KAKTOVIK -- Last April, Rosie Brennan was skiing on wind-blown crust near this small village at the northeast edge of Alaska at the top of North America. She squinted into the flat and endless light that makes it impossible to see a polar bear until you're right on top of one.
The tiny island that she skied on, Barter Island, was indistinguishable from the frozen Beaufort Sea surrounding it. Knowing that the kids she had coached all day were safely back in their homes, she took a deep breath and started skiing toward the horizon to investigate the local whale bone pile.
Brennan, 26, was a vulnerable spandex speck in a world of ice that has trapped whalers and whales, and inspired thousands of typed pages. She flew across the landscape with a little bit of fear and a smile full of joy, unaware that she was about to pen her own Arctic chapter.
Top American cross-country ski racers only take three weeks a year off of serious training. Brennan's volunteer trip to Kaktovik to coach with Skiku, an organization that works with Alaska school districts to bring cross-country ski equipment to rural communities and create sustainable ski programs, was how she chose to spend one of those weeks.
Skiku, known as NANANordic when it operates in the Northwest Alaska region of the NANA regional Native corporation, is dedicated to promoting cross-country skiing in rural Alaska. By May of 2014, Brennan was back to her strict training plan, and eight months later, she climbed to the top of not one, nor two, but three national championship podiums in Houghton, Michigan. Journalists dubbed her championship triple a "trifecta," a feat that has not been accomplished since Kikkan Randall's four victories at the 2010 National Championships.
Brennan is not only a high-caliber athlete, training 15-30 hours a week with the Alaska Pacific University team, but she also is simultaneously enrolled in the APU Master of Arts program, with a focus on education. In an endurance sport that requires an incredibly high training load, it is the rare athlete who can successfully navigate the stipulations of their professors and those of their coaches, much less win national championships while chasing an advanced degree. Brennan has done both, and her time in Kaktovik with Skiku opened a door for her to combine her love of skiing with her love of teaching. Drawing from her experience in the North Slope Borough, she has made the development of a ski school curriculum the focus of her culminating project at APU.
Brennan did not start skiing until eighth grade, at the insistence of her mother. Born a downhill skier in Park City, Utah, she found herself with too much downtime in the winter and her mom convinced her to fill it with this new sport that required some uphill skiing, too. Much to her surprise, she was happy doing it, and competitive to boot.
By her senior year of high school, she was competing at World Juniors and studied hard in order to graduate a semester early so that she could focus on her racing. As well as being an exceptional ski racer, she was a first-rate student who was accepted to Dartmouth College the same time she was nominated for the U.S. Ski Team. She chose both, a daring move in a world where most athletes dedicate their efforts toward the national team or the NCAA circuit, but very few attempt the combination. Mentored by Dartmouth coach Cami Thompson-Graves, Brennan skied for the U.S. Ski Team the first two seasons of her college career and graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in geography.
After battling injuries her senior year, Brennan nearly quit racing, looking to focus her efforts on her graduate program. Sadie Bjornsen, who had become close friends with Brennan during their junior racing years, convinced Brennan that APU would be a good place to train and race.
"To ensure a place on the team and provide a little more stability" in her life, Brennan applied to study at APU and soon "was on a plane to Alaska." She started in 2011 with the CO-OP program, designed for people who already have an undergraduate degree and want to pursue a teaching certificate. She has continued past that program to the Master of Arts program in which she continues to study education. In order to be an elite ski racer and a graduate student, Brennan takes about six credits a year in Anchorage. The education program requires lots of classroom time, which is difficult for a traveling athlete, so she takes most of her credits in the fall. During the busy winter months, she will often present over the Internet or attend class via Skype.
Skiing among the polar bears
Brennan's culminating project for her Master of Arts program is the brainchild of her week in Kaktovik. As a ski racer, she has flown into many different northern locales around the world, but it is hard to prepare for the vast expanse surrounding a tiny village of 230 people in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Passengers aboard the 45-minute flight from Deadhorse included a polar bear researcher and three Skiku coaches: former Olympian Lars Flora, the director of the Skiku program; Brennan; and UAF student Jonas Loefler.
Barter Island is world famous as a polar bear viewing site. If you have seen pictures of large groups of polar bears with red-tinged fur feasting on whale carcasses, chances are good it was taken near Kaktovik. The village is so famous for these white bears, in fact, that there is even a man camp-style hotel in the village to house all the tourists, photographers and researchers who come, primarily in the months of August and September. Garbage trucks making regular rounds to empty sturdy garbage cans are a regular sight in Kaktovik; strewn-about litter would quickly attract polar bears, and consequently the 10-block village is neat and tidy.
What Kaktovik is not (yet) famous for, however, is skiing. Unlike many villages around the state where a cross-country ski program once existed, or where the older generations trained on skis as part of Muktuk Marston's Alaska Territorial Guard, Kaktovik has no known history of skiing. Barter Island, just 4 miles long and 2 miles wide, was traditionally a trading site for the Canadian Inuit and the Alaskan Inupiat, which is how this place of bartering got its name. Not many families lived near the present-day village of Kaktovik until the early 1950s when an airstrip was put in, and the village was officially incorporated in 1971. Aside from subsistence activities, winter recreation for the 80 kids in the school usually takes place in the gym, the weight room or the small pool.
The arrival of three world-class skiers, bags of ski equipment and laser biathlon rifles set the village abuzz last April. They flew into Kaktovik on Easter, just in time to join the community for a special meal and meet many village leaders. Kids and coaches soon overcame their mutual shyness and went out skiing together on the first afternoon.
"I couldn't get them inside to save my life," Rose wrote in her blog. "I think these kids would have literally skied all night if I had not gotten so cold and eventually put my foot down."
The coaches worked with the kids all day during PE classes and then in after-school sessions. At night they collapsed into their sleeping bags in the school library for a few hours of sleep, despite the almost constant daylight outside the windows.
Ideas started brewing in Brennan's head. As a student specializing in education, she began to envision some sort of guide or manual that a teacher or community member could use to run a ski program during the many months of winter when the Skiku coaches couldn't be there.
Many times, the responsibility for coaching an unfamiliar sport falls onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting teacher out in a village and they look for any help they can get. A plea for help may appear on Facebook: "It seems that I am now the volleyball coach. What should I be doing at practice besides making them run laps?" The comment section begins to fill up from thousands of miles away, and every suggestion is gold to that teacher hunched over a computer on a remote and frozen island.
Brennan knew that her skiing expertise could provide the backbone for a detailed manual that could guide any adult, skier or not, leading a remote ski program. With this manual, the equipment that Skiku strives to leave in the village would be consistently used throughout the winter.
"I am working to create what I would call a curriculum for a village ski program," she said. "It will include detailed lesson plans for a full progression through ski technique in addition to things like equipment, safety, training, racing and additional activities. My hope is that by approaching this from an educational standpoint, skiing is more likely to be integrated into P.E. classes or after-school programs and that the quality of the time spent on skis will be much higher.
"The goal is to provide enough information that whoever leads the lesson will not need to know much of anything about cross-country skiing themselves."
She plans on having it completed by March so Lars Flora can use it when he starts traveling to villages.
Brennan has a predecessor who also wrote a manual for Arctic ski instruction. John Miles, a teacher in the Bering Strait School District from 1976-2000, became an almost legendary figure in the villages for his enthusiastic promotion of the sport of biathlon and cross-country ski racing. 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. That manual recently made its way into Brennan's hands, and she looks to it as a valuable guide. Although some of the material is dated, such as "knickers being the clothing of choice," much remains relevant, although perhaps too race-oriented for villages like Kaktovik that are just exploring the idea of skiing and are not yet ready to develop a racing program. Brennan's new manual will help Skiku establish solid ski programs in communities that are new to skiing and offer links to further resources when and if they are ready to develop a competitive team.
Skiing at world championships
Brennan's rock-star performance at the U.S. National Championships in January earned her a quick trip to Europe to do some racing on the World Cup circuit. Outstanding results there have given her the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the 2015 Nordic World Ski Championships in Sweden beginning Feb. 18. She landed one of only 16 spots on the U.S. team.
To be successful at this level, elite racers have to approach skiing as a job. Training, fueling and recovering all have to be done properly if racing is your living. The 49 weeks a year that the athlete has to be "on" can be draining, and each workout may begin feel like an obligation rather than an opportunity.
When Brennan landed in Kaktovik last spring, kids were suddenly standing on the back of her skis, laughing and "getting a taste of that free glide that every skier longs for." Skiing with the Kaktovik kids reminded her of what skiing really means in her life. "I love skiing because I love that feeling of sliding across the snow on my own power, and I think that is a universal love for all who experience it. The joy these kids got from making their way up the little bump we were skiing on and skiing down was contagious."
That joy has permeated her winter and she says she truly feels happy when she is on the road with her team. "I am racing because it's what I want to do and what makes me happy," she said as she departed for Europe. Brennan may have achieved a trifecta on the podium at U.S. Nationals, but she is also achieving a trifecta in her life: She's a superior athlete, a generous volunteer and a hard-working graduate student with a big vision for Alaskan skiing.
Megan Spurkland spends her summers on her 52-foot commercial fishing boat and her winters on her 186-centimeter skis in Homer. Her writing has appeared in Alaska Magazine, 32 Degrees: The Journal of Professional Snowsports Instruction and Cross Country Skier Magazine: The Journal of Nordic Skiing. She is a member of the Professional Ski Instructors National Nordic Team.