The Arctic Sounder

A women-only snowmachine race draws mothers, daughters and sisters from across Northwest Alaska

At only 16, Esther Skin competed in her first snowmachine race — and won first place in a fan class of Gunner 120.

Skin was the youngest participant in the all-women cross-country Gunner 120 snowmachine race. In total, 20 women hit the trail on April 13, riding from Kotzebue to Noorvik and back. Sixteen of them completed the competition. The event brought together participants from across Northwest Alaska, including Kotzebue, Noorvik, Noatak, Selawik, Kiana, Buckland and Nome.

“There’s all these races made for the guys, and this one race is specifically just a women’s race,” said Jia Ballot from Selawik. “That’s why all of us, ladies, are really into that one.”

The Gunner 120 was named after Mabel Irene Mitchell, known by everyone as “Gunner.” Mitchell was famous for her competitive spirit and ability to outrace men, women and renowned racers alike. Mitchell died in 2011, and six years later, the Kotzebue Women’s Race was renamed after her.

[From 2022: Women-only snowmachine race honors a Northwest Alaska racing legend]

The passion for racing is something many women in Northwest Alaska share.

Skin tried riding a snowmachine for the first time when she was 4. She and her sister, Samantha Skin, learned the sport from their father, who grew up riding and working on snowmachines and made sure that his daughters could travel around the region too, said Skin’s mother, Jessie Lisa Hingsbergen.


“It was like snowmachining is life, not basketball,” Hingsbergen laughed. “It’s how they grew up — riding.”

In 2018, their father died, and the sisters became interested in racing, knowing that their father would approve, Hingsbergen said. At 21, Samantha Skin has been racing for several seasons. Esther Skin became eligible to participate in a fan class this year, and Hingsbergen encouraged her to sign up.

Samantha Skin won the C class of the race, fulfilling her childhood dream, while Esther Skin won in a fan class.

Their mother was in Selwaik, nervously waiting for the race audience to go live on Facebook and hollering when she saw her daughters pull in first.

Samantha Skin faced a few difficulties with her snowmachine, first, running out of gas near Noorvik and then having undercarriage problems that slowed her down.

“I still managed to finish the race,” Samantha Skin said. “I always wanted to race the Gunner 120 since I was a kid and finally got a chance to race it and got a trophy I always wanted.”

For Esther Skin, knowing that her sister was with her on the trail — as well as having her older brother Frank Skin at the fuel stop in Noorvik ― was an encouragement during the moments she was the most nervous. She also kept her father in mind.

“He would be happy,” Esther Skin said.

The women took off from Kotzebue in a whiteout barely seeing the trail, Jia Ballot said. But further from town, the sun came out and the visibility improved.

The trail conditions were smooth and flat, said Shayla Johnson who cruised on her new Polaris snowmachine that absorbed all the bumps.

“It was the usual trail that everyone likes to race up there,” Johnson said. “Turned out to be a really nice day for a race.”

An avid racer, Johnson came up from Nome and took third place in the B class. Johnson participates in — and frequently wins — the women’s class of the Nome-Golovin race, as well as in mixed competitions like the Cannon Ball Snowmachine Race. In 2023, she was the only woman racing in the Archie Ferguson Willie Goodwin Sr. Memorial Snowmachine Race and took seventh place.

Johnson said she enjoys racing Gunner 120 because, unlike a similar race in her hometown, the Kotzebue event offers a fan cool, 600cc and open classes.

“I like racing the Gunner because there’s a lot of girls who race up there, and they actually have the three main classes for racing,” she said.

Like the Skin sisters, Jia Ballot came to the race from Selawik.

A month after giving birth to her second child, Ballot packed her snowmachine and drove from her home village to Kotzebue in a storm. Then she took third in the A class of the race.

For Ballot, preparations for the race started about a year ago, and pregnancy and giving birth did not disrupt those plans. She asked her family to watch her newborn son, and her fiance Michael Brown to help her get her sled ready.


On the day before the race, the snow was blowing in Selawik and Kotzebue. Ballot and Brown waited for the weather to calm down, but the storm kept raging, so they got ready and took off anyway. In just about two hours, Brown and Ballot arrived in Kotzebue, just in time to sign up.

“I had to race against the time going down for sign-up, and I barely made it,” she laughed.

She took off, to cheers from her aunt and fiance, who a week earlier won in the open class of the Archie Ferguson race.

“That’s why we love doing that too, all the recognition and, you know, the fans. It’s fun,” Ballot said. “We just love this sport, I guess — the thrills, the adrenaline.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.