Popular XC ski program expands across rural Alaska

Jillian Rogers | The Arctic Sounder

In just three short years, the coaches and helpers involved with the NANANordic ski program have seen wonderful things happen.

Thousands of students have had the opportunity to glide around their communities on frozen rivers and sea ice thanks to the enterprise and its dedicated volunteers.

After the completion of its second year, NANANordic got several requests from communities outside the Northwest Arctic region. And thus, Skiku was born, said program director Lars Flora earlier this month from Kaktovik.

Skiku is the new umbrella nonprofit organization under which NANANordic falls. The program has incorporated and will continue to incorporate villages on the North Slope and in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Siku means "ice" in the Inupiaq language, Flora explained. And Ciku means ice in the Yupik language. The new program melds the Yupik and Inupiat cultures for the common goal of teaching and honing cross-country skiing and biathlon skills, team building and cooperation.

"Basically, after last year, we got a fair amount of requests from other parts of the state to help build ski programs," Flora said.

And so Flora and NANANordic program manager Robin Kornfield, along with other dedicated ski enthusiasts, set out to expand the program.

"It took us a while to get a name because we couldn't use NANANordic as a universal name in all parts of Alaska," Flora said.

Skiku reached out to 27 communities and more than 3,000 young people this spring, with more in the works for next season. Coaches and athletes of all calibers spread out around the state to share their skills on skis in Nome, on St. Lawrence Island, across the North Slope -- Barrow, Kaktovik, Anaktuvuk Pass, Nuiqsut and Atqasuk -- and, of course, in the NANA region.

"This is the third year (for NANANordic) and the kids are progressing pretty fast with limited instruction and limited time on skis," said Flora. "It's been an overall positive experience for the kids."

With 80-plus volunteers and half a dozen or so contracted coaches, expansion was no small feat. Skiku uses the same model as NANANordic and will alternate villages each year with some overlap.

"It's been a tough job, but it has pushed me in ways that my athletic career pushed me. It's a good thing," Flora said.

The goals at the beginning of the year were simply to make the expanded program happen, Flora added. A lofty goal indeed, but Flora and Kornfield wanted the chance to share the sport with a larger chunk of the state.

"We are big believers in the sport," Flora said.

The level of interest varies from community to community and kid to kid, but coaches and volunteers never force the fledgling skiers. Flora said it always surprises him a little when kids decide they want to ski for hours at a time.

"We don't push or even recommend that, but sometimes the kids want to ski for two or three hours; it's really exciting to see groups of kids so eager.

"That excitement that the kids bring -- it's a reflection of our progress."

Flora noted that there have been ski programs in the villages in the past, so NANANordic and Skiku can't take all the credit.

One big difference this season that they can take credit for, however, is introducing biathlon to the villages and communities. Biathlon combines skiing and shooting and hones not only the endurance and athleticism of cross-country skiing, but the focus and patience of target shooting.

The program uses infrared laser systems instead of guns with actual bullets.

"That's been a huge hit because of their hunting background," Flora said. "It really brings out a lot of good shooters and connecting to the ski program is really fun."

For more information and photos go to Skiku's Facebook page.

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


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