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For some Northwest Arctic students, Kobuk 440 trail becomes a classroom

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

It wasn’t just mushers, officials and volunteer trailbreakers traveling the Kobuk 440 trail this year. A group of students and teachers decided to join the event to get up close and personal with Alaska’s state sport and the history behind it.

High school students from Kotzebue, Kiana and Noorvik joined together and, in a snowmachine caravan with supply sleds packed to the hilt, the crew made its way from village to village.

Rod Eakin was one of the teachers who went along for the trip.

“Our job was to mark the trail, and we helped build the starting line ... it’s a community service project that we do,” Eakin said. “It helps the kids understand more about their heritage.”

Each year, students take a trip together to promote cooperation and learn more about the land where they come from. They go camping, hiking, skiing, fishing and hunting.

“We work on survival skills, how to dress for the weather conditions and how to travel in a big group.”

The trip was, in part, interactive for students in Shungnak and Selawik, too. A live feed was plugged in to village classrooms, so students who were not on the trip could interact with students, mushers and volunteers out on the trail.

Tia Dexter, 17, and Katelyn Atoruk, 15 were two of the students who took part in the four-day trip and said the chilly ride was worth it to visit other communities and see family around the region.

(Both girls predicted Jeff King would win the race, by the way.)

Besides helping with the marking of the trail, emphasis was put on how to safely pass dog teams on the trail, said Chad Nordlum, who helped facilitate the trip.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the trip was simply to unplug the teenagers from their phones and tablets and get them outside on the land.

“Our way of life is outdoors,” said Inupiaq language and culture coordinator Raymond Woods. “We need to continue with our culture that we inherited from our ancestors. My goal is to keep the culture going.”

For the last three years, Woods has been taking students from the region out on 500-mile hunting and camping trips.

“One day isn’t enough,” he said. “They need to be out there for a while. They need to hunt the animal, shoot the animal, skin the animal, preserve it and take it home. It has to be hands-on; that’s the best way to teach them.”

And while some school officials have voiced concern about the long trips and potential risks, Woods said it’s the only way.

“How else are we going to really teach our culture? In the classroom? No, you’ve got to take them out. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Being out on the Kobuk 440 trail also offers a glimpse of a bygone era when Alaska Native people traveled solely by dog team, Woods added.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, dogs were our only form of transportation,” he said. “Things have changed, but they get to see a little bit of what it means to be Inupiaq.”

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.