The students from Galena finished a 20K ski race on the flat expanse of the Chena River in Fairbanks, but they asked about more varied terrain.
"We don't have any hills, so they really wanted to ski at Birch Hill," said coach Jon Korta, who is also the mayor of Galena.
That eight of the 15 visiting elementary, middle and high school students took on the hilly trails Saturday after the race — an event in which they skied farther than they had ever gone in their lives — testified to their enthusiasm. One of them, sophomore Jacob Moos, finished third overall in the 20K race.
There was enough slush and water on the river to soak their feet, so they changed their socks and put plastic bags in their water-logged ski boots before heading for the hills. I saw them later that evening at a post-race potluck and they all talked about how much fun they had that day.
"I was probably the most proud of them for how they handled themselves," said Korta. "They had never skied that far or been in a race with hundreds of people."
The Sonot Kkaazoot, a race name that roughly translates to "springtime slide your feet across the snow" in Athabascan, is a 29-year tradition, a race that begins in downtown Fairbanks and includes 20-, 40- and 50-kilometer courses. The latter two include a generous selection of hilly terrain, but the Galena students and most young people took on the 20-kilometer version.
Nearly 300 skiers finished the race, which organizer Susan Sugai said has always been more about participation than anything else. While there were children under 10 who finished the 20K, the oldest skier in the 50K version was scientist Alan Delamere, 80, who was still smiling when he crossed the finish line after five hours. I know this because I crossed the finish line just behind him.
Korta, 50, said he believes cross-country skiing is a logical part of a healthy lifestyle in a region with many months of cold and snow. His family runs the Borealis Bed and Breakfast and Tanya, his wife, works as a counselor. Two of their three children, Kaleb and Kiana, are still in school in Galena.
Korta got involved in local politics about six years ago, first as a city council member and then as mayor. He sounds most like a mayor when he reflects on what he likes about the town. He said Galena has mostly recovered from the 2013 flood, with many houses higher than they used to be, able to withstand future floods.
"One thing about a disaster is that it can bring people together," he said. "I think that's what happened here. We've come a long way in a short time."
"I think we have the best of both worlds here, access to the outdoors and wilderness, and at the same time, a close-knit and supportive community. We also have a real good education system for our kids," he said.
The Galena City School and the regional boarding school operate essentially as one high school, he said. There are about 200 students in the high school, with about 40 of them from Galena and the rest from other villages. The village has a population of about 700 during the school year, dropping to about 500 during the summer.
The strength of the school system stems from having enough students to be able to offer many options, from carpentry to welding and culinary arts. As far as the after-school ski program goes, he says his goal is to continue a system established years ago by skiers Todd and Kelli Boonstra.
"We were fortunate to have some real talented coaches," he said. "I didn't want to see the program die when they moved away. I wanted to continue what they created."
Sandy Scotton, who has a daughter on the team, helps with the coaching duties, and dozens of local volunteers help when they are called upon.
"Any opportunity that I can get to have kids outdoors enjoying themselves in the fresh air and sunshine, pushing their limits, to me that's a good thing," he said.
The highlight of the season is this week, when about 55 students from small schools throughout Western Alaska are planning to gather in Galena for the annual Western Interior Ski Association championship, the biggest annual competition for skiing and biathlon in Western Alaska. Students are expected from Nome, Gambell, Savoonga, White Mountain, Unalakleet, Koyuk, Teller, Tanana, Manley and Nenana.
John Miles, who worked in the Bering Strait region for decades, introduced generations of young people to the sport in many western villages. "Over time, Miles became a local legend — the Johnny Appleseed of rural Alaskan skiing," Keith Conger wrote in a history of the WISA.
"Renowned for his uncanny ability to remember every kid's name in every village -- and the name of their parents -- he wrote a thorough manual in 1981 that served as a school district guide for how to run a ski program," Megan Spurkland wrote about Miles in the Alaska Dispatch News last year.
Korta said Miles is one of many coaches in small villages who did great work over the years. He said the coaches all know basketball is king in rural Alaska. A lot of kids learn skiing in elementary school and switch to basketball in high school.
"Who doesn't want to play in front of a packed gym with the entire community cheering them on?" he said. That doesn't happen in cross-country skiing.
"Basketball is huge in rural Alaska and I certainly have an appreciation for it, but when you are out of high school, the opportunities for basketball start to dwindle pretty quickly," Korta said. "For me, skiing is a healthy alternative; it's something they can do their whole life."
Korta also coaches the cross-country running team and the track team, which has two members. Half of the team is his son, senior Kaleb Korta, one of the fastest runners in the state and a star basketball player. The other half is Moos, who is also a top athlete and finished third in the 20K ski race with a time of just more than 51 minutes.
The track team came into existence because Kaleb, who plans to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage in the fall, loves to run. "To give him some exposure and to help his running skills, I started to do a one-man track team. Now we've actually got two kids," Jon said.
Since there is no track in Galena, they train on the tarmac at the airport when the snow clears. A few years ago, a Galena policeman stopped Kaleb during a practice run at the airport, pulling him over with a siren and lights while Kaleb was running intervals.
The officer did not see Jon standing nearby with a stopwatch. After the coach talked to the officer, the Galena one-man track team got right back to work.
Dermot Cole is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist based in Fairbanks. The views expressed here are his and not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.