My trip this spring to Shungnak Alaska, a Native village far north of the Arctic circle could be described as a “Big” trip (three plane flights: Minneapolis to Anchorage, Anchorage to Kotzabue and Kotzebue to Shungnak - 3,200 air miles) to a cool, hip sounding place – the “Arctic”. But the adventure or set of activities themselves could be considered “small”. We stayed in one spot, on the school’s floor and coached Inuit kids in xc skiing 8:30-5:00ish Monday thru Friday. Our longest personal ski just followed a 10 mile flat snowmobile path to a neighboring village, Kobak, and our most exciting evening activity was when we bundled up for a freezing cold 50 mile roundtrip snowmobile ride to purchase a not so fancy cheeseburger.
When describing the trip to a friend, he said, “remind me never to join you on that kind of adventure.” So why did my good friend Kate Ellis and I sign up for this program called Nana Nordic? Why has ‘Team Gregg’, Olympians’ Brian and Caitlin Gregg, supported Nana Nordic three years straight? (see their video on the Skiku website, www.skiku.com.
For me the answers are many:
1) The vacation fit my definition of an adventure since it was reasonably athletic and took me to a place I, and many, have never been before.
2) Cross country skiing was the primary focus and I LOVE skiing, winter and snow of ALL types.
3) The Arctic is a quiet place of intense ethereal beauty that cannot be understood or experienced in a quick stroll down some main shopping drag. So much of the Arctic needs to be lived in, absorbed thru introspective moments and experienced by doing activities that fit into the Arctic’s unique environment.
4) To get a glimpse into the changes and challenges a Native culture faces when adapting to the industrialized, technical world. Less than 100 years ago the Inuit’s lived totally off the land. Now only the grandfathers and grandmothers really have any grasp of their ancestral traditions. Of course, we can read about the losses of Native culture in all societies but experiencing just one week of the Inuit village way of life was enlightening. I could better understand the reasons behind their vicious life destruction caused by alcoholism, school absenteeism, lack of jobs, too much sugar, family abuse…. And the list goes on. Yet the area is rich in beauty, natural resources and the warm smiles of the young native children. All of It such a contrast and education to someone like me who was born into and still lives in an upscale white Midwest suburb.
A little bit about Nana / Skiku Nordic. The program focuses
on teaching communities in Northwest Alaska how to ski and serves 40
communities from Anchorage to villages 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Skiku partners with school districts, corporate and community organizations to
foster the health, recreation and the benefits of cross- country skiing. In my
case, I only had to pay to get to Anchorage. Once there, all the organization
was done. We just had to pack lightly, fly north and have the energy to make a
difference in young children’s’ lives, if even just for a short bit. In return,
besides experiencing the longest, funniest trip for a marginal hamburger, I got
to ski a trap line with a local teacher, gut a ptarmigan and a fox, eat
caribou in many forms, collect pictures of random moose heads on top of broken
down appliances and watch the Kobak 400 dog sled race run thru the village.
But most importantly I witnessed Shungnak school teachers and their amazing principal Roger , who won a 1.5 million dollar grant, as “Principal of the Year. This man and his rebel band of teachers continue to make a positive difference in these Inuit children’s lives thru introducing and maintaining discipline, structure, hope and support – no easy feat and a true labor of love.
There is a lot to learn everywhere in this world, and for me, this Nana Nordic trip made my life a little richer in simple ways but with far reaching affects.