Alaska freestyle snowmachine legend heads to Ukraine on humanitarian mission

“I didn’t really realize how much of my life experiences in the freestyle world would relate to the experience here,” Dane Ferguson said from Ukraine.

Presented by CRUDE CONVERSATIONS

Dane Ferguson has built a career around performing daring, high-speed snowmachine tricks. Now Ferguson, one of Alaska’s top freestyle snowmachiners, is in Ukraine helping civilians flee dangerous areas and access much needed supplies during the Russia-Ukraine war.

“Some of them have nothing,” Ferguson said from Ukraine. “And there’s a war happening around them. Some of these people have been living in bomb shelters for two months.”

Ferguson, 41, traveled to Ukraine this spring for a scouting mission and returned in April. He first shared plans for his trip in an episode of the podcast Crude Conversations, titled “Doing Dangerous Things as Safely as Possible,” produced by longtime Alaska journalist and writer Cody Liska.

Ferguson has assembled a team, mostly of Ukrainians, who are helping evacuate those in danger or needing medical care. They’re also helping move supplies — some of which are stranded in warehouses — to communities that need them.

“I sleep in my van. I stay on the road,” Ferguson said. “We’re always moving.”

As a humanitarian worker, he and his team are unarmed. They wear bright yellow safety vests and chest protection. Professionalism is paramount when working abroad, he said, as he is representing both Americans and humanitarian organizations.

And he’s discovered his career path has prepared him well for the obstacles and challenges of humanitarian aid work.

“I didn’t really realize how much of my life experiences in the freestyle world would relate to the experience here,” he said.

Crude Conversations - 6/27/22

‘You don’t just go do dangerous stuff’

Ferguson grew up in Anchorage and lives in Chugiak with his wife and two children. He began freestyle snowmachining around 2003. Videos of Ferguson flipping, jumping, and crashing his snowmachine repeatedly have racked up hundreds of thousands of views online.

The sport has taken him across the U.S. and to international locations including Sweden, Germany, and Afghanistan, where he visited U.S. troops. In 2009, he won a gold medal in the Snowmobile Next Trick competition at the Winter X Games in Aspen, CO.

Ferguson’s years touring have taught him many valuable skills. He knows how to organize and encourage people, and how to work in a team dynamic, he said. His chosen profession comes with inherent risks, but he doesn’t face those dangers blindly.

“You don’t just go do dangerous stuff,” Ferguson said. “You plan, you practice, you repeat.”

“Have your plan, have your backup plan — have your backup plan to your backup plan,” he said. Then, “have faith in your own quick judgment and common sense.”

Alaska State Snow-X Lions Club has started a Ukrainian Relief Fund where people can donate to Ferguson’s efforts. He’s also working with international Lions Clubs in Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Ukraine, among other organizations.

‘He called me up with a desperate tone’

On Crude Conversations podcast, Ferguson shared how he got involved in Ukrainian aid efforts and how his own family fled the Taliban after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August 2021.

Ferguson’s uncle, an Afghan national, had returned to his home country during the U.S. occupation, but after the withdrawal took place the situation became dire, Ferguson told Crude Conversations.

“He called me up with a desperate tone,” Ferguson told the podcast. The Taliban had strong-armed his uncle and forced him to sign paperwork permitting Taliban members to marry his daughters.

Ferguson jumped into action. In a matter of days, he and an extensive network of supporters helped to extract his eight family members from Afghanistan.

“Now they’re safely living here in America,” Ferguson told the podcast.

Before heading to Ukraine, Ferguson had been saving up to start an educational organization that would help advance freestyle snowmachining. But that changed when a person involved in the Afghanistan efforts called and asked for his help evacuating vulnerable, displaced people in Ukraine.

“If somebody helps you in saving eight lives, and then they encourage you to come do something here, you’re not going to say no,” Ferguson said.

‘It’s not sound bites’

Crude Conversations host Cody Liska hopes that by sharing Ferguson’s story he will inspire others to reflect on their community and the extraordinary people who call Alaska home.

“It puts a mirror in front of people,” Liska said of the podcast, sparking them to consider their own identity as Alaskans.

Crude Conversations started as Crude Magazine in 2013, but after five years of magazine publishing, Liska realized a podcast was the perfect evolution for a brand that celebrates the uniqueness of each featured Alaska voice. His subjects include Alaska photographers, small business owners, and community activists, among others.

“It allows people to tell their whole story,” Liska said. “It’s not sound bites.”

Crude Conversations - 6/27/22

For now Ferguson continues to live on the road, retrieving hoarded supplies from warehouses and distributing them to those most in need. Volunteers help repackage bulk goods into smaller parcels to be dispersed to civilians.

“We try to send out packages that will feed a family for a week,” Ferguson said.

His team also continues evacuating displaced people, taking them to hospitals or safe areas. Sometimes plans change — the front line of the war is constantly shifting, and Ferguson always has a backup plan to ensure his team stays out of danger.

The joy on people’s faces during deliveries helps motivate Ferguson to keep going. But when their supplies aren’t enough to cover all the hungry people in an area, seeing those families’ disappointment is painful.

“That will also motivate you to work harder,” he said.

Ferguson has no immediate plans to leave Ukraine; he’ll stay until funding runs out.

Listen to the entire interview with Dane Ferguson on Crude Conversations podcast.

This story was sponsored by Crude Conversations, a podcast about Alaskans.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Crude Conversations. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.