Personal Recollection of a Trip to Savoonga, Alaska

I have officially retired from a semi-professional career in the ski industry that has lasted 18 years. The last few years of my career I noticed how spoiled some people are in the industry. People complain about snow conditions, weather, equipment, terrain, etc. I joined an organization called Skiku to travel to remote villages in Alaska and teach K-12 kids how to ski. To see the how happy the kids are on skis no matter what the conditions, weather, or equipment they are on brings a happy closure to my career and I am happy to find similar people that enjoy spreading the true stoke skiing can bring to kids.

Getting to the island

Walking into the waiting room at Bering Air, I expect a handful of people and a quick wait before my plane flies us out to Savoonga. I open the first door and see at least a hundred people huddled around a waiting room that maybe sits about 30 people. There are pizza boxes on the floor and in people’s laps that say cheese + halibut + crab, I never knew you could have these toppings, let alone call the one pizza shop in Nome and have them delivered to you in the airport.

I get my bags checked in and find out that there have been no flights to St. Lawrence Island in three days. The lady checking bags said that there were 361 people stuck from the last three days and another 50 waiting to fly today. I grab my camera/carry on gear and squeeze into one of the corners. I swap a few words with a friendly man from Greenland who had lived a few hours away from my hometown in Colorado and relax a little. He looks out the window and explains to me that there was a herd of musk ox on the other side of the airport; I would have never known this if it weren’t for him.

A phone rings next to my head and I start to turn red. It won’t stop ringing. The woman across the room at the desk yells at me to answer the phone. I answer the phone and am asked if a person with a native name is there. I can hardly pronounce it, but I yelled it twice, and a shy girl comes out of the crowd and takes the phone from me. It sounds like she is fighting and slams the landline down and walks away. Seven hours later I am getting on a plane to an island that is 40 miles from Russia and 160 miles from Nome in the Bering Sea.

Eight hours on the island

I just spent my first night sleeping in between the fiction and nonfiction stacks in the school library. There are few windows in the school but we can hear the wind blowing against the skylights. My first skiing class is in an hour and I am nervous; the organization that sent me here to teach nordic skiing didn’t know that I had not been on nordic skis in over a year, which was when I was in Kaktovik doing the same thing. The first group of the day was a group from middle school and elementary school; we have to take two different age groups out at a time due to the limited gear, older kids in the big ski boots and skis, younger kids in the small boots and skis. The older kids do great, but the younger kids basically get blown away with the wind and we have to hide on the protected side of the school and play a game called hungry polar bear or caribou across the tundra (for people in the Lower 48 it is like as sharks and minnows).

Students from Savoonga School ski through fresh snow. Photo by Conor McDonald

After the first hour session we decided it is too nasty outside to ski, so we spend the rest of the day going over technique of nordic skiing, I knew little and surprisingly, I learned probably just as much as the kids did from our leader of the trip.  To brighten our spirits that night, once again, our legendary leader bought us fresh Bering Sea crab and homemade crowberry pie. Thank you, team leader.

32 hours on the island

Today is the best day of the trip, basically textbook perfect in the way of weather and to fulfill the reason why we were there, to teach kids about nordic skiing, and in my mind to spread the stoke of skiing. During the middle of the day we have a two-hour window of blue sky, sunny, and no wind. We take the kids through town on skis, their smiles will forever be engraved in my memory. The kids too young for school press their faces against their house windows smiling and looking at us in awe. Everyone driving by on snow-gos (snow machines) and Hondas (four wheelers) smiles and waves as one of the kids would say that was their auntie, grandma, or parent.

That night from 3:30 to 6:00 we hold a parents-kids ski night if you are under 18 and want to ski you have to come with a family member who is over 18 and would actually try skiing, not just stand and watch. We have over 20 parents show up and ski with their kids. This is one of the highlights of my trip. One of the other coaches sees an elder struggling to ski; he asks if I could give her my classic skis. I go to save her from the hard skate skis she was on. I give her my skis and run inside to get another pair. When I come back a group of five parents is smoking cigs, skiing laps around the school, so stoked on skiing it is awesome.

56 hours on the island

It’s 8 a.m. and I am sitting in the school cafeteria watching kids that aren’t ashamed of walking to school with their parents let alone having breakfast in public with them at school. I watch a second grader across the cafeteria from me dip his graham cracker into applesauce, chew, and wash it down with milk that was sweetened from leftovers of his bowl of cinnamon toast crunch. I reminisce and think this is the best breakfast ever, as I finish my plate, I start to see how this is not a treat for them this is what they actually eat and I worry.

High winds and snow keeps Skiku participants inside, where a laser biathlon shooting range was set up in place of skiing lessons. Photo by Conor McDonald

That day we never go outside; there are 70-knot gusting winds and consistent 30-knot winds with whiteout conditions. Luckily we flew up there with two laser biathlon rifles and were able to set up a shooting range in the school gym. These kids are amazing shots. Even the girls, they were very shy and timid of the guns at first, but once they are comfortable they even outshoot the boys. We spend the rest of the day doing obstacle courses and shooting. The kids learn how it was easy to shoot with no pressure and low heart rate; however after a few push-ups and some laps around the gym hitting the targets is a lot harder.

80 hours on the island

It looks like I am going to be stuck in between a gym and a library for another 24 hours with no chance to get outside.  The storm and winds are only getting worse and even school has become optional for kids. We originally had 20 kids or so signed up for classes, but only about eight kids show up. It feels like I am in a zombie apocalypse movie — you can’t go outside of the building or you will get blown over or get lost. There was a local that went to go dump his trash at the dump and did not find it but somehow was able to find his way back to the town.

We think there might be a chance to take the third-graders out in a weather window, but by the time we get them outside we come around the building and three of them get blown over. The parents at the school are not happy with this decision and tell us we need to stay inside. We agree and apologize.  We cancel open ski from 3:30 till 6:00 and spend the afternoon watching “Eight Below” on a projector in the library.

104 hours on the island

A winter storm comes over Savoonga and skiing lessons are brought inside. Photo by Conor McDonald

It’s been over 48 hours trapped inside of a schoolhouse. It feels like a little kid’s nightmare, and I am even sleeping in the library. The wind and rain pound the school all night long. We are in for another 24 hours stuck inside. We are running out of ideas to keep the kids active and engaged in skiing. So we blend sports. We put kids on skis in the gym and give them a basketball.  I am impressed to see how well some of the kids do. I would be interested to see how they would do on skis after this day due to the balance skills they learn while skiing around a gym with skis on and dribbling a ball. We originally tried to do ski hockey on skis in the gym, but it was way too competitive and not as fun.

This is the last night in town, so we hold a makeshift biathlon. We even have one of the whaling captains come in and try out the course. He is the best shot I have ever seen, and his daughter is close behind him.

Escaping the storm

It is one of the other coach’s birthday today, I am able to wake up early enough and make the team birthday pancakes; as I make them it is quiet, too quiet. A teacher walks into the kitchen and comments that we might be able to get off the island this morning due to the moderate winds.  We eat our pancakes quickly and started to pack our gear and load up the snow-go. The snow-go is too cold to start, so we run an extension cord out the workshop and use a hair dryer to warm it before the engine starts up.

The plane is 20 minutes from landing and we get a call from Bering Air. Two planes inbound, one is turning around, and it is a small plane going from Savoonga to Gambell then to Nome. We don’t know whether to be excited that we are actually getting on a plane or that we don’t want to leave cause it felt unsafe to fly.

Another curveball. With the team of five loaded up, we find out that the plane is too small for all of us, and that they were not going to make it to Gamble. I hug the two of my now really good friends and wish one a happy birthday and ride the snow-go off to the runway strip. We watch the plane land with 30-knot crosswinds. I am scared to get on the plane, but the pilot is amazing. We have an 80-knot tailwind coming back into Nome.

As I fly back to Anchorage I find myself thinking about how humbling of an experience I have just gone through. I will soon be back on perfectly groomed trails, good snow, and spring-like weather. However, I will probably still run into people complaining. I close my eyes and think only seven days home then off to Point Hope for another humbling experience and spreading the stoke of skiing. I feel a smile come across my face and I pass out.


Featured photo by Ariana O'Harra
Conor McDonald

Conor McDonald was born and raised in the small ski town of Copper Mountain, Colorado. He has always had a love for skiing and the outdoors, which in turn brought him to UAA seeking a degree in multimedia journalism. If he is not out competing with UAA’s NCAA Division One Alpine Ski Team or in class, you can find him filming for the up and coming D’s get Degrees Production Company in the Alaska backwoods.