Thursday, Day 3 of our time spent at Kali School in Point Lay, Alaska was a big day. The five of us coaches kicked off the day the same as usual with coffee, oatmeal, eggs, and bacon in the Home Ec room from 8 to 9 until the morning announcements and Pledge of Allegiance. Today though, Lael and I wouldn't be teaching bike building classes since all the bikes had finally arrived and were already built up by the students. Lael was asked to give a presentation on some of the ultra distance racing and riding that she has accomplished. If you're not familiar with Lael Wilcox, she is the record holder for The Tour Divide, Trans Am, and the Baja Divide among many others. She also spent most of last summer riding to every corner of Alaska accessible by road and documenting her journey, and that’s what the students were most excited to hear about.
While Lael was giving her presentation, Sophie and I became the gym teachers for the day. We started with the high schoolers, who have a deep passion for basketball. I had to get my jump shot game on point real fast so I could hold my own while we played the basketball game “bump”. Believe it or not, I actually won a city wide free throw competition back when I was in 6th grade. Unfortunately, I don't believe I have shot one hoop since, so needless to say, my game was a bit rusty. Imagine that! Anyway, it didn’t matter how poorly I played, the students were off the bleachers, being active, and having fun. Next was the fourth and fifth graders for a half hour of sharks and minnows, followed by another half hour of sharks and minnows with the second and third graders. The last gym class before lunch was the giant class of Pre K, Kindergarten, and first graders. Right before the class, Sophie said to me “Be prepared to get touched,” followed by laughter. Sophie had been teaching gym all week and knew the drill. I, however, didn’t quite realize how “hands on” the youngest Kali School Students were. At one point, I literally had four little Kali kids hanging off all four of my limbs. Meanwhile the twenty some other kids were running back and forth for the warm ups. With the shorter attention span of the younger class, we had to continually switch things up between warm up, sharks and minnows, line tag, and basketball at rapid fire pace. We finally moved on to a short lunch break and were able to regroup as coaches. Lunch was over before we knew it and we were back in the gym for an hour of middle school roller hockey.
Once school was out, all the kids that wanted to ride the fat bikes needed to go home and ask their parents if it was ok, and meet us back at the wood shop. About twenty kids ranging from second grade all the way through high school age showed up to ride bikes with us. This time though, we had a plan! Lars thought about it overnight and came up with a game plan to ease tensions with the bike sharing. What we did was we went for a large group hike, while a small group rode the fat bikes out for five minutes and then five minutes back to the group. Then the kids would give the bike to the next kid in line. We were able to do short turns on the bikes, and almost everybody got to have multiple turns with the bikes. The biking groups went to a little hill to ride down, sprinted into a huge snow drift to see how far we could make it through, and got to explore more of Point Lay than these kids would normally get to see. The hiking group had just as much fun. While we were constantly switching out riders for the bikes, the hiking group was busy jumping off the raised gravel road into the wind blown snow drifts off the side of the road, having snowball fights, and just plain old having fun being kids outside. This was the day that us coaches really had to make an effort to remember everyone’s name. I was constantly being asked, “Mr. Will, Mr. Will, can I ride the orange bike next?”. Which was tough because there were two orange bikes, and they were both size extra small 9:ZERO:7 Whiteout’s. These adult fat bikes miraculously fit even the second graders. So the two orange XS bikes became the most sought after bikes in all of Point Lay, and us coaches had to remember not only the kids’ names, but the order of kids in line for the bikes. All in all, the hour and a half of biking, hiking, and hucking into the powder off the road, went much smoother than the previous day’s ride. All the kids were polite, excited to ride, and totally stoked to share the bikes with their friends.
Once we got back to the school we had just enough time to change, and then we were on to filleting salmon to cook for the whole town. Last summer, Lars worked on a salmon fishing boat in Bristol Bay, and he hooked us up with 200 pounds of fresh salmon to grill. This was quite the assembly line operation. There were about ten kids helping us fillet the fish, portion the fillets, oil and season the fish, and grill the fish. I was amazed at all the kids’ willingness to help. And I should mention, it was 10°F and windy, and these kids were outside helping cut frozen fish for hours voluntarily. I was especially impressed with three kids in particular. With most of the fish cooked and already being served to and eaten by anyone from town that wanted in on free fish, Polo, Amber, and Iqsi stayed outside at the grill to finish cooking the remaining fish. During and after the salmon feast more and more adults from town were making an effort to talk to us coaches and learn about who we were and what the fat bikes were all about. This was an incredible community effort and I really felt like it showed that we were there for the town of Point Lay.
Once all of Point Lay, Alaska had eaten and cleaned up, the town held live native music and dancing for us to watch and participate in. I have never been a dancer, but I couldn’t say no to all the peer pressure these kids put on me. I jumped on the dance floor with all the kids and started doing what everybody else was doing. I made one major mistake however, and I paid the price. Apparently, there are different dances between the men and women. I learned that the hard way after lots of laughter. But hey, at least I provided some extra entertainment. Luckily, its much less intimidating to be taught how to dance by ten year olds than it is to learn how at homecoming or prom. After my few dances, I sat back on the bleachers and just took in the music, dancing, and show the town was giving us. Passed down through the generations of Inupiat communities, every song had a matching dance, and they all told a story. Some were stories of feasts, some were of reincarnation, and some were of whaling voyages. It was a really rewarding way for us to end the day.
The next morning and our final day in Point Lay, a cold front had moved in and my walk from the teacher housing to the school was quite chilly and windy. We had our usual coffee and breakfast in the Home Ec room, then morning announcements and pledge of allegiance in the gym. We followed that up with high school gym class. After gym, both the high schoolers and the middle schoolers were each given a full hour of optional bike riding time. Since it was so cold, Lael and I only had a few takers in the high school group. I wanted to show the high schoolers the potential for trails that all the little tundra gullies from town down to the beach had. I wanted to teach them how to groom their own little trails with a snow machine (Alaskan for snowmobile), and help them understand that the trails would help them and the younger kids develop bike handling skills. We rode to the tundra gullies at the edge of town and chatted about trail grooming, but the cold had taken its toll. Lael took most of the high schoolers back inside but Burton, one of the high schoolers, wanted to keep riding.
Burton and I headed out beyond the other end of town, all the way to the airport hanger. We got there around 10:30 AM, just as the sun was rising. As we were watching the colors unfold, Burton told me a story of what happened to the 100 yard wide chunk of tundra between the airport hanger and the ocean. Back in WWII, the US Navy had a small military base up in Point Lay, and they caused a huge oil spill just between the hanger and the ocean. The site was finally cleaned up just a few years ago, but it left a barren chunk of gravel in the tundra. We rode down the oil spill site to the beach only to find more damage to the land. This time, Burton showed me where the shore line was receding. Not only that, but how much it was receding. All of Point Lay is surrounded by a spit which leaves a sizable lagoon protecting the shore from the current and tide. Even with all this protection, the shore is continuously being gouged away by the water from the rising sea levels. At the same time, right behind us is an unbelievable sunrise. We checked the time and decided to head back, but we took the beach back to town instead of the roads. On our way, we passed more and more places where the tide has been ripping up the shoreline. I’ve always heard about the damage that climate change has done to the Arctic, but I had never seen anything in person until then. I started the ride wanting to show Burton something, but I ended the ride completely blown away by everything that Burton showed me.
After school, Timothy, a younger local that works at the school, and Garrett the Language Arts teacher wanted to go out for a ride with a few of us coaches. Lars, Sophie, and I geared up for another cold ride, this time in whiteout style conditions due to ice fog. Visibility was really low and within no time, we were completely out of sight of the town. We took a short break about one and a half miles out of town. Timothy told us that this used to be the water source of Point lay. When we asked why it was no longer the water source, Timothy shared a sad story for us. As climate change has been wreaking havoc on the the Arctic, the permafrost under the tundra has been melting. As the permafrost melts, it creates deep channels or trenches in the tundra, and these trenches can reroute rivers and drain lakes. That’s exactly what happened to the Point Lay water source; a trench opened up at the edge of this lake and drained the lake into the Kokolik River which dumped it right into the ocean. Just more visible evidence of all the negative impacts of climate change and that the Arctic is taking the bulk of the damage. After our short rest, we rode across the tundra, over tussocks, and dodged the deep permafrost trenches, to look out over the Kokolik River running into the Arctic Ocean. The sky cleared and we returned to Point Lay where we were greeted by a swarm of Kali kids making the most of their last opportunity to hang out with us.
We ended the week with a group dinner of home made salmon chowder using the leftovers from the previous night’s salmon feast. Zach, the Kali School Principal and Garrett joined us and we shared stories of our favorite moments and talked about the future of the Kali Adventure Club. After dinner, we packed up for our return trip home. We left at sunrise the next morning and flew to Utqiaġvik where we were grounded for 24 hours since an ice fog front moved in and pilots were unable to fly. So, another trip to Sam & Lee’s Chinese Buffet was in order followed by a nice stroll through town to check out the beach, museum, and coffee hut that interestingly enough also sells sushi. We spent the night at the Arctic Slope School District housing sharing more stories of the week and relaxing. Finally, the weather receded and we were all able to fly home. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to share my love of bikes with the kids of Kali School in Point Lay, Alaska. This was a trip of a lifetime and an experience that I will never forget.