Alaska’s identity is snow sports, despite uncertain future for collegiate Nordic, alpine ski teams
Think what you will about the necessity of college sports – some argue that our college and universities should exist solely for education, while others live for the NCAA and its endless stream of competition.
Still, when in October the University of Alaska system announced it would be cutting the ski programs at both Fairbanks and Anchorage (as well as UAA’s indoor track program) to help meets its massive budget deficit, the collective disbelief – and outrage – was immediately heard throughout the state. Sure, cuts need to be made, ski advocates argued. But to gut the very heart and soul of what it perhaps the most Alaskan of all collegiate sports? Absurd.
Fortunately, the fight to regain their sport was short-lived and UA president Jim Johnsen quickly reconsidered the announcement and in early November said the university as a whole would find another way. Cuts are still coming, but for now, Nordic (and Alpine skiing at UAA), are safe.
The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, although not directly involved in the painful cuts the university faced, said Johnsen made the right call.
“The Nordic skiing programs at UAA and UAF are members of our Nordic family,” said NSAA’s Erin Beam. “In many ways, the programs’ athletes embody our best qualities – hardworking in their communities and on the trails, high performers in the classroom and in competition.”
Nordic skiing, NSAA says, is not just a line-item budget, and while it’s not the most profitable of collegiate sports, it is – and always will be – a true representation of what it means to be an Alaskan.
“Nordic skiing is part of Alaska’s story, past and present, from its most rural communities to its urban hubs,” Beam said.
“Today, Alaska’s passionate and close-knit Nordic skiing community spans from thousands of youth learning to ski, to elite athletes representing Alaska and America at the sport’s highest levels. Thousands more Alaskans of all ages, skill and fitness levels ski for fun, health and competition, to connect to the state’s spectacular outdoors and embrace its winters, to spend quality time with family and friends.”
NSAA said many of UAA’s and UAF’s former skiers have come back to Alaska to become leaders in the community, youth coaches and mentors.
“They give back in many ways to the state that’s given them an opportunity for a great education and athletic growth,” Beam said. “We are very relieved with the reversal decision and hope that our communities continue to value this vibrant sport.”
This month, we spoke with three Nordic skiing standouts in the community. Dan Bosch has been a longtime coach, mentor and lover of the sport; Berit Flora grew up skiing in her home country of Norway, and today calls Alaska home; and Luke Jager, a West High junior, is well on his way to a future collegiate skiing career, ranked as one of the top skiers in the state.
For these three, skiing is … well, we asked them to explain. Here’s what they had to say.
Dan Bosch is originally from the town of Alma, N.Y., in the western part of the state, but he came to Alaska in 1975 to attend University of Alaska Fairbanks. Like many, the place grew on him and he stayed.
Also like many, Bosch learned to Nordic ski as a kid, which is when lifelong passions are truly born.
“I got a pair of cross-country skis for Christmas in the early 1970s and started skiing on the flat school grounds and corn stubble fields,” he said.
These days, skiing is simply a way of life for Bosch, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Despite the poor winters of late, he still finds time – and places to go skiing.
“Skiing is a chance to get outside all winter long,” he said. “It is also a social event, as I ski often with friends and family. Skiing really makes the winter go by far too quickly.”
Some of Bosch’s favorite memories also revolve around skiing. Several years ago, he set out on a mild January evening for a night ski with his son Gareth.
“It was the largest full moon of the year,” he said. “It was both clear and relatively warm, which is highly unusual in January. We skied classic from Service High School to Tudor Road and back. The moonlight was blue and casting intense shadows on the trail. The trail was freshly groomed and we saw only one other person, who happened to be on a bike.”
Moments like those are timeless and make the difficulty of living in Alaska during the darkest and coldest months more bearable.
To pass the winter, Bosch said his favorite places to ski are on the Tour of Anchorage Trail in the Campbell Tract, which are close to home.
“I stop every time at the wooden bridge over South Fork of Campbell Creek to watch the dipper slip under the ice to feed, and pop back up in the same open lead,” he said.
He also enjoys spring crust skiing on lakes such as Portage and Eklutna, and on the refrozen crust of snow.
“My son and I once skied up Powerline Pass and were able to glide for 16 minutes downhill after we turned around and headed back,” he said.
Bosch also finds time to help others, too. He’s been coaching Junior Nordic for more than 20 years and continues to enjoy passing on his passion to the next generations. He’s usually in charge of the Polar Cubs, a rowdy group of 6- and 7-year-olds, mostly beginners, who are fearless and clueless. It’s loads of fun, he said, especially watching the kids develop into athletes.
“When I first started coaching, Junior Nordic was one big group, and it is now split into three groups: Kincaid, Hillside and Russian Jack,” he said. “Watching these truly great kids develop from not being able to stand up on skiers to accomplished ski racers at the high school and college levels has been very rewarding for me.
“I continue to see my former Polar Cubs on the ski trails every year, and they continue to yell, ‘Hi, Coach Dan!’ ”
Skiing is, simply, a way of life, Bosch said. He still skis with his grown son and daughter and finds time for his own solo skiing as well. Anchorage is a vibrant ski community and always will be.
“I see many families skiing together on the trails,” he said. “It is a great way to be together as a family. Both of my children skied in Junior Nordic and both made lifelong friends there. It is great to go to high school races and see kids from different schools mingling together as friends and competitors, as many of them developed that friendship in Junior Nordic.”
Luke Jager is one of those kids who quite literally learned to ski about the same time he learned to walk. His parents, both athletes in college, and sister, a few years older and already an old hand at skiing, challenged him from Day 1 to push his limits.
Today Jager is one of the most competitive skiers in the state and has qualified for Arctic Winter Games, Junior Nationals and will compete in Senior Nationals in January.
“I’ve been skiing regularly pretty much since I was 8 or 9,” said Jager, a junior at West High School.
For Jager, skiing is about the competition – the thrill of victory and the satisfaction of working hard and achieving goals. Underlying all of this hard work, though, is fun, he said, because if you are not having fun, why do it?
“Obviously it is exercise, but there is so much more to it than that,” he said. “For me, right now and hopefully for the next period of my life, every aspect of my life is revolving around skiing and my days are structured around working out. It’s a very motivating time for me, competition wise and goals wise.
“It’s obviously really fun, that’s why I do it, but for me, the fun comes from the competition and feeling myself becoming stronger and faster and fitter as I’m out there.”
Because he spends so much time there, Kincaid Park is Jager’s favorite place to ski.
“It’s not just a snowmaking loop,” he jokes, referring to the past several years of less-than-ideal snow conditions. As such, the Nordic Skiing Association has worked hard to make snow to keep competitions going – much of it on a short, manmade loop that became routine for any high school racer.
“Kincaid is where my racing kind of started, and there are all these other trails out there that are good when there’s snow,” he said.
Jager, while also a competitive cross-country runner, said skiing is what gives him a feeling of community, and where his identity really lies.
“I’ve gotten so much from the ski community,” he said. “(Many of) the people I’ve met and become friends with were people I have met through the ski community. I feel like I owe them a huge debt of gratitude because they push me to be better, academically and athletically.”
In Jager’s particular age group, a rising tide of strong under-18 Alaskan athletes are emerging on the national stage, among them Gus Schumacher from Service High and Ti Donaldson from West Valley in Fairbanks.
“People are a product of their environment here, they are very tough and very competitive,” he said. “It makes us all better. If I didn’t have people like Gus Schumacher out there kicking our butts, none of us would get better. He just raised the bar for all of us.”
For now, Jager is setting his sights on Senior Nationals, which will be held in January at Soldier Hollow, Utah. If he performs strongly enough he could make an international travel team – last year’s competitions were held in Estonia, Norway and Romania. Then he still has his high school team to represent. The West High Eagles are perennial standouts in the region and at state.
Training and competing Jager said, is a give and take – he hasn’t had the standard childhood of going camping and on vacations to Hawaii. Generally his family’s trips revolve around competitions.
“I started realizing more and more that it’s the reality of it,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity I don’t want to miss.”
Snow is nothing new to Berit Flora, who was born in Namsos, Norway, a small fishing community north of Trondheim. She has been in Anchorage since 1998, drawn to Alaska by skiing.
“Alaska has been amazing for my family and me,” she said. “I grew up on skis like many young Norwegians, and my brothers and I skied through the rolling hills and mountains of NordTrondelag. The landscape is perfect for Nordic skiing. My husband and I often travel back to ski at home in Namsos.”
While she enjoys the physical benefits of Nordic skiing – it is considered one of the best workouts on the planet – skiing is also what keeps Flora rooted to her history, a reminder of what she grew up with and what she can enjoy today.
“Skiing is all about spending time with my family,” she said (her son Erik Flora is director of the APU Nordic Ski Center and her son Lars is a two-time Olympian). “On the weekends I am able to ski with my husband, my two sons who live in Anchorage (hopefully my third son will be back in Alaska after finishing a medical degree) and grandkids. Of course, I love the health benefits and feelings of happiness it creates while on the trail.”
One of the best things about skiing in Anchorage, Flora said, is the variety of locations to ski.
“There are so many nice places, like Kincaid, Hillside and Hatcher Pass,” she said. Having spent time in the Cascades, she also revels in Mount Bachelor when she visits, as well as Lillehammer and Namsos, when she is in Norway.
“Every place has something special to offer,” she added.
Flora said she stays involved in the ski community by trying to enter most, if not all, of the NSAA races that are held throughout the season, as well as training with Alaska Pacific University, which has a ski center for racers of all ages – even those who are grandparents. This season, she is planning to race in the Birkebeiner, a massive endurance ski race held each year in Wisconsin.
“Supporting these organizations is very important to me and I really like skiing with APU,” she said. “I grew up with skiing as a family activity, and the ski community can provide a good community for any family to be involved with.”
Skiing has also offered Flora the chance to spread her born-and-raised skiing abilities to prospective skiers in remote Alaska.
“I had the opportunity to work with students in rural Alaska in Selawik and Kiana through the program my son Lars built with Robin Kornfield,” she said of NANA Nordic, which pairs skiers with those in remote villages. “Just having the opportunity to share my love with Alaska and at the same time learning about Alaska Native culture is truly unique.”
Anchorage, Flora said, is an ideal Nordic ski community.
“My grandkids ski almost every day during the winter,” she said. “It’s important to help build the community with opportunities so each generation can learn from the previous one. At the Flora household we all love to ski, and we are happy our boys and grandkids love to ski too.”