It was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and a lot of the children were wearing jeans. They forgot to bring snow pants again. But they wanted to go skiing anyway, and that’s why we were there, so we took them skiing — even if a few of the less appropriately dressed kids turned back early.
I was in Nulato, a Koyukon Athabascan village of a couple hundred people that sits on the lower Yukon River in Alaska’s western interior, volunteering as a ski coach with a program called Skiku — a playful portmanteau of the Inupiaq word for ice, siku, and the English word ski.
The goal of Skiku is to help create — or, in some cases, continue — a tradition of Nordic skiing in rural Alaska, both as a healthy pastime and as a form of transportation.
In the years before the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of villages participated in the program, most receiving one visit by a group of coaches each spring. (The ski gear stays year-round.)
I’ve been involved with the program since 2015, when I first traveled from my home in Fairbanks to the Inupiat village of Noorvik, on Alaska’s west coast. Before that I’d never been to any Alaskan villages, many of which are predominantly Alaska Native.
It isn’t particularly uncommon for white, city-dwelling Alaskans like me not to have been to the state’s smaller villages. Most of the villages aren’t accessible by road, and without a specific reason to go, most people don’t.
It has been unexpectedly satisfying in the intervening years to watch the sport take hold within the community. Some of the younger children — for whom seven years is literally a lifetime — have never known a world without annual visits from Skiku.
The best skiing in the Nulato was along a snowmobile trail near the school that formed a one-mile loop. We skied this same loop again and again. The other coaches and I took turns at the back of the pack, since we found it impossible to stay warm while skiing with the slowest children.
The trail went out into a wetland before looping back through the forest, and it was good skiing by any measure. Though there is a well-developed road system within Nulato, with minimal traffic, the roads are icy and unforgiving for the kids who inevitably fall down. Snowmobile trails generally make for much better skiing.
The roads also don’t go as far, since all the roads in Nulato are local — that is, there are no roads in or out of town. The only way to reach the village is by the river or by air.
Though I have visited six villages as a volunteer ski coach, the photos shared here are from Nulato in 2020, Arctic Village in 2018, and two trips to Kaktovik in 2018 and 2019.
The trips to Arctic Village and Kaktovik were part of a separate (and unnamed) program founded by one of Skiku’s founders, Lars Flora, a two-time Winter Olympian. Lars’ program is slightly different from Skiku; it incorporates skijoring — getting pulled by mushing dogs while on skis, which is just as much fun as it sounds like — and kite skiing. But the general idea is the same.
Arctic Village sits in the treed foothills of the Brooks Range, just outside of the southern boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration has pushed to open to fossil fuel development. Kaktovik is on an island in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast and within the boundaries of the refuge.
The area around Kaktovik is called the Coastal Plain for a reason: In the winter, when the sea is frozen over, Kaktovik is one of the few features on a blank, white canvas, uninterrupted even by the sea.
North Slope oil rigs are not visible from either village, but the impact of oil money is abundantly clear. Kaktovik sits within the North Slope Borough, which enjoys high property tax revenues earned on the oil infrastructure in Prudhoe Bay, as well as other revenue related to the oil industry. The school district has plenty of funding, and many of the residents are shareholders in the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native company that handles many lucrative oil contracts.
Arctic Village, on the other hand, is not part of the North Slope Borough and does not benefit from oil development to anywhere near the same extent. In contrast to the gleaming school in Kaktovik, it was difficult to find a toilet that worked at the school in Arctic Village.
(Tragically, the Harold Kaveolook School in Kaktovik was destroyed by a fire in February 2020. In rural Alaska, where schools serve as community centers for people of all ages, the loss of the school was monumental.)
The skiing in Arctic Village was second to none. Most of the locals heat their homes exclusively with wood, which they gather via the many snowmobile trails that wind through the village and into the surrounding forest. And since residents often drive older two-stroke machines that lack the power to make it up steep hills without a run at it, the trails are all gentle, with no abrupt turns on the slopes — ideal trails, in other words, for skiing.
Kaktovik is a more difficult place to encourage skiing. The terrain is completely flat, and, with no significant topography, going for a ski on the wind-hammered tundra outside of the village lacks the same appeal. Instead, when we did take the kids outside, we often built jumps on hills formed by the multistory snowdrifts.
When I visited Kaktovik in early May 2019, we were unable to ski outside for the first half of the week because of a relentless wind storm. When the wind finally let up, the other coaches and I went for an 11 p.m. walk in dim sunlight and got charged by a polar bear.
The rest of the week was spent with a much-limited schedule. When we did ski, it was under the watch of two of the village’s bear guards, who were armed with guns. (Kaktovik is a top destination for polar bear viewing in the late summer, but this uneasy truce with the bears is leading to increasing problems with emboldened bears coming into town.)
Misconceptions about rural Alaska abound in the cities. At our worst, city Alaskans often view the villages as bleak and uninviting places. But, during my time as a ski instructor, I’ve found exactly the opposite to be true.
There’s a oft-repeated trope about the tight social fabric found in small towns. But in rural Alaska, it’s something that’s felt in subtle ways — the way the older children help the younger ones without a trace of resentment, or how all the adults in town are essentially guardians for all of the children.
During my time in Skiku, I’ve come to understand my home state to a much greater extent, improving my humiliatingly dismal understanding of its physical and cultural geography. Sometimes I think that’s the real value of the program: to get us white, city Alaskans out to the villages to see what life there is actually like, so we can stop perpetuating apocryphal and reductive narratives. After all, without Skiku, it would be hard for me to find a reason to spend a week in a different village each year.
But ultimately my personal motives don’t matter, and the kids aren’t concerned with whether they teach me about their lives. They just love to ski.