The drone of the Frontier Airlines bush plane cannot be heard until the wheels have nearly hit the ground. A group of students has been huddling excitedly behind the lone storage building adjacent to the gravel runway. They rush out from their protective hiding spot when they hear the sound, lean hard into the swirling snow caused by 25 mph winds, and labor purposefully toward the craft that is the only means off their island. They are going to the Western Interior Ski and Biathlon Championships.
The eight young skiers are leaving their hometown of Savoonga, Alaska, a small Eskimo village of
650 people on Saint Lawrence Island, far out in the Bering Sea. It is about the most unlikely place to find one of the state’s top rural ski and biathlon teams.
When they are not skiing, the students help their families lead the subsistence hunting lifestyle
that has been Savoonga’s means of existence for thousands of years. While the elders have nicknamed their city “the Walrus Capitol of the World,” the Savoonga skiers are setting out to make a bid for
the title “Rural Ski Capitol of Alaska.”
Thanks to the Western Interior Ski Association (WISA), cross country skiing, as well as biathlon, is
thriving with the school children from the wind swept and treeless island that lies nearer to Russia than the US, and is as close to “the middle of nowhere” as it gets. The two winter sports are also flourishing in many other Alaskan villages that don’t have road connections with the rest of the world.
WISA was created in 1986 by John Miles, a gregarious fellow armed with an infectious enthusiasm for
skiing, who sought to unite kids from the remote reaches of Alaska’s western coastline with those of the isolated settlements along Alaska’s interior river systems. The penultimate result of the organization has been the establishment of the Western Interior Ski and Biathlon Championships; Alaska’s rural state ski meet.
Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA), the state’s governing body for high school and junior high sports, began organizing state level ski contests back in 1975. These events were well suited for the larger, urban schools that had access to Alaska’s road system. A few years after these competitions developed, Miles began getting kids in small towns on skis. He knew that the low numbers of students in remote schools made it impractical to compete at an ASAA meet, so he busily planted the seeds for the future WISA.
Miles worked tirelessly, traveling to villages to fit children as young as kindergarten age for boots, skis, and poles, and he helped create several amazing ski and biathlon venues. The result of 30 plus years of hard work and dedication has been that thousands of rural kids, spanning several generations, have learned to ski. Over time, Miles became a local legend – the Johnny Appleseed of rural Alaskan skiing.
While his main goal was to present a healthy winter activity to the primarily Native American youth in out of the way communities, Miles also wanted to expose kids to ski competition. To provide athletes from far-flung settlements a chance to gather, he collaborated with ski coaches around rural Alaska to form WISA.
The pioneers of WISA knew how the combination of lack of early season snow, nearly 24 hours of darkness, and bitter cold conditions, (interior temperatures in mid-winter routinely reach -50 to -60 degrees Fahrenheit), caused the start of ski training in their secluded villages to be delayed each year. They saw how urban ski teams were getting out as early as October and November, and had the advantages of well-developed ski locales with heated chalets surrounded by miles of professionally groomed, and sometimes artificially lit, trails.
Teams in remote Alaska typically ski on whatever snow is available, quite often on snow mobile trails. Ski conditions in the bush do not improve until February, just about the time the annual ASAA sponsored state cross-country skiing championships take place.
In response to these facts of village ski life, the WISA coaches created a series of races that were tailored toward students in the bush. Since many of the youth were already excellent hunters, the sport of biathlon was added to the event list. This helped to attract lots of kids to ski racing.
The resulting Western Interior Ski and Biathlon Championships are held in early April, some five weeks after the ASAA meet, at a time when urban athletes have traded their skis for bikes and soccer balls. It is the only state sports tournament to be held off the road system.
Over its 23-year existence, WISA has had participation from 27 different rural schools, of which most would never have come together if not for this organization. Since no roads lead to their villages, the only way for these sites to attend a WISA event is to travel by air in small bush planes. This is particularly true for the students from Savoonga, who by necessity, often venture as far as 700 miles, one way, to compete.
Because the logistics of travel are so complex, not to mention expensive, for the participating school districts, the Western Interior Championships rotate between coastal and interior sites each year. A WISA meet transforms the hosting town from a quiet spot to a beehive of ski activity. WISA participants experience a unique sense of community as they eat, socialize, and are housed together in schools for the duration of each event.
The Western Interior Championships include ski races and team relays, but the most unique feature is the biathlon competition. Contestants from both the junior high (5th - 8thgrades) and high school divisions ski to managed ranges, where they find rifles and range safety officers waiting for them. Affiliated events, like the Bering Straits Regional meet, held annually in White Mountain, typically contain Alaska’s largest biathlon race each year, sometimes having double the number of participants of any contest in Anchorage.
“Thanks to WISA, cross-country skiing has remained a vibrant sport for rural Alaskan children,” says White Mountain’s Eric Morris, who has been promoting the sport in western Alaska for three decades, and was one of WISA’s original organizers. “I’m proud that many of our fine WISA developed athletes have competed on larger, international stages.”
Not long after WISA’s inception, the biathlon race at the Western Interior Ski/Biathlon Championships became a qualifier for the Olympic-style Arctic Winter Games, which occur every two years. Race winners earn spots on either Team Alaska’s ski or snowshoe biathlon squads, and compete against kids from Greenland, northern Canada, northern Russia, and northern Scandinavia.
“The WISA ski program has brought our kids lots of pride,” says Savoonga teacher and ski coach Matthew Stark, who has consistently kept his skiers on the podium. Stark, who also manages the organization’s website adds, “travel is always a positive thing for our kids. WISA provides not only competition, but also affords them amazing life experiences. Last year, a Savoonga skier traveled to the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to compete in snowshoe biathlon. He got to visit another country, meet people from around the world, and had the added bonus of seeing trees.”
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