Steamboat Springs Josh Smullin’s recent trip to Alaska sparked plenty of thoughts and emotions, among them a sense of wonder and hope.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” he started, “if some day someone came from there and made a U.S. Ski Team?”
Parts of the vast state harbor a fanatical skiing culture and have yielded plenty of top-tier cross-country skiers, including three-time Olympian and 2013 World Champion in the team sprint, Kikkan Randall, who hails from Anchorage, Alaska.
Other parts of the state, however, are even more ice- and snowbound but entirely lack skiing, and it was into those rural corners of Alaska that Smullin recently traveled with the NANANordic program.
For Smullin, a Nordic skiing coach with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and the residents of those winter-locked towns, it was an eye-opening experience.
“No one was skiing in the villages at the time, but by the time we left, everyone had skis on their feet,” Smullin said. “There is not a culture of skiing in these places when it seems like such an obvious thing to have in the Arctic.”
NANANordic was started by two-time Olympic skier Lars Flora, who grew up with Smullin in Oregon before moving to Alaska. The goal was to help create that skiing culture in the far northern reaches of Alaska, a cold land dominated by the Inupiat people, Eskimos.
Flora started that quest a year ago, supplying four villages with Nordic skiing supplies. This spring, he was at it again and roped Smullin into coming along.
There wasn’t a bit of the trek that was easy. After landing in freezing temperatures, Smullin’s team skied 65 miles across sea ice and the frozen landscape to Noatak, a small village of about 500.
“We had a snowmobile to bring along the skis and bags, but we also carried bags with us, and we were kind of pioneers,” Smullin said. “We were probably the first people to ever do that on skis.
“You look out at times and see nothing but snow and ice and the sun; it never sets this time of year.”
In the riverside village, the group found a population eager for a new hobby. The group put out an announcement on local radio, and the next day they found themselves surrounded by eager children, the vast majority donning ski gear for the first time.
“There wasn’t a lot for the people to do,” he said. “They went to school, hunt and fished, and if they weren’t doing that, it was a small town, and there wasn’t a lot going on. They played a lot of video games and watched a lot of TV,” he said.
Smullin and his team spent six days in Noatak, living out of the town’s new school. The skis rarely were left untouched while they were there.
Next, the group skied another 55 miles to Kivalina, an even smaller town on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, which leads to the Arctic Ocean.
The team found another set of eager children ready to learn the sport as well as elements of the military working in the town to offer medical and veterinary care. Those men and women also were happy to give it a go.
“There were a lot of wind drifts, and we were all going off all these jumps,” Smullin said.
At both stops, the volunteers proved immensely popular and were swarmed by their students.
“I could see how unhealthy and obese the kids in these villages were, and at the same time I could see how excited they were to learn something and gain the skills. It felt like maybe, just maybe, we could make a difference in their lives.”
All told, the program sent out 46 people and gave out 230 sets of ski gear in 12 Alaska stops, giving more than 1,500 Alaskans the chance to learn how to ski and opening a new world to Smullin and other Nordic skiing experts.
“Out on the ocean, it’s sea ice as far as you can see, and inland, there are mountains,” Smullin said. “We came across several sets of grizzly tracks and a herd of caribou. Caribou are extremely fast, and we saw some big, old wolf tracks chasing after them. In the villages, you’d see seals hanging there, and outside they had caribou stacked, ready to eat throughout the winter.
“I will definitely consider going back.”
He even saw the makings of a few excellent Nordic ski racers.
“Some of them are just learning new skills,” Smullin said. “Then you would see some kids and just imagine if they had coaching every day. With the enthusiasm they had, they could be something special.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com