March 2006

written by Kathy Sarns Irwin ~ photos by Kathy and Pat Irwin

10.Skiing downhill backwards in Buckland

By coincidence the folks on the four wheelers were friends of mine that had just arrived from Anchorage. Marcy and some volunteers were here to teach cross country skiing to the kids in the village.

Marcy's second question was "Can you help us? We are short on coaches and we have over 125 kids to teach skiing to in 3 days."

I have been an Anchorage Junior nordic ski coach since 1984 and had also by coincidence coached a now grown up Thor that was part of this group!

OK.. so....what were the chances that we would all meet up in Buckland at the same time? And the wages for helping teach skiing was FREE floor space in one of the class rooms! Which was great since we had no hotel reservations in Buckland, because there are no such things out here.

We had to decide: keep cycling 5 mph for the next 3(or more) days to Koyuk or stay here, have fun, and help out a community? Hmmmm.

This Ruralcap Skigo program was started by Marcy Baker and 2 other amazing women; Jennifer Johnston and (the late) Melony Shea who realized a great need for this in rural Alaska. Marcy the leader of this small group has worked at and/or managed the Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking store in Anchorage forever.

The volunteer ski coaches of this group were made up of Marcy and her two young daughters,Thor (an elite skier I coached 15 years ago) plus 2 other volunteer adults. Everyone had to pay for their food and at least half of their travel and take 2 weeks off from work. This was truely a volunteer effort of the heart.

When we walked into the multi million dollar school, what I remember besides the bright shiny floors is how my face felt. After being outside in the freezing wind for a 3 FULL days and then being in a 70 degree room felt really weird. Major red face bloat. And then lots of food and a hot shower! We were living the high life as we snuggled on top of our too warm bags on the hot class room carpeted floor. We kept our gear in the cold shop room which had a dismembered caribou next to the wood working tools. They were teaching a class on how to skin out a kill, a valuable lesson , since there are no super markets out here.

The next morning we were asked to talk to all the classrooms about our trip. I am not sure if the kids were impressed or not but they seemed to be entertained since it was something very different to have both cyclists and skiers there all at once.

I went to the gym to get ready for the 1pm ski lesson and everyone was gone except 5 teenage boys who begged me to take them skiing again.(they had already gone in the morning) I said-OK, go find gear that fits and we had to be back by 1pm for the next ski class or I was in big trouble. Who could say NO to normally not impressed teenage boys that really wanted to ski? I found some old rusty 3pin skis and took off to catch up with them. They were already jumping off river banks and skiing as if they had been on skis their whole life.

I managed to get the boys back to the school in time. Then Marcy hooked me up with Jerry, a blind Inupiat boy who had never skied before. If this was the only reason I was meant to be here, it made our whole trip worth while. Jerry is one of the bravest souls I have ever met. He is 12 years old and has no seeing eye dog, since there are too many dogs in the village and that would be very difficult. He is completely blind although he told me could feel the brightness of the sun when it was out. He attends school like any other child and whoever happens to be going in the direction that Jerry is headed - they take his hand. Or he just follows the voices. He examined Pats camera carefully and told Pat where the USB port was and where the movie control was.

Pat hadn't known he could take movies with his camera until Jerry pointed it out!

Jerry followed my voice when skiing. He was a natural and charged ahead with no fear. He preferred to bushwhack (go off trail ) and when he made it up the first hill, he insisted on skiing down backwards ( he had overheard me say that I taught all the junior nordic kids to ski downhill backwards because that makes them better skiers) and he did it several times!! Then we skied out across the frozen Buckland river ( no easy task) to catch up with the kids skiing at the old village hill. The river is wide and wind-blown with lots of icy bare spots with no snow. Jerry would tap- tap with his poles as he felt his way along. As we skied closer I asked him jokingly if the old abandoned village was haunted. He said matter of factly "No, but I can call in the ghosts if you would like."

I said "No that's OK"

Marcy's younger daughter who is about Jerry's age caught up to us. Jerry said "Hey who is that?"

After she replied, he said"Do you want to race?"

And they took off racing to the bottom of the hill. He had a way of making you forget he was blind. When we got up the big hill he showed me around some of the old buildings, he knew where they all were.Then we skied down the BIG hill together. He in front and me holding him under his arms. We screamed as we sped all the way across the froze Buckland river into the setting sun and back to town. A wonderful end to a beauiful day.