed in Finland, Bulgaria, and across the United States. As he recalled in a Skiku documentary called Making Tracks, skiing “brought us into the possibility of expanding our world, while still having tremendous value for the one we came from.”
But skiing wasn’t just Lincoln’s ticket out of rural Alaska—it was also a way for him to return. Although he now lives in Anchorage, Lincoln is a Skiku board member and has served as a volunteer coach in White Mountain and other villages, sharing the sport with younger generations. “For a kid in a village to see [that] I’ve been all over the world because of skiing and I came from a village just like you did” can be incredibly meaningful, Lincoln says.
Kids in rural Alaska seem to have an almost preternatural predisposition for skiing, their coaches say, even though it hasn’t traditionally been part of Alaska Native cultures.
Thanks to Skiku, NANANordic, and John Miles, skiing has become woven into the culture of rural Alaska. The stories of how it’s changed people’s lives are both uplifting and heart wrenching. One woman credits skiing with helping her survive foster care and relocation. A boy who drowned was buried with his most meaningful possession, a ski-meet participation ribbon. And numerous kids have gone on to compete at national and international levels, including in the Olympics. Kids in rural Alaska seem to have an almost preternatural predisposition for skiing, their coaches say, even though it hasn’t traditionally been part of Alaska Native cultures.
Beyond the terrain and climate, skiing fits into village life for other reasons. “In some really small communities, the schools don’t have enough students to field a basketball team or a wrestling team,” says Tyler Henegan, who lives near Anchorage and works as a field biologist in the summer and a ski coach in the winter. “But skiing is accessible to everybody. The third-graders can go out with the ninth-graders and kids can go with their parents and everyone can just have a good time together.”
As Skiku demonstrates, getting kids into outdoor sports doesn’t have to be complicated. (If you don’t have to fly gear and coaches around 663,000 square miles of mostly roadless wildlands, it’s probably even less complicated.) And once communities have the equipment and know-how, the momentum can be self-sustaining. As Paul Lincoln says, “It really doesn’t take much. If it’s winter and there’s snow on the ground, you just put on a pair of skis and go.”