KWETHLUK — Pretty and Handsome glide round and round, up and over, for hours on end, two little kids in a sea of them drawn to a concrete skatepark in a small Bush village.
Trinity Savage, the one nicknamed Pretty, and Phillip Francisco, or Handsome, are 7-year-olds riding barefoot with no apparent fear on half-pipes in the Kwethluk skatepark on a lazy summer afternoon.
Constructed a year ago on the old airstrip, the $200,000 skatepark stands out as a rural Alaska novelty and also as something more.
Those behind the project call it a fun place for children and teens to become healthy, fit and confident. It also injects a hip skateboarding scene into a rich, traditional Yup'ik Eskimo culture where the modern sport of choice long has been basketball and families still get salmon, moose and berries for their winter's food.
"It takes you out of mainstream ways of thinking and lets you look at the world differently," said Brian Berube, the driving force for the park.
The nearby Western Alaska hub of Bethel has a noisy metal skateboard park. Kwethluk's is quiet and state-of-the-art. It may be unique for a village in rural Alaska.
Whether it will bring a lasting impact, no one knows. It's good for now, most people say.
"I can jump the middle!" says Devin Jackson, 8, one of the regulars, who was eyeing the tricky spine in the park's center. He learned to skateboard in Bethel and says he loves basketball and skateboarding, but mainly skateboarding.
While a few dozen kids skateboarded, Kwethluk's rough outdoor basketball court was nearly deserted. Nails stick up from boards there. The skatepark so far is holding up well.
"I'm the fifth best in Kwethluk," Devin says, giving credit to the local stars. He decides to try the Caveman, a trick of jumping onto a board while it's in the air. "Oh! Too late!"
The Kwethluk park came about through the vision of Berube, a 28-year-old skateboarder who worked as an environmental health worker for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel.
Most of the kids had seen YouTube videos of skateboarders but had never tried it themselves. Early on, Berube and other skaters including kids from Bethel came by boat to give lessons.
"First day of Kwethluk Skatepark …. Turns out they RIP!!!!" someone posted on the community skatepark Facebook page last year.
Along with the park, YKHC secured skateboards — 100 that it bought and then more donated by Board Rescue, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, California, Berube said. Helmets and pads were donated too.
Kids who volunteered to do chores for elders got boards first. Now about every kid in Kwethluk has at least one.
'Instead of bad things'
There are about 250 school-age children in Kwethluk; the total population was officially listed at just over 720 in 2010, though leaders say it's much bigger. A new school is under construction. The whole village is getting piped water and sewer.
For the skatepark, Berube found a pot of money in YKHC's diabetes prevention program, a willing community in Kwethluk and a capable builder, Greg Mize, owner of Colorado-based Native Skateparks LLC and a member of the Osage and Quapaw tribes in the Midwest, who has built much bigger parks around the country.
Berube had seen the draw of Pinky's Park in Bethel and the lack of recreation for kids around Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages.
"These kids have nothing to do, especially in the summer months, when they are sitting in front of the TV all day watching things they will never have a chance to be part of," Berube said. Skateboarding "is a way to include them in the wider culture outside our area."
"It's a physical and creative activity you do instead of doing bad things," Berube said, remembering how he pitched the project to the Kwethluk City Council.
Multiple meetings to work out details took place before last summer's construction. The city donated the site and may develop more of it later.
The park has no official name, though "Sleepy Park" is written on a poured concrete bench. Mize, the park's builder, gave it the informal name after his old dog, Sleepy, died while he was in Kwethluk. He had asked the village kids if it was OK to put her name somewhere. They approved and he etched it into the bench.
Mize says skateboarding is a good fit for Native American youth.
"They are more creative, more independent, more artistic. Skating gives you that opportunity to be an individual and not in a defined regime," said Mize.
Mize, a surfer and skateboarder in his youth, said he had been doing high-end retail construction in Colorado ski country when he decided to switch to something that would make more of a difference. Six years ago, he began building skateparks on reservations and in areas with high concentrations of Native people.
He hadn't built one in the far north before. Construction crew members, some heavily tattooed, stood out in Kwethluk. The village embraced the men — and the other way around. Villagers brought them smoked salmon and whitefish.
The crew poured some 200,000 pounds of concrete. The finish is like velvet — not too slick but also not too rough.
"My term for it is 'hair of the dog,'" Mize said. "Just a little fuzz."
In a village of dusty roads, the park is the only place to skate. The soothing rhythm of swooshing wheels and the thrill of jumps and speed bring kids in. The first day the park opened last summer, kids were bumping into each other. Soon, they were teaching one another tricks. They can recite moves from Tony Hawk skateboard videos. A favorite game now is tag on skateboards and bikes.
"It's basically filled with kids on a daily basis," said Boris Epchook, Kwethluk's new city administrator and the former mayor. Kids are working their minds and their bodies, he said. And no one is getting seriously injured.
Caleb Epchook, a 10 year-old, said when he first started, he got scared and jumped off the board. His aunt helped him learn.
"I tried again and I made it over. And I got happy," Caleb said.
One of the few wearing safety gear on a recent afternoon was Evan Waska, 13, who was working on more challenging moves. He said he crashed before, and it hurt. He practiced a flat-ground move called Pop Shove-It, in which he tries to pop up the board, spin it 180 degrees, then land back on it.
To Max Olick, Kwethluk's longtime village public safety officer, the skateboarding village kids look like pros.
"Olympians," he said.
He stops by most days to keep an eye on things and sometimes brings trash bags for kids to clean up their soda cans and candy wrappers.
The skatepark keeps children in a visible central spot "out of mischief," Olick said. Problems in the village seem to have lessened since the park was put in place, he said.
A boy fell hard on his hip. In an instant, everyone stopped rolling. The officer checked the boy's leg and asked in Yup'ik if he was OK.
"Assirtuten qaa?" Olick said.
The boy brushed himself off and soon was skating again.
Click here for more photos of the Kwethluk skatepark
Correction: An earlier version of the story mistakenly said the Board Rescue skateboards were refurbished. They were new. In addition, the nonprofit is based in Palo Alto, California, not Oakland.