Mud, wind, cold and even polar bears: These are conditions Kaktovik youth now encounter each volleyball season. The Harold Kaveolook School doesn’t have a gym or court, so the high school volleyball team trains outside.
“At the start of October last year, it was really cold,” 17-year-old Marcus Gallagher said. “It was like 25 (degrees) and dark and icy. It’s very difficult to play, because when it’s freezing, it gets slippery.”
“When it gets cold, when we try to hit the ball, it hurts our arms,” said Collin Solomon, 13.
Since September, six boys and five girls of the Harold Kaveolook Rams have been practicing five days a week, said Carey Halnier, who has been coaching the team for the last three years.
“It’s sort of a safety hazard to have them playing outside, you know, on the rocks and with the snow and the ice,” Halnier said. “We have to keep our team real small.”
Last year, despite limited practice, the team was able to get to Nuiqsut for a tournament.
“We won every game in that tournament, but it was only just against Nuiqsut because COVID was so raging,” Halnier said. “Then we got back, and we got quarantined. And the parents did not want to send the kids out to regionals, which was in Point Hope, because they had cases there.”
After missing the rest of the games in 2021, the Harold Kaveolook Rams are now preparing for the first tournament of the season, scheduled in Wainwright from Oct. 13-15, and hoping to make it to state this year.
“It was so messed up because of COVID last year,” Halnier said. This year, “it’ll be much better because they’ll get to go to a couple tournaments and play multiple teams.”
The village lost its gym in 2020 when a February fire devoured the 50-year-old Harold Kaveolook School, said Flora Rexford, the city of Kaktovik mayor and Iñupiaq teacher. The old school functioned as a community hub and was connected to a recently opened $16 million addition that included a basketball gymnasium, a swimming pool and weight rooms, Rexford said. All of that was lost in the fire.
“I’ve been teaching in their school for a long time and for it to burn down…” she said, her voice cracking, “I become emotional talking about it.”
The new interim school opened in September 2020, but two years after the fire, students still don’t have a gym. This means no place to get physical education credits, no place for a graduation ceremony — and no proper place to practice sports.
As a result, the sports the school offers are limited to volleyball, basketball and cross-country running.
“We have equipment for archery, but we don’t have anywhere to do it,” Halnier said. “They gave us a whole team’s worth of hockey gear and skates — and you know, that’s expensive — we don’t have anywhere for that.”
That’s why the Kaktovik volleyball team is practicing outside on the dirt and gravel just behind the interim school.
Creative ways to practice
In the middle of September, the kids were playing outside, fighting wind gusts in the wake of the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hitting Western Alaska.
“It was 30 mph winds, and it was like 34 degrees, so it was cold, and the ball kept getting knocked off the side of the road and into the mud or in the water,” Rexford said after the Sept. 14 game. “Even practicing on the non-leveled ground with rocks and stones — you know, they can only do what they can do.”
Wet conditions also pose a challenge to the game, especially when the ball “goes to puddles, ponds and under the school,” said Betty Ruth Brower, 17. Getting the ball out of water is the worst, she added: “It smells gross.”
Wearing rubber boots, students retrieve the ball and “wipe it down because when it gets into water, it gets dirty,” said Mya Aishanna, 14. The practice goes on, with the ball falling into the mud every few minutes, said Paul Kayutok, 18.
Behind the interim school, there are no streetlights, so the players “have to call practice when it gets dark,” Halnier said.
The head of the Kaktovik polar bear patrol and the school’s basketball coach, Nathan Gordon, said that the place of volleyball practice is also frequented by polar bears.
“Where the school is built, that’s the polar bear country,” he said. “They always contact us when school events happen outside of the school. They make sure for the polar bear patrol to be around.”
Halnier said that “if the weather is inclement, if it’s raining or snowing, if it gets dark, you know, or if there’s a bear in the vicinity, we can’t go out. We just have to go indoors.”
Last September and October, the team tried practicing inside the interim school: In the main hallway, in the coat check area and in the exercise room. But the idea soon proved to be a disaster.
The coat hooks, the fan, the lights, the exit sign in the workout room and even the fire extinguisher container — that’s all on the list of items the team broke during indoor practice.
“We can’t play inside with volleyball because there are ceilings,” Aishanna said. “Sometimes we hit the fan or light.”
The team was prohibited from playing volleyball or doing drills inside, so when they can’t be outdoors, they work on their conditioning, doing wall taps and using a stationary bike, a treadmill, weight machines and free weights. As much as this is not ideal for training, it’s also imperfect for exercising.
“When we do exercise inside, we hit each other,” said Ada Agiak, 14. “It’s a very small hallway.”
Asking for a gym
Since the old school was destroyed, school officials and architects have been working on the new school design. According to the building report, this summer, the burn site was cleared in preparation for the construction. The two-year project should start in summer 2023, and the first phase will include a gym, kitchen and shop area.
In the meantime, frustrated without a gym or a court, juniors and seniors in a service learning class reached out to Kaktovik Public Works, asking them for a makeshift volleyball court. They called the Public Works office and suggested putting down some gravel outside of the temporary school, Halnier said. Then they measured the area they had in mind, filled out a requisition form and walked over to the office to submit it. Now the students are waiting for a response from Public Works.
Besides, the city of Kaktovik had promised to put up a temporary structure with a cement pad and a tent system until the real gym is built.
“It was supposed to have gone up last summer,” Halnier said. “It didn’t go up, nothing got done.”
When the North Slope Borough Assembly traveled to Kaktovik to hold an assembly meeting, students came to the meeting holding signs urging officials for action and asking, “When are we going to have a gym?”
“We had to be really quiet, while we were holding the signs,” said Solomon, whose sign said, ‘We need a gym.’ “People were taking a lot of pictures.”
Some of the students also wrote letters to the mayor, highlighting the issues the lack of a gym is causing.
“May we please have a gym?” said a letter from Simon Brower, 12. “The gym we had burned over two years ago, and we can’t play out because of polar bears, rain and rocks. ... We don’t like staying inside. It’s boring! We can only watch TV.”
“Anything for us kids to play in would make us really happy even if it’s temporary,” said Jaylee Kaleak, 15. “For the past couple of years, we’ve been practicing outside in the cold with bears around the village. Our roads aren’t leveled enough for us to practice outside. It’s very easy to get sick from outside breathing in the cold air while being active. So I ask myself, how long is it gonna take?”
Solomon said in his letter that students also don’t have a place for school events.
“I wrote the letter because I wanted us to have a gym before everyone graduates,” he said.
After the end of that meeting, Halnier said, the assembly doubled the size of the pad and made sure that work was started.
“It was that assembly meeting, and that next morning, the gravel guys were there, laying gravel and flattening out the ground,” she said. The whaling season might cause some delays, but the hope is that the project will get done soon. “That is in process and you know, hopefully going to get up they said before Thanksgiving.”
A court will be a win for more than just the team, Halnier said.
“The community loves volleyball,” she said. “When we have our practices, oftentimes, community members will come join us and play. Yeah, they love volleyball.”