• January 9, 2018

     
    When Robin Kornfield, M.B.A. ’07, asked Iñupiat elders how to say “ski,” they didn’t have an answer. There was no indigenous word in Northwest Alaska to describe one of Alaska’s favorite winter pastimes.

    That summarizes both the name and the mission for Skiku, which Robin now directs (the name is a play on ‘siku,’ the Iñupiaq word for ‘ice.’) Each winter, as the sunlight returns, Skiku volunteers travel to 40 Alaska villages to teach skiing and, in turn, the rewards of an active lifestyle.

    Robin grew up in Kiana, about 55 miles east of Kotzebue, but didn’t start cross-country skiing until she moved to Anchorage and started a family. Through a friend’s encouragement, Robin put her five-year-old daughter on skis, her son on her back, and hit the groomed winter trails of the state’s biggest city. Both kids are now elite skiers, but needed that family friend to introduce them to the sport. People just didn’t ski in Kiana, even with snow on the ground eight months of the year.

    “The kids who live in the village I come from are really active kids,” Robin said. “It just seems logical that they should be skiing, but they weren’t.”

    So when Lars Flora, a two-time Olympian, approached her with the idea of bringing skis to the villages, she was on board. At the time, Robin was vice president of communications and marketing for NANA Development. Lars originally asked if NANA would sponsor him as an athlete, which Robin declined, but “he came back a couple weeks later and he said, ‘I will bring my friends, I will bring other World Cup athletes, Olympians and elite-level skiers, and we will go to your villages and teach your kids to ski.

    “That,” she said, “was an offer I could not refuse.”

    She called her friend Scott Warren, M.Ed. ’03, then principal at Kiana School, and he in turn called principals in neighboring Selawik, Noorvik and Kotzebue.

    “We all kind of stopped everything we were doing and did whatever it took to make this whole thing happen,” she said.

    The program launched as NANANordic in 2012, shuffling skis among the four schools. Other principals heard word and the program quickly expanded. Now, Robin is the program’s executive director, bringing skis and coaches to 40 villages in six school districts across the state. It’s still known as NANANordic in the Northwest Arctic Borough, and Skiku everywhere else.

    From February through April, teams of volunteer coaches — including UAA ski coaches Andrew Kastning and Marine Dusser — disperse across the state, while staff in Anchorage makes quick repairs and box up the next week’s food and supplies.

    “There’s this logistical dance that goes on,” Robin said. “You get everyone out the door, [then] you’re preparing for the following week … It’s a big juggling act.” Her career in event planning, paired with her M.B.A. degree, prepared her for the all-encompassing role.

    “When you’re running a small operation, one person has to have the full gamut of skills,” she said.

    Winter is obviously Skiku’s main event, but Robin stays busy all year inventorying gear, repairing damages, recruiting coaches and soliciting donations to keep the program running. Coaches are asked to donate flight miles, but Skiku can cover costs for any volunteer in Alaska. Last year, coaches came from as close as Shishmaref and as far as Vermont. This year, a pair from France will take part during their Alaska trip.

    The program intends to teach skiing in rural Alaska, but also provides a chance for urban Alaskans to gain a deeper understanding of their state, especially the limits and the freedoms of living in the Bush. For some Alaska Native skiers, it also provides a chance to return home.

    “The opportunity goes both ways,” Robin said. “When we first started, we thought we were teaching people to ski and that was it. We weren’t thinking about what else was going to be the result.

    “Meeting people, talking to an adult all day who is very interested in your life, all these kinds of things that just happen naturally though this program … those are exactly the kind of experiences these kids need,” Robin added. The healthy habits modeled by the coaches — practicing, setting goals, even just carrying a water bottle — leave an impression, she said.

    The program has also provided a new perspective on her home. The first year, coaches wanted to ski 33 miles between Noorvik and Selawik.

    “I said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Robin recalled. “I was so ingrained with the idea that to get around in rural Alaska, you have to use snowmachines.” The coaches skied anyway, arriving safe in the next village with amazing photos of a 2,000-head caribou herd they’d passed on the journey.

    “I was a little jealous,” Robin said. “I come from Kiana and I’ve never been to where I came upon 2,000 caribou. And especially not on skis.”

    She’s since worked up to skiing between villages too, traversing 33 miles from Ambler to Shungnak one year, and 37 miles from Kiana to Selawik another.

    “You can ski your whole life and that’s the real thing we’re trying to accomplish here,” she said.

    Kids ski up the surrounding hills in Anaktuvuk Pass.
     
    Skiku has grown up alongside its coaches, rippling outward from one good idea to generate several more. Skiku recently launched a biathlon program. Next steps include cross-cultural training, so volunteers can understand the regions they’ll visit, and promoting village-based coaches, so kids can access advice and equipment all winter long.

    The organization’s core group of volunteers is leading many of these initiatives. As someone who enjoys tackling new projects, that frees Robin to focus on another leadership role or project soon.

    But she’ll always be committed to the mission of Skiku. “We’ve definitely seen doors open in urban Alaska now that the best skiers in the country are stationed right here in Anchorage,” she said. “I’d like to see those doors open statewide for rural Alaska.

    “It is seven years, but it feels we’re still at the beginning. There’s still a lot more that we can do.”


    To volunteer, donate or see when the skiers are headed your way, visit Skiku.org.

     Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

    University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement 3211 Providence Dr. Suite 236 - Anchorage, AK 99508

     

  • Robin Kornfield

    Robin Kornfield ’07, executive director of Skiku, in front of the logistics map in Anchorage.
    (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)