10. Skiing downhill backwards in Buckland..
We arrived in Buckland, Alaska by Bicycle - the first people to ever ride bikes there.
We heard voices as we rode up and down the deserted frozen streets and it turned out that by coincidence people 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. #SmallWorld
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.
Luxury accommodations in the math room
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 ( now called Skiku) was started by Marcy Baker and 2 other amazing women; Jennifer Johnston and (the late) Melony Shea who realized a need for more outdoor healthy kid activities in rural Alaska. Marcy the leader of this small group has worked at and/or managed the Alaska Mountaineering & 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.
skiers leaving the school
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.
shop class includes learning how to dress out a caribou
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.
double poling across the ice
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 taking me to the "Old Village to show me some ghosts"
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 - 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.
Here's Jerry posing with us- Pat didn't know he could take movies with his camera until Jerry pointed it out!
Jerry following on skis by my voice. Jerry taught me alot that day.
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."
crossing the Buckland River with Jerry
I said "No that's OK, I don't have to see a ghost today"
He just shrugged 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 beautiful day.
looking down from the top of the big hill across from Buckland
views from top of the hill of the old village
Jerry; "I can call the ghosts in if you want"
11.Smiling Kids and Hurricane winds
The next 3 days were filled with energy and activity of ski classes organized by Marcy so every single child would get to ski at least twice. Somewhere between 125 and 150 children. This was a village of only 450 people total. We stayed at the school and we never met any adults except the ones working at the school. My memory of Buckland will always be of the children smiling and laughing.
cleaning the ski boot scuff marks off the floor
The children were so excited to ski and so full of energy it was overwhelming. They welcomed us whole heartedly and we thank them for this.
Pat and I bought lunch at the cafeteria and were mauled by enthusiastic kids.They all wanted their picture taken and had 100s of questions for us. Some of them had never been outside the village, and some of them had. One boy said that when he grew up he might marry a white woman if he had to, because he said it doesn't matter what race you are. One child told me that her 19 year old uncle shot himself this year. A very sad but true reality. There is a high rate of depression and suicide in rural Alaska. This ski program is another effort to give the kids more things to do and look forward to. They also have basketball out here, which is a BIG deal. Folks travel 100s of miles on snow machine to see or be in basketball games!
Birthdays are REAL important out here, every kid told us about their birthdays and all of their aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers birthdays.They all knew about Elephant Point and said they went there in summer time to fish and hunt. They took a boat there.
When we asked them what else they did in the summer they would unanimously yell "Swim!"
We then ask "Where?"
"In the river!" they would shout.
It was hard to imagine in about 2 months they would be swimming in the now frozen solid Buckland River!
We would then ask is it cold?
They would shout even louder,
This was the nicest most enthusiastic bunch of children we had ever met.
This was just our small glimpse of a very small village in the middle of remote Alaska. I have no idea what it would be like to live there everyday. But it would be very different from our life in Anchorage. I have high respect for the folks that make a life work out there.
Another friend we made was Gary who worked at the cafeteria and worked with search and rescue. He loaned us his VHF radio and trusted we would return it when we got done with our trip.
He also was the one to tell us to check the weather web site before we left to continue our trip. We had gotten up early after all the ski lessons were done and Marcy and the gang had left the day before. It was a clear blue sunny day, as we got ready to ride to Koyuk. Gary stopped by and said you better look at something. We followed him to the principle's office and looked over his shoulder. The sunny faces ended that day and showed high winds and ground blizzards starting the next day.
A couple of locals had died recently traveling from Buckland to Koyuk when the weather got bad. We had also heard about folks who had driven into overflow and froze to death from Kotzebue to Buckland the week before we came through. It is harsh unforgiving country with nowhere to hide from the weather, and it was insane to consider going into a storm. It's not like our home area where you can hide in the trees -there are no trees out here. The day before the weather forecast had looked very good on the screen and we would not have checked that morning. Another very novice mistake on our part. So Gary may have saved our lives. Thank you Gary!
It was very hard to stay put on that beautiful day. But the next day was howling, white out, and horrible and we thanked Gary (and God) again. We let teachers know we could ski with them again but the only kids to dare go out in 70 mph winds was Mrs. Budge's brave sixth grade class. We had a blast -literally! We did not have enough ski poles so we went without and the wind was blowing kids all over. Some of them made their own poles from willow trees. There was one girl that was such a natural gifted skier that if given the chance she would definitely be national caliber. Rural cap ski group leaves about 60-80 skis at each village -and then it is up to the teachers to help the kids keep skiing. Unless there are adults that are motivated, the skis will just collect dust. We really hope the kids in Buckland are using those skis!
After 2 days the winds subsided barely enough that we could fly out. As we bumped along in the wind, headed towards Nome, Buckland disappeared into the white blowing snow. We sat on the plane and read all the thank you notes written by the children. We were glad we stayed in Buckland to help with the ski lessons. Even though we lost our good weather window for our "planned trip", we knew we can always "plan" another trip and SEE what happens next time. Life is fun that way.
That is the end for now.
Part 3 is about our gear and details of what we had and wished we had out there on our bikes at -70 degrees below zero temperatures.