ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Road trips a misnomer in frozen Alaska

For visiting teams, getting there is half the fun

By Bill Pennington
New York Times

ETHEL, Alaska — It took 90 minutes at sea in a small boat, five hours driving in two vans and 75 minutes on a commuter jet before the boy's and girls' basketball teams from Seldovia reached Bethel, a remote town in western Alaska.

When the players stepped off the jet onto the Bethel tarmac, as flat as the tundra enveloping it, the late-afternoon temperature was 38 degrees below zero.

Seldovia's players would stay for four nights, sleeping on classroom floors at the local high school, to play three basketball games in a round-robin tournament.

Joining them were teams from Unalakleet, a village of about 800 people on the Bering Sea, and Homer, a port town like Seldovia in the state's south-central maritime wilderness.

"I feel sorry for those kids back East who just have to drive 20 minutes to the next suburb for a game," said Nikki Dill of Unalakleet. "How boring."

And so went another typical week in Alaskan high school sports, where to play something as routine as a basketball or volleyball game, hundreds of teams habitually crisscross a mammoth state on jets, marine ferries, vans and even caravans of snowmobiles.

They do it at great cost — Bethel's high school athletic travel budget exceeds $200,000 — and they do it with striking aplomb despite inherent dangers. An unexpected blizzard a few years ago forced a Bethel team returning from a game by snowmobile to spend the night outdoors beneath the emergency tarp of a survival kit.

They do it, Alaska's high school athletes say, because the challenges are part of the fun of playing school sports.

"I have seen so much culturally, met so many different people, and the long trips let me bond with my teammates," Dill said. "Where is the hardship?"

Alaska's interscholastic sports map is probably without rival anywhere in the athletic world.

Consider that its westernmost sports conference includes not only Bethel and Unalakleet but also villages like Unalaska on the Aleutian island chain and the Arctic Ocean port of Barrow.

The distance from Unalaska to Barrow, annual regional rivals, is roughly equal to the distance from Miami to Boston.

Unalaska is so far away and its weather so fickle, few teams want to go there, leading to another odd custom of school sports life in the state: Unalaska pays other high schools to come play against its students.

The teams on Kodiak Island do the same thing.

"We give them about $3,000 to come," said Pat Costello, Kodiak High School's wrestling coach. "What difference does it make? It would cost us about $3,000 in airfare to go play them."

In the southeast part of the state, at Ketchikan High they frequently offer teams $3,000 and throw in harbor tours, halibut feeds and a promise to put up every visiting athlete in a private home.

"But it seems like we are still the ones usually traveling," Rick Collins, Ketchikan's wrestling coach, said.

Ketchikan has one of the state's largest high schools and yet a short, so-called road trip involves a 36-hour ferry ride to Juneau. The bunks for the voyage are sleeping bags on the ferry deck.

"Lots of card games," Collins said. "Our kids have gotten really good at hearts."

The challenge of Alaska's high school sports structure is not just its geographic and weather extremes, and the daunting travel logistics they impose. The state's population is roughly 640,000 spread across more than 572,000 square miles, or nearly one-sixth the land mass of the United States. More than 100 Alaskan high schools have fewer than 50 students.

In the Bethel area, the school district is geographically about the size of Ohio. At the district's 23 schools, some basketball teams have the minimum number of players needed to start a game, five. And that starting five may consist of girls and boys.

It is not uncommon for basketball games in this part of the state to end with one team fielding only three players, because two have fouled out. State championships have been won in the division of the smallest Alaska schools by teams that finished the title game with four players. They are the real-life "Hoosiers," legends of the Alaskan bush, which is defined as any school in a town that cannot be reached by car, places like Seldovia and Unalakleet.

These are just additional hurdles in a frequently harsh environment, and like most other obstacles confronting Alaskans, they do not seem to overly trouble anyone.