Far North School in Central, Alaska, rarely had more than a dozen students. Since our school was small and mostly white, we didn’t get extra funds so we didn’t have an indoor gymnasium or dedicated P.E. teachers. But sports was required and the only sport that was universally supported was skiing.
So each year we would have a period in the week to practice skiing in preparations for the district wide ski meet, and sometimes a regional or state meet as well. By practice, I mean that we were assigned a set of cross country skis and told to go to a spot and return or take a loop around the school over a measured distance.
There are many issues with this as 1) we had little motivation because we almost always got beat because our gear was old and heavy compared to other schools, 2) we didn’t have anyone training us so there was little competition or chance to improve ourselves, and 3) our trail was mostly a snow machine trail over fairly flat terrain and they didn’t match the groomed and diverse courses we raced on.
But everyone was involved, not for the sport, but it was one of the few times that we were out of school and could travel for these meets.
A victory for us was to simply come in the top ten, which didn’t happen often. We knew that schools like Minto would always win because they trained for it and had Olympic skiers coaching them and they had the latest equipment.
Skate skis were still fairly new so most competitions saw a mix of skiers in the same heat as they had not yet distinguished between the two in smaller competitions like ours, like it was really a competition.
This year, one of the state trials was going to be held in Fairbanks at the Birch Hill Ski Area, so our Principal/Teacher thought it would be a good idea to enter. We even had a local woman who skied recreationally who decided she would be our coach and help prepare us for the meet.
We trained three days a week and we even got someone to build a sled that could be pulled behind a snow machine to create groomed trails for us. We trained hard in our winter gear, challenged to beat our own times.
As the meet drew closer, we learned about waxing skis and trail conditions and pacing and sprinting. We were starting to believe that we actually stood a chance at making the podium.
And our Principal told us he had a surprise for us.
We piled on the bus and climbed into cars and headed 125 miles south to Fairbanks. Along the way, the bus broke down and didn’t have the power to get up the final mountain, so we took the opportunity for extra ski practice and skied up the mountain. If we could do that, we could do anything!
The next day, after renting a bus while ours was repaired, our Principal took us to a sports shop and had us all fitted for skate skis. They weren’t top of the line, but they were sleek and beautiful compared to the wooden traditional skies many of us were using.
Excited, we took our new skis out to Birch Hill to do a practice run. The bindings were different from our old skis and it took many of us a bit and a little help to figure out how to put them on. Those that did figure out, tried to take off and fell down because the skis didn’t work like the old skis.
Other teams showed up to practice and laughed at us. Many of the coaches came over to help us, but as we watched the teams take off, our spirits hit an all time low. They looked so graceful on their skis in their special outfits in school colors.
After watching that, most of our team threw down their skis and refused to even try. There was no way we could win, with our without our new skis.
At the hotel that night, we decided that we would use our old heavy skis. No one talked of podiums or even doing well, just doing our best and beating any old personal records from prior meets.
The longer races started early in the morning and none of us were competing in those. We were sticking with the shorter 10K and under races, many of us racing in two.
The teams gathered data from the early morning runs. It was spring, so the weather was nice once the sun came up and reports came in for a soft course with melting snow, so teams waxed up appropriately.
We were the only team running traditional Nordic skis which drew the attention of a few, including an Olympic coach who helped us wax our skis and showed us an easier way of getting the job done. He gave us words of encouragement before he walked away.
I and my schoolmate were lined up for the 5K start and we were placed in the back so we wouldn’t get run over by the skate skiers. They raised the flag to indicate we were about to start when a call came over the radio of moose on the back of the run and we had to delay the race.
We made our way back to our designated school areas and while we waited, clouds moved in and blocked the sun. The temperature dropped ten degrees easily and we saw the coach who had shown us the waxing secret come over to us.
“Strip the wax,” he said in hushed tones as he approached.
We gathered around puzzled and he informed us the track was hardening and getting slick. The rules stated that during a delay, wax could not be applied, but wax could be removed. Our skis were old enough and made for recreational skiing, so removing the wax would give us ideal skiing surfaces.
We scraped the wax and about a half an hour later, the course was declared clear and we lined up again. Knowing the others had the wrong wax didn’t mean we could win, but it gave us hope.
The air horn blasted and we all started. The teams with professional coaches started off well and those without slipped and stumbled. Those of us on traditional skis shot off, but were blocked by all the sprawling skiers.
Out of the chute, me and two of my schoolmates jumped out in front of over half the pack and charged down the trail. By the time we reached the first hard turn, we had put some distance between us and them, but a gap had opened between us and the leaders. We overtook a couple who fell in the turn as the trail was fast and their skis didn’t have the edges to make the corner.
The course wound through the woods before coming to a steep section that rose over a hundred feet. The first thirty feet were extremely steep and many of the leaders worked hard to get up the hill since their skis didn’t have the edges on them.
It was a difficult climb, but with edges on our skis, we walked at an angle up the first steep part and then skied up the rest. We watched as other skiers lost their edges and slid back down the hill, often colliding into other skiers.
A few of the leaders beat us to the top of the hill, but we were hot on their heels. They had the advantage in speed, but we had better control. As we finished the first of two laps, one of the parent volunteers held up a chalkboard that showed me that I was nearly a minute faster than my last meet and that was in spite of the nasty hill climb.
With a new surge of adrenaline, we pressed on and caught two more leaders when then crashed at the first turn. I wasn’t sure what place I was in, but looking behind me, I only saw the two skiers who’d crashed and one other skier.
Panting hard, we came around the corner and all chaos broke loose. Nearly forty skiers were still trying to climb the hill. By the rules, you couldn’t remove your skies to walk without being disqualified, so many kids were sitting on the sides of the trail crying while other still tried to climb the hill, some on their hands and knees.
We wove our way up the hill, often having other skiers slide down and collide with us. The lead skiers on skate skies were easy to spot because they were assisting one another up the hill in tandem pairs. Some of their teammates who were still stuck from the first lap helped them out too.
There was nothing in the rules against it and we all moved up the hill.
I spotted one of my classmates clear the first steep rise just before two others. Once I cleared the top of that first rise, it was clear and I knew only a handful of the kids that had reached the top were in lap one.
I crossed the finish line to cheers and discovered that I was overall ten minutes slower than my last meet, but had placed sixth! One of my schoolmates took third and the other took fourth.
For the first time ever, our school had two representatives that qualified for the State Championship!
It was nearly a half an hour before large numbers of skiers made it through the chute to finish just their first lap. As it turns out, officials finally let them all remove their skis and climb the hill before putting them back on and finishing the race.
That evening, at the medal ceremony, I watch as my schoolmates both received medals. It turned out that the kid who took first had changed his wax during the delay and was disqualified. That meant I moved up to fifth and qualified for State too!
It was also decided that since the course couldn’t be completed by more than 50% of the contestants, and those that did qualified well under their normal time, that meet was being disqualified as a qualifier for State, so despite our school’s best performance because or our old gear, we didn’t make State.
We did try another meet, but the highest skier got was 11th, which was good considering we were still on old skis.
I did beat my best time by nearly a minute at that meet too, but I came in 26th.
We all looked forward to the next year when we would have time to practice on the new skate skis and see how some of our top skiers would do. Unfortunately, that would be the last meet in a long time as we only had 8 students the next year and they closed down our school.