This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
I didn't set out to become a Junior Nordic skier at age 28. But life has a funny way of making me stay a kid at heart.
In January, I planned to write a column about the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage's Junior Nordic League. The program started in 1984 with just a few participants and now hosts over 500 skiers a year, according to Junior Nordic director Shannon Donley. Anchorage's nordic ski community has deep roots and a broad reach, and two Alaskans at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — gold medalist Kikkan Randall and Tyler Kornfield — got their start in Junior Nordic, Donley said.
My goal was to chat with a few young cross-country skiers about lessons they've learned the hard way. I had no proper experience nordic skiing, just a short, messy jaunt on metal-edged touring skis. So I clipped into a pair of classic skis and figured I could learn something from the Junior Nordic crew.
My first night at Kincaid Park was the Cookie Tour, which is how kids are sorted into different skier groups. Kids left the stadium in a mass start and skied a big loop back. As they crossed the finish line, coaches would hand them a cookie and tell them which group they'd be in for the rest of the session.
The Polar Cubs are the youngest, least experienced skiers. Moving up from there are the Otters, Wolverines and Hawks. (The Hawks are the fastest, distinguished by special red jackets that I swear make them go even faster.)
There's something magical about watching young skiers zip along, or flop down, in bee-like swarms at Kincaid. All at once I was charmed, inspired and entertained.
However, I wasn't really able to talk to the kids while they were skiing during the Cookie Tour. Plus it was hard to maintain my credibility when on skis, I had the appearance of a newborn foal learning how to walk: shaky legs and an occasional collapse. So I asked Geoff Wright, the site coordinator for the session at Kincaid, if I could come back the next week.
I also mentioned how my nordic skiing ability left much to be desired. He said reassuringly, "Don't worry about it. We'll teach you how to ski."
I returned to Kincaid again and again over the next month and a half, as much for work as for the pure joy of learning how to ski alongside a rambunctious group of Polar Cubs.
"If you keep coming back, we're going to adopt you," coach Geoff said. "The tallest Polar Cub."
I didn't plan on becoming a Polar Cub. But sometimes, that's how the Cookie Tour crumbles.
Our early ski sessions, punctuated by frigid nights in the stadium, could be rough.
"What percentage frozen are you?" coach John Hemmeter would ask us kids.
"It's negative 90 degrees!"
"I don't want to ski anymore!"
"Cubs aren't strong, they're little and tiny."
But getting to share in the Polar Cubs' progress as the weeks flew by was a special experience.
On a rolling section of "double downhill" trail, Polar Cub Lidia Driscoll had a couple of false starts, fanning out her skis with her toes pointed out instead of in.
Each time she fell, coach John reminded her what she needed to do. On her third try, she inverted her skis and slowly cruised down the trail without falling. As she accelerated and shrank in the distance, I could see her arms — with ski poles in hand — extend in a V for victory.
Julie Gauthier, a parent volunteer, smiled wide after Lidia cleared the trail without falling. She and I agreed: This was the best.
Her son, Hunter, was a Junior Nordic skier in a different group. She described how he'd light up during ski sessions: "We'd see him on the trail and he was like a different kid."
Once we grew more comfortable on our classic skis — bending our knees on the downhill, widening our stance for the herringbone-shaped "duck walk" uphill — the tone of our sessions ratcheted up in anxious excitement. Suddenly, we were ski mavens.
"Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Lettuce." "Lettuce who?" "Let us GOOOOOOOOOOOOO."
"Can we please go down the big hill?" the kids would ask. "Please, I beg you," Delaney McDonough would implore coach John.
"Finally, some reasonable tracks."
One night, I asked coach Geoff why he enjoyed coaching Junior Nordic skiers.
"Adults are afraid of falling, they're afraid of looking foolish," he said. Kids, "they'll just go for it."
My last night with the Polar Cubs fell on my 29th birthday. We celebrated by skiing with glow sticks under a waxing moon, gleefully howling at other Junior Nordic groups as they passed by.
Maybe next winter, I can pass as an Otter. But there's something to be said for being a Polar Cub.
Fellow Cub Delaney put it best: "We're polar bears. We can eat the Hawks."
Vicky Ho is the deputy editor/online at the Anchorage Daily News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.