Growing up in a mid-Atlantic state, I had my share of opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. While I preferred more musical pursuits (marching band, the spring musical), I definitely knew about all of the sports teams that existed. My school had everything from the classics (football, basketball, track and field, swimming) to the slightly less well known (field hockey, golf, bowling, rifle). When I moved to southwestern Alaska, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of school sports. After all, the only real roads in the district are found in the Hub, the central town; boardwalks provide the main walking areas in the villages. How would teams get from one school to another for meets? What sports could even be played in a land where the ground isn’t necessarily solid?
As I discovered last year, a surprising amount of sports can be played within the limitations described above. In Nunap, the big sports are wrestling and basketball. We also have volleyball and NYO (Native Youth Olympics) teams. The one that surprised me the most, however, is the cross-country running team.
Now you may be wondering how we can even have a cross-country team on the tundra, where the terrain varies between a spongy swamp and a frozen wasteland. It is possible, but it takes some ingenuity. For example, Nunap never hosts a cross-country event, because the only place for the kids to run is the boardwalk. Practices start and end in the school gym, and some days if it’s too cold or too wet or (in the case of morning practices) too dark, the runners never actually leave the school. Instead, we prop open the doors to the attic and kids run what Kelly, a fellow elementary teacher and the head coach, calls “the stairs”. This route takes the kids up the stairs, through the attic, down the back stairs and the high school hallway, through the gym, and down the elementary hallway. Outside, we have a little more choice for the routes. Thanks to Kelly, I now know that the boardwalks are actually numbered; a typical outside practice normally involves running Number 2, which goes straight out behind the school. Running to the end and back to the school is about a mile. By adding in trips around smaller “loops” we can increase the distance; Kelly says a two-mile loop is located somewhere in the village and at some point we’ll try to pace it out.
Another challenge of school sports out here is transportation. No roads means no school buses, so no piling into a bus to drive to the meet and then returning home the same night. Instead, many sports trips begin the afternoon before the event. The students travelling that week arrive at the school at a certain time carrying duffle bags and backpacks. After a quick head count, coaches, chaperones, and students all head for the school dock to catch a ride across the river to the airport. Depending on the number of people traveling, flights are either chartered or commercial. Last weekend, the first cross-country meet was held in Chak, a village about 15 miles east of the Hub. Kids have to attend 10 practices to be eligible to travel; the weekend’s contingent consisted of Kelly, myself, and only three students. Our school chartered a direct flight rather than send us via the Hub, so the plane ride lasted maybe 15 minutes.
The logistics of hosting or being hosted for these types of events are a bit mind-boggling if you’re not used to it. If you are going to another village, you call when you board the plane so that someone knows to meet you at the airport. This is especially important in a place like Nunap, where the airstrip is across the river from the school. In Chak, it is possible to walk from the airport to the school, but it’s a far enough distance that I greatly appreciated the car sent to pick us up. (Chak, like the Hub, has a system of dirt roads.) Once at the school, someone greets you and directs you to whatever classroom you will call home for the night. If you work at the host school and people will be sleeping in your room that weekend, it’s polite to push the desks and chairs against the walls and to leave the cords for your SMARTboard available. If you are the guest, you can hook up a computer to the SMARTboard so that your students can watch movies. Have the students be careful when placing their sleeping bags; you may be sharing the room with people from another school.
Once the kids have set their things down, the evening’s activities depend on the type of event. We arrived in Chak last weekend in time for their team’s cross-country practice. The coach, Baron, offered that our kids could run with his so that they got a preview of the course. He even went with them to act as a guide. After practice, many of the local kids went home, although some stuck around. Baron and several other adults stayed for a bit, making sure all of the schools who were spending the night signed in and had places to sleep. The Nunap students, Kelly, and I all opted to walk to the local store to get snacks for later. Walking around Chak reminded me in many ways of walking around the Hub, between the dirt roads, larger buildings, and cars. I also greatly enjoyed the fact that trees seem to grow everywhere in the village, mostly scraggly pines. The store we went to (there are two, apparently) was about twice the size of the Nunap store, but we found the selection to be about the same. We made sure to return to the school in time for dinner: pizza, juice, and apples. Later that evening, Chak school held a community open gym and visiting teams were encouraged to participate. Our kids did for a bit, but they were mostly content to stay in the room where the girls and Kelly would be sleeping and watch movies.
I teased Kelly a bit for bringing an air mattress, but by the time I woke up the next morning I realized that I needed to buy at least a camping-style sleeping pad for any future trips. I had worried a bit about how I would explain my hormone medication to any other people around, but that proved pointless. As usual, I was up a couple of hours before everyone else, and I managed to find the staff bathroom, where I could lock the door behind me. Everyone was up and moving by the time breakfast was served. According to Kelly, this meet was unusual in that races wouldn’t start until noon; normally cross-country begins around 10 or so. That meant that our kids had a bit of a wait after breakfast. They floated between shooting hoops in the gym and wandering around the school. Kelly and I spent time working on things like grading papers (her) and writing (me) and watching as other teams arrived. By the time the coaches’ meeting happened half an hour before the first race, students and coaches had arrived from about 10 other villages and the Hub.
The coaches’ meeting basically served as a briefing of the race order and how the course would differ by age group. The high school boys ran first, followed by high school girls, junior high boys, junior high girls, and then a “fun run” for grades 4-5. High school ran 5K, while everyone else ran 2K. I’d studied the route map and intended on finding spots to take pictures of our kids, but in the end I wound up just hanging around at the start/finish line with the rest of the coaches and catching up with folks from other villages. Our three kids did reasonably well, coming in about the middle of the pack in their races. Lunch service began after the first race, and runners were encouraged after they crossed the finish line to shower in the school locker rooms, change, and get food. Coaches and chaperones also had to make sure that their students had all of their things, especially those who had spent the night. Soon enough, it was time to head out to the car for the trip back to the airport. Within a half-hour, we’d arrived back in Nunap.