About a week and a half ago at Chain Reaction Cycles where I'm the Service Manager, I overheard
some news that some 9:ZERO:7 Bikes were headed up to a school on the Arctic Slope of Alaska. I thought that it was super cool that a school was getting bikes, but didn't think much more about it. Then I heard that former Olympian Lars Flora was involved. Lars has made a name for himself all over rural Alaska by helping schools bring in cross country skis to get the kids in the villages more active and to have fun outdoors. I realized that Lars must be working on the same style program, but with bikes, so I shot Lars a text asking if a bike mechanic was needed on the trip. Within 15 minutes he stopped by work to fill me in on what was needed. I still didn't even know where the village was, nor had I ever been to the Arctic Slope of Alaska. Three days later, Lars, myself and three others were headed up to Kali School in Point Lay, Alaska.
The five of us began with a flight up to Utqiaġvik(formerly known as Barrow) the northern most town in the United States, via a stop in Deadhorse to drop off a plane full of oil pipeline employees. Once we arrived in Utqiaġvik, we had bags and bike boxes to shuttle down the road from the Alaska Airlines mini terminal to the Ravn Airlines super mini terminal. After that was done, we had a few hours to kill at the top of the world, so we decided to hike through town to Sam & Lee's for their Chinese buffet. Yeah, a Chinese buffet in Utqiaġvik, and their kimchee and pizza were amazing! We ate our Chinese/Korean/American buffet, tracked down some coffee, and pretty soon we were on a plane to the tiny Native Alaskan Village of Point Lay, home to roughly 300 people.
Upon landing in Point Lay, we were promptly greeted by the new principal of Kali School, Zachary Stinson; a middle school student, Taylor; and one of the great personalities of the town, Jim Jim. We drove the half mile from the Airport to the school and dropped our bags off, then immediately hiked to the edge of town to inspect the walrus herd living out on the spit across the lagoon. As we were walking through town, we began to notice some of the paths and trails that were already scattered across the tundra and we began to understand the potential that Point Lay has for bikes. Especially in the winter, since a packed snow path leaves virtually zero damage on the ground after the springtime melt. All the little tundra gullies looked like perfect little luge runs from town down to the lagoon and I couldn't wait to meet the kids and show them what an awesome place for biking they have. Later in the evening, Zach invited us up to his teacher housing apartment for turkey soup and to chat with us about what was in store for the week. Zach's ultimate plan, with help and inspiration from Garrett the language arts and history teacher, was to create an adventure club for the Kali School students.
The snow gods must have known that fat bikes arrived and we woke up to a fresh two inches of snow. After a quick breakfast and coffee the five of us from Anchorage walked down the hall from the Home Ec room (our team base for the week) to the gymnasium for the morning announcements and the pledge. The school principal, Zach, introduced us in his morning announcements and you could feel the excitement from all the students through the room. The students said the Pledge of Allegiance in both Inupiaq and in English. They also sang happy birthday to one of the school teachers in both Inupiaq and English. Then all the excited students went to their classes and our group split up as well. Lars and Sophie stayed in the gym and taught gym classes. The school is so small that there isn't actually a gym teacher. Each teacher brings their students into the gym for half an hour and its usually free reign for the kids, so Lars and Sophie got them all together to play basketball, rollerblade hockey, sharks and minnows, and other games to get the kids off the bleachers. Then Ru, the video journalist in our group went to Garrett's room to teach about video and film making. Finally Lael and I went to the wood shop which would become the bike shop for the week.
Lael and I had an hour to come up with a game plan before the high schoolers would arrive for their first bike class. Lael has raced ultra distance bike races all over the world and has set records in almost everything she has started. We came up with a couple videos to show the students as a way to introduce ourselves and to show what fat bikes are all about, and we got the bikes ready to be assembled. First was the group of ten or so high schoolers. We watched the videos and went to the wood shop to begin building our first bike. Immediately, students were jumping out of their seats asking questions and wanting to help. We got the bike built in 40 minutes which left us 20 minutes to go out and ride the bike we just built plus Zach's and Garrett's personal bikes. Every single high school student got to ride the bike we just built and they all came back with an ear to ear grin. Next was the middle school group which was a much larger and more energetic group. I have never seen so many kids so eager to learn, help, and build a bike. It was overwhelming but a magical moment. We got our next bike built in 50 minutes which only left time for a couple test rides, but there was so much excitement. After the middle school bike class, we had time for a quick lunch and then we ended the school day with an hour of roller blade hockey for the middle school gym class and it became a real workout!
Here's where the Kali Adventure Club begins! From 1:30pm to 3:00pm, kids from all over town brought their broken bikes in to us to learn how to fix them. One of the reasons that Zach wanted the school to have nice new fat bikes was for the students to learn how to maintain and take care of bikes. Point Lay has so many broken down or unsafe bikes scattered throughout town and nobody has the ability or tools to be able to fix them. George, one of the middle school students, was very mechanically inclined and picked up some of the mechanic techniques really quick, so much so that he was able to help some of the other kids fix their bikes. Even with George's help, there were still over a dozen kids in the small wood shop asking for help or just wanting to be involved. Four of us coaches were fixing flat tires, installing handlebars, lubing chains, and Ru was being followed by her own group of kids that wanted to play with her camera. Eventually, we got too many broken bikes and not enough parts to be able to fix them. A few of the kids took us for a hike around town to look for more broken down bikes to salvage parts from so that we could fix the students' broken bikes. We ended up finding two partial bikes and a few wheels in a pile of wood down at the power plant, so we collected those and headed back to the Kali School wood shop. With those parts we were able to get two students' bikes up and running again! We ended up working on bikes that first day until well after 5:00pm. The rest of the night consisted of us making tacos in our Home Ec room and chatting amongst ourselves about the day, the kids, the bikes, and our lives in general.
Wednesday, day two, was very similar to the first day we were there, except we added more bikes to the equation! A few more bikes arrived in shipments to the little town. The planes that arrive in Point Lay can only carry so much, so bikes were arriving all week in groups of two or three at a time. The morning started with a relaxed coffee and oatmeal, then onto the morning announcements, the pledge, and then bike classes. On Wednesday though, the students were going to build the bikes, instead of me showing them how to build the bikes. Same as the day before, all the students wanted in on the action and the bikes were built in no time. The high school group finished their bike build in 30 minutes so we had 30 minutes left to play around on the bikes around town. During the ride Iqsi, a tenth grader at the school noticed that the rear tire on the bike he was riding was leaking air. As soon as we got back, he was able to swap out the inner tube all by himself. The middle schoolers also got their bike done quickly and had 20 minutes to ride before lunch. They immediately took the bikes right into the tundra, tussocks and all. So many bouncing smiling, and laughing kids! We ate a quick lunch and I got word that my own bike had arrived into town, so I built it up as quick as possible before the 1:30pm to 3:00pm bike maintenance session began. Right away, teachers and students were taking my bike for test rides to see what the the 9:ZERO:7 Slider is all about. It's set up with a Gates Carbon Drive belt drive system and everybody was curious why its on my bike and how it worked. I was even warned by one of the kids that my belt might snap if I ride into the tundra since the tundra is bumpy. The Gates Belt survived by the way!
As soon as 3:00pm rolled around, there were dozens of kids at the door all wanting a chance to ride their school's shiny new 9:ZERO:7 fat bikes. I got suited up real fast and got out the door with close to ten "shaking with excitement" kids! We rode all over town, even to the 900 block which is literally 100 yards away from the school. We headed back to the school to do a shift change on the bikes, and at this point the kids were getting the hang of sizing the bikes up for each other and dialing in the correct seat height. We got out with the second group of kids and Lars and Sophie joined us on their cross country skis. This second group of kids wanted to ride out towards the airplane hanger about a mile out of town, so off we went. We even collected kids that brought their own BMX bikes along the way. We made it most of the way to the hanger and got distracted by a small hill by a connex style building that the kids said was an old WWII Navy Gym. We played around on the hill out there, Ru took lots of photos and videos of us, and then some of the kids realized how tired they were. Luckily, Ru had gotten out there with a 4-wheeler so some kids hopped on the back of that, and one of the town workers brought a truck over to help haul more kids and bikes back to the school. With the younger kids getting a ride, Iqsi and I decided to ride the beach back into town. He showed me where a dead walrus had washed up on the beach. As soon as we got back to the school, we realized how long we had actually been outside. It was time for the kids to go home and for the school to close, but some of the kids in the first group were upset that they only got 30 minutes of ride time and the second group was out riding for well over an hour. They had every right to be upset, and it was up to us to come up with a better solution for sharing bikes.
After the Kali Adventure Club, Lael and Ru went for a run, while Lars, Sophie and I got out for a ride to explore the vast landscape. We cruised through town, made it past the cemetery all the way to the gravel pit looking out over the Kokolik River, and even checked out the dead walrus on the beach. It was great to get some fresh air outside the school, clear our heads, and an awesome opportunity to see the sights. Point Lay is truly a beautiful place. But we still needed to come up with a plan for sharing the bikes in a fair way.
To be continued...
Stay Tuned for part 2 of the Kali Adventure Club in Point Lay by Will Ross