Anchorage Junior Nordic League

Brief history by Kathy Sarns Irwin, former director of Anchorage Junior Nordic League 1985-1992 and AJNL coach 1984-2008. Homer ( Kachemak) Junior Nordic coach 2008- present

In 1984 Lynn Spencer-Galanes asked a few of her friends to help coach the new Anchorage Junior Nordic League. She and Jim Galanes, the local ski celebrities, helped promote this new Junior Nordic program after they retired from years of US ski team training and 3 Olympics.

 I remember asking her "how to coach skiing" and she said something like: "Hey don't worry, these are kids - just HAVE FUN and SKI WELL and they will follow you." Very wise words and my Junior Nordic motto ever since!

AJNL is still having fun, skiing well, and the kids are still following their coaches many years later.

There had been other small Anchorage junior ski groups before AJNL 1984 that came and went.

On Oct 12, 1984 there was an Anchorage Times article by Joyce Weaver about this NEW Anchorage Junior Nordic League. It explained there would be 3 groups, one at Russian Jack run by Karen Jeske and Julie Green (now Karen Bronga and Julie Graham) and one group at Kincaid run by Jim Galanes. Lynn Spencer was head coach at Hillside and that is where I began coaching AJNL.


Junior Nordic is a FUN program that teaches the lifetime sport of cross country skiing while HAVING fun ! 


The first year was a good snow year and AJNL was pretty successful. The second year was a big no-snow year and only the hard cores showed up and the 3 groups began to meet together in ONE place because of the small numbers of children. I recall 5 to 12 children, depending on the day. AJNL stayed as ONE group that moved around the city and then divided into the 3 AJNL stationary groups again sometime around or after 1993.

Brooks and Rita Wade and Nancy and Steve Beardsley were instrumental as supportive Junior Nordic parents and creating the AJNL board that made sure that all details were taken care of besides the coaching. In the beginning Brooks also made sure I got paid once in a while. At that time I was a starving artist and part time ski coach. It was hard to keep AJNL afloat that 2nd no-snow year but somehow these very special and inspired parents did it!

The first couple of years we also had a summer training session for high school and junior high skiers.

Jim Galanes worked with the fast skiers like Nina Kempel and Tim Miller who at age 12 or 13 years old were already on their way as elite skiers. Jim was a great coach for these serious focused skiers. The other 99% of the kids were beginners or average skiers and not so serious. And so AJNL’s focus evolved into Ski well and have FUN. We played games, skied off trail, and whatever we could think of that was FUN, challenging on skis, and would keep the kids coming back.

Sometime in 1984 I met with Jim and Lynn and several other coaches and we created the AJNL Alaska State logo using a ballpoint pen on a napkin at Cafe del Mundo.

During the first few years of AJNL I created pen and ink stationary designs and T-shirt designs for fundraiser's for AJNL. We also ALL volunteered at the Pepsi run to help benefit AJNL. Nancy and Steve Beardsley created a race called 'Peddle and Plod' that was a FUN fundraiser for AJNL. The volunteer parents and organizers of AJNL made sure that ALL the money went to the young skiers, coaches and skis.

At that time, in the early 80s the numbers of skiers and coaches were so small that we would assign the skiers with similar abilities to the coaches at each practice. We knew all the skiers, and would separate them out by hand.

At the coaches party in spring of 1985 at the Beardsley’s home I was voted to be Head Coach of AJNL for the following season. I remained head coach (i.e. later called director) until 1992. I remained a regular coach for AJNL from 1984 until 2008. At first the head coach/director was not an officially paid position. (now it is a real paid position) Over the next few years, if they had an extra $50 or $100 here or there, ANJL would give it to me for my extra time and effort.

AJNL 1985

By word of mouth the program grew from about 5-20 skiers in 1984 to over 300 young skiers in 1992.

About 1986 we had another party at the Beardsley’s and we came up with the names of the children's ski groups. There were big discussions about this, since we did not want to number or label the groups to make them feel judged or graded, but we needed GROUP names. That night Nancy & Steve Beardsley, Lynn Spencer, Bill Spencer, Dirk Sisson, Karen Jeske, Bruce Hickok, myself and several others, decided on the 4 group names: Polar Cubs, Otters, Wolverines, and Hawks.

Sometime in 1986 I met with Nancy Beardsley at F Street Station downtown Anchorage for lunch. She brought magic markers and plain paper and we designed the AJNL jackets and ski hats on the dining table, staying there long after lunch was over, as the waitress glared at us. We added the bright pink stripe for the pocket cover only because in the 1980s hot pink was "IN" and we felt we needed to put something bright on the jacket. The pink pocket has somehow remained on the jackets as a tribute to this 80's neon fad. The Hats have not changed a bit either. Glad those were the color markers that worked that day as we created the designs.

The Junior Nordic hats and jackets designed  with the only magic markers we had.. are timeless. Here's Kikkan hanging out with her world cup trophy.

In the beginning the groups were so small I would call everyone before EACH practice to tell them where practice was. I remember the no snow year, when we double poled on the Russian Jack hoarfrost covered grass, and skied at Glen Alps and Potter Marsh. We would sometimes have hot cocoa breaks under the “mushroom trees” at Glen Alps, keeping an eye out for elves as we sipped drinks out of the wind.

Some high school and citizen races were held at Turnagain Pass that year, it was such a bad snow year.

I remember young Kikkan Randall (now an Olympian Gold Medal winner ) only because her Dad, one of the nicest guys in the world, was often late to practice. When I coached her group of 6-7 year olds, I would count kids, ski a short loop and circle back to see Kikkan being pushed out the parked car WITH her skis on to rush over to meet us. She was a normal shy, average, little girl skier, and I think she had fun because she always came back and we always waited for her.  

In 1987 the Beardsley’s found an old phone recorder that I would update at home hopefully in time for the next practice. This worked most of the time except a few times - as being younger, I stayed out a little too late on an occasional Friday night and updated the recorder just in time for Saturday. It was much better when remote recorders were invented so anyone could update it from anywhere.

Children imitate better than they listen to instructions on skis. Plus they don’t want to stand around freezing, listening to too much talk - after being in school all day- they just want to MOVE! Because of this AJNL tried to make sure the Otters, Wolverines, and Hawks coaches were “above average” skiers. We would tell coaches for each practice; to get at least 2-4 minutes of actual instruction talk time in (maybe at 30 second intervals) only if possible and ski, ski, ski, and HAVE FUN. No matter what you tell the kids they will imitate you. I corrected some of my technique this way. Once I asked a skier what was that strange hand waving motion he did when going down hill around a corner–and he said that I did that when I went around a corner…so I had to correct that quickly!

The only races we had were fun races that we made very elaborate with lots of obstacles; ball biathlon, crawling under things, bush whacking, skiing backwards, jumping, and lots of prizes (thanks to Paul Denkewalter of AMH). The games on skis, teaches balance and confidence. Later these children can ski down any hill and navigate any sharp corners and bumps because they are comfortable on their skis and they think it’s FUN!

At some point  in the late 80s we decided to require AJNL to ski 50% skate and 50% classic. ( 2 weeks skate and 2 weeks classic) Back then we would ski classic NO MATTER what the conditions. I remember klistering over 40 pairs of skis with Alice (Tower)  Knapp for one very fun ski!on icy trails.

In 1988 I was told that our new roster of skiers had tripled. I remember staying up half of the night not knowing what to do to sort them out by ability. Up until then, we had known everyone's ability and had sorted out everyone out by hand, individually. But now there were many NEW skiers arriving that we did not know. ( you cannot sort out skiers by age becasue some 6 year olds can ski as fast as some 10 year olds) At about 2 in the morning I came up with “Regroup the Troops”. Now called The Cookie Tour. This involved having all the kids ski about a 1 or 1.5 km loop, with parent and other helpers to turn back the skiers not prepared for this at about 100 yards.

(note: Dirk Sisson had not started Great Harvest, so we did not have access to free cookies yet.)

The next day with a bad bullhorn, I tried to explain to the masses of about 80 or 90 skiers that THIS IS NOT A RACE, blah, blah, so please ski your normal PRACTICE pace! And of course, as usual, everyone raced as fast as they could. But we got them all sorted out into groups with minimum tears in the end. Nothing much has changed with this regroup system –but now we get cookies!

Another thing we realized was that no matter how much we would tell the kids to ski slow and relax- they would go fast and ski race pace. Thus more reason for AJNL’s emphasis on keeping it FUN …because most children already are competitive enough without our help.

As AJNL got bigger we had a few parents who would insist that their kids be moved up and ski faster, when the child was not ready to move up yet, or some parents would reprimand their kids for not skiing fast enough in a “fun” race. When moving kids up to a faster group it is essential that the child has shown a CONSISTENT improvement. Sometimes children are faster for 1 or 2 nights and then revert back again…a lot depends on food intake, other stresses, and actual ski skill level and to just growing up which comes in spurts and starts. To move someone up ahead of their time has usually resulted in skiers quitting forever because they were suddenly out of their comfort level and it was not FUN anymore.

 I made a friendly flyer with graphics to hand out to the parents to remind them about the purpose of AJNL, reminding everyone this is a FUN program that teaches a lifetime sport and if the kids are pushed too much it will not be FUN. Kids have the rest of their lives to be competitive and to be stressed out like the rest of us. I think this was AJNL ‘s first attempt at a written mission statement. After we handed it out - the problems stopped. People (especially the kids) seemed happy with the AJNL purpose knowing what it was.


Around 1987 -1988 I started to write out our week practice schedules by hand (before computer) of coaches and parent helpers that went with which group and what the practice assignment each day was and where. (sometimes someone would type these out  when they had time) It was nice having a prearranged assignment or idea of what all groups would do that day - each at their own level. Examples: We would have a NO POLES night for everyone. Or a ski tour- wearing a weird hat- for all.

Around ‘88 or ‘89 Michele Hanson became Coach Scheduler and Dirk Sisson became Manager and I was called Director. Together we made sure that all aspects of technique were covered with our weekly schedule. We made a list of our special duties besides our regular coaching duties. I remember that we also shared all these duties together as we all had full time jobs.(see below)

We also made a list of skill requirements for Polar Cubs, Otters, Wolverines and Hawks.

They had to do more than just be faster to move up. Skiers had to have the listed skills, enough maturity and responsibility to move up. (See below and click on each for close up)

Some of the instrumental coaches during this growing time that I remember are, Brian Dean, Karen Jeske, Michele Hansen, Dirk Sisson, Bruce Hickok, Alice (Tower)  Knapp, Tanya Bergt, Ken Robertson, Lynn Spencer, Leslie McDaniel, Steve Bergt, Randy Bergt, Andrew White, Bill Spencer, Julie Green (Graham), Lynn Spencer, Liz Carey (Butera), Bill Carol, Stace Moon, and many others…(if I left anyone out please let me know and I will add them! My memory has faded after all this time)

At some point in '89 OR '90 we created HEAD COACHES for EACH SKI GROUP (Polar cubs, Otters, Wolverines, Hawks) so that these coaches were in charge of each group, and would report to the director or manager if there were problems or concerns.

In 1990 or 91 Jeff Radcliff put together a video about Anchorage Junior Nordic League. In the beginning of the video we talk about the AJNL mission statement. (Junior Nordic is a FUN program that teaches the lifetime sport of cross country skiing while HAVING fun !) It’s a pretty neat video that should be on file at Junior Nordic. (If not, I can help AJNL get a copy)

In November 1992 my husband and very popular AJNL coach Bruce Hickok and our good friend Jeff Radcliff died in a  snow avalanche on Peak 3 in the Chugach Mountains. I was Director at that time, and I called up Dirk Sisson and asked if he could take over for me.

Thanks to Dirk and his dedication and better than average organizing skills –ANJL continued to grow and become even better. Michele Hanson and Tasha Bergt stepped in to help him too.

Later AJNL created an award called the Bruce Hickok Coach of the Year award to honor Bruce and his enthusiastic and very affective coaching ability. The kids and coaches and parents really loved him, and he changed many lives with his youthful fun approach to life and skiing. Some parents had to replace broken skis for their kids that were coached by Bruce since he was into jumping and skiing slalom through trees off trail, but the kids REALLY learned to ski well. Several of his skiers went on to become ski jumpers.

After Bruce's death I took some time away from AJNL,  to return to coach around 1994 with the encouragement from Giselle Bergeron. Giselle was once an ANJL non-skiing mom who later learned how to ski very well and then was AJNL director (now a real paid position). After one day out with the kids I signed back up as a regular AJNL coach. I had missed coaching and it felt so good and natural to be back.

Now I have moved to Homer, and I am volunteer coaching the Homer Junior Nordic program here. Everywhere you go - there you are. The way the program works here, is similar to when we started in the 80s. Very laid back, and they are turning out some really excellent skiers. When we get to practice a coach divides the skiers into groups because everyone knows everybody's ability. Someone asked me if Kachemak Junior Nordic program was less serious and race oriented compared to AJNL. I explained that we have worked very very hard to be sure that AJNL was NOT too race oriented or serious. We all agree that Kids need to have FUN or they will not ski. Now The Homer Junir Nordic group has grown big enough that we have to do the "cookie tour" !

This write up has been my memories of the 'COACHING' part of AJNL. WITHOUT the many parents and dedicated adults willing to sit on the boards, go to the meetings, and make sure the many many details were taken care of, none of this would have happened.

Someone finally got a central remote recorder, and made sure we had insurance. Someone made sure all the extra money was used to buy more skis, (I know Paul Denkewalter owner of AMH initially helped a ton with this). Someone made sure families got signed up and people paid the fee. Someone wrote checks to the coaches. There were many details outside of coaching that devoted parents and helpers take care of behind the scenes. Eventually AJNL was put under the Anchorage Municipal umbrella, which i was not part of but it made sense as it got so big. The AJNL directors job is a real paid possition for amny years now.

It is very important to buy more skis and poles and boots, and to pay for quality coaching clinics for AJNL coaches when ever possible. The PSIA ski clinics for AJNL coaches are one of the BEST investments AJNL could make to ensure that their coaches learn even better up-to-date-technique to teach even better technique to young skiers- because the coaches are skiing well. This is so important since the young skiers imitate what they see more than they listen to what you tell them!! Having been to many clinics over the last 25 years, I always learn more  and my skiing always improves with every lesson. Plus it's so good to share NEW fun coaching ideas , tips, and games.

Anchorage Junior Nordic League creates health and well being for so many and is a benefit to all on many levels in the community. It has flourished because the people who are part of it -LOVE it - and it grows from that devotion of all involved. I have seen young skiers with low self-confidence, lacking natural balance & athletic skills, grow up to ski very well and become talented, responsible adults who help make this world a better place. I have watched AJNL parents evolve from reading books at Kincaid chalet, to taking ski lessons, to eventually winning Masters ski races. I have seen many children that showed no special ski talent, grow up and become Olympians and /or World, National Class athletes.  I also see so many of them 30 years later skiing with their own children and that is what really matters. Passing the torch of health and well being onward for future generations. 

There is something special about a child that learns to have fun and to excel on their own power in the long cold dark winters here. They learn to be self motivators, hard workers and self-confident and they grow up to be healthy contributors to our community. I have never seen a Junior Nordic child become a juvenile delinquent cause they are too busy and too healthy to be anything other than their own awesome selves. I can tell stories all day long to support this theory from my 30+ years of coaching experience.

After all these years when I see Junior Nordic children, all grown up and skiing with their children- that is the true gift of Anchorage Junior Nordic League.

NOTE: I created this from memory and my old AJNL files & notes. If you remember a person's name or an event pertaining to the History of Anchorage Junior Nordic League COACHING in the 80s and 90s - that helped make AJNL what it is today - please contact Kathy.


Kathy Sarns Irwin