For visiting teams, getting there is half
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
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
"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.