By Aaron Tooyak
Surreal. Surreal is the first word that jumps to the front of my mind, onto the tip of my tongue when I think of my trip back home through Skiku (a program from Nordic Journeys – a nonprofit dedicated to get Alaska skiing). Four other seasoned coaches and I were assigned as a team to teach cross country skiing to 231 blossoming K-12 students in Point Hope, Alaska.
Ponder the word “home”. A four letter word that nonchalantly encapsulates precious, fond memories of family, childhood friends, old neighborhoods, recognizable roads, and familiar landmarks. Our family moved from Point Hope to Eagle River, Alaska in 2007. I had not set foot on home soil, nor tasted the salty ocean air since that final departure from Point Hope.
Our father reminded us that we were moving to receive a better education. Recalling those memories concocts an image of a drab living room that once lit up with innocent imaginations, and a powerless silhouette of an eleven-year-old child heeding his parents’ instruction in acquiescence. I trusted my parents. Being away from home for nearly a decade taught me more than any classroom ever will.
On the advent of April 11th, dreams started to become reality as I was bubbling with excitement on the way to Ted Stevens International Airport – emulating that sleepless Christmas morning we all may share. My dad, the driver, shared climactic stories of hunting trips and polar bear encounters as both our minds were set on home. We arrived, unloaded, our team of coaches made acquaintances, checked in our gear and food, and boarded a plane to the north slope!
Peaking out the Cessna windows revealed a promising display of an exciting week. We landed, nested into our five-star classroom for the week, and trekked across the arctic towards “The Point”, where we were greeted and welcomed by the first catch of the whaling season at the hands of the hard working whaling crews. The crews received us on skate skis 48+ hours into their labor of pulling the 47 footer bowhead onto the ice, an hour per foot. We witnessed the initial cutting and dividing phases of the first fruit of the harvest and were privileged to be generously served with one of the first batches of boiled muktuk (whale blubber).
That same Monday night, we counted up and arranged our skis, boots and poles neatly for the kids to jump on and go. Each day thereafter was a unique phenomenon full of movement and fundamental lessons. We went back to the basics, remembering that the children we were serving would soon fill bigger boots to serve the world.
We skied with the kids all around town. The same town the students were acquainted with, but this time examining their town with a newer point of view – under the lens of an intuitive physical education that taught the classes how navigate in a foreign territory, mapping their skiing abilities and experience for future exploration.
With the back of the school as our main hub, we established scenic routes up and down the hills by the snow fence, near the edges of town, and along the beach with the icy ocean and beaming sun as our backdrop. An old neighbor smiled and said, “that’s one way to get around”, as we skated by – ironically alluding to the practicality and obvious contrast to the orthodox means of transportation. Each day mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, cousins, brothers, sisters, dedicated a couple minutes of their day to admire and cheer their little ones on as they observed their progression and growth.
On Thursday, the students discovered the efficiency and viability of Nordic skiing through perspiration. We challenged them to ski towards the graveyard (about two miles to and from the school) during their specially extended 50-minute gym period. The middle and high school students accepted the offer with endurance, many of whom can count the number of times they have skied on their hands. The forerunners led their classmates in an uneven train-like structure on the frosty tundra, groomed by the tracks and skis of snowmobiles. However, more impressive were the handful of meek first graders who willingly sought to conquer the simple route west during the after-school ski lessons – their sheer joy and immovable smiles are unforgettable portraits of an attitude I’ll take with me and recall whenever I’ll need a mind-boost.
Friday held the highly anticipated race to conclude, verify, and document who the fastest in their class was. The race was a long winded test to see who would follow through on their boastings and demonstrate their improved techniques. Many dropped out early, but those who persevered until the end realized their labor would reap a reward to remember. The finishers revealed their true colors and the hunter’s attitude of patience and aggression was made apparent to every onlooker. Truly, their collective triumph was a testament to the values they share with those on the ice.
When the time came to pack up camp and fly back to Anchorage, I had an elevated appreciation for the place that helped develop the writer of this story. Observing the joyful toil of the whalers sparked the traditional work ethic wick that desired another flicker of flame. Catching up with old friends, conversing with family and everyone in between fanned the fire, and tarrying aside the bright young faces and smiles of the children kept me warm. Home is still home, perhaps that is the best part about re-visiting the land of your adolescence. I’m thankful for Skiku for the opportunity to lighten up the path of this journey, and for the team we had for a wonderful experience. Hope to do it again next year!