Without the ski coach volunteers, rural Alaska’s kids and teens would be making fewer tracks on snow, frozen rivers and sea ice. Thousands of youths have taken part in the Skiku Nordic ski program, which brings high-level athletes, including Olympians and World Cup skiers, to their villages for a week.

 “What’s great is we don’t just swoop in and swoop out,” said Calisa Kastning, Skiku executive director. “We also leave the gear behind. All of the schools are equipped with skis so kids can ski before we come and after we leave.”

The name Skiku combines Inupiaq and Yup’ik words for ice, siku and ciku, with ski. Founded in 2012 by Robin Kornfield and two-time Olympic skier Lars Flora, the program launched in the NANA Region as NANANordic, and has since expanded well beyond, now serving 55 communities. About 170 volunteer coaches take part each year.

A few years after its founding, Skiku introduced the biathlon to many villages, a program managed by Zach Hall, a former US Biathlon Team member. The program sharpens marksmanship skills with infrared laser rifles. 

 The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition honored Skiku in 2015. 

“We know these communities have high rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other related-health issues,” Kastning said. “We really feel skiing is an excellent way to encourage healthy, outdoor winter and mid-spring activities.”

When the pandemic hit, the in-person coaching program was put on pause. To keep the momentum going, Skiku, put together a 13-part instructional ski series called SkiTube (www.skiku.com/skitube). Want to learn better cross-country technique? Watch the videos! And, with coaches unable to travel to villages, the team focused on Anchorage.

“Just because kids are living in an urban environment doesn’t mean they have an opportunity to ski,” Kastning said. “We were excited to be able to provide quite a few in-town opportunities.” 

In collaboration with Native corporations, Skiku introduced Winter Wellness Wednesday, a three-hour event with a scavenger hunt, an obstacle course, an adventure ski and other family fun, not only for youth, but adults, too. Skiku also worked with suicide prevention and substance abuse programs by offering ski lessons to Anchorage youth.

Nancy Persons, who taught and coached skiing in Unalakleet for years, said the Skiku volunteers didn’t just give lessons to village kids, but also adults.  And, when their arrival coincided with the Iditarod, coaches got into the spirit, volunteering to cook breakfast for mushers arriving at the Unalakleet checkpoint in the middle of the night. 

“They were all such upbeat, positive people,” she said. “The community enjoyed them and the kids of course, they really enjoyed them.”