Add this Anchorage homeboy and Valley recreation rat to the list of Alaskans that support bringing the Arctic Winter Games to the Mat-Su Borough in 2024. The AWG are a biennial celebration of sport competition and culture for the nations, states and territories of the circumpolar arctic. In 2024 it is Alaska’s turn in the international rotation to host. Previous Alaska host communities have included Fairbanks (1982, 1988, 2014), the Kenai Peninsula Borough (2006), Chugiak Eagle River (1996) and Anchorage (1974). The MSB has never hosted.
In 1974 I remember getting the week off from middle school in Anchorage so we could take in the “games.” It was blast. I went to as many of the events and festivities as possible and decided that I wanted to take part the next time. In 1976 I earned a spot on the Team Alaska as a nordic racer for the games in Schefferville, Quebec. I’d only been out of Alaska three times before and it was a real eye opener: memorable, fun and a marvelous learning experience. I even came back with a couple of ulu medals.
The AWG games were my first experience in international racing and events. In my ‘20s I would compete in multiple NCAA Championships, US National Championships and Olympic Trials. I often trained at Hatcher Pass and after I was done ski racing I took in even more of the outdoor winter recreation available in the Valley: skiing at Talkeetna and Nancy Lake, ice skating at the Palmer Hay Flats and Jim Creek and snowmachining out of Big Lake.
My family has had a recreation cabin near Big Lake since 1960. Over the years it’s been fantastic to see the growth of recreational opportunities for all ages and abilities. In the ‘90s I worked for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources on developing Hatcher Pass as an alpine and nordic ski area. In the spring of 1996 Rob Wells pointed a group of us up an easement next to what is now Mountain Springs B&B. From there we traversed over the woods and meadows and came out at what is now the trailhead for the Government Peak Rec Area. I was blown away by the country. Later I went back and skied it. It was clear to me that when trails went in it would rival Kincaid Park in Anchorage.
Twenty-five years later it is thrilling to see is how a group of dedicated volunteers, in conjunction with the MSB - and with support from organizations like the Mat-Su Health Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation - has developed GPRA, and now at long last opened Skeetawk Alpine Area. Skeetawk is starting small but someday it will have chairlifts reaching far up the mountain to access its full 3,000’ of vertical. Someday it will rival Alyeska – and at the same time complement its cousin on Turnagain Arm.
During a December MSB Assembly meeting there was testimony regarding hosting the games. I heard several people oppose the bid and declare that there was “nothing in it for them.” But there is! When kids and families have the opportunity to take part in winter recreational activities, whether they’re skiing, skating, snowmaching or snowboarding, they are far less likely be to doing drugs and breaking into your home. Your neighborhood becomes safer. Our “common unity” becomes healthier. Or as I’ve heard some parents say when looking at the cost of a season ski pass or hockey fees: “It’s cheaper than drug rehab.”
To be sure Alaska is facing tough economic times. We have been here before. Although I was just a small kid, I vividly remember the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Undaunted by the devastation it wrought just five years later Alaska hosted the Junior National Skiing Championships at Alyeska. The races were a big deal. They were the first junior national ski championships held in Alaska and came at a time when the state was looking for a positive vision after the Earthquake as well as a tourism boost.
The athletes, The Anchorage Times would declare after the event, "absorbed in their brief week here at least a flavor of Alaska and an acquaintance with some of its people. They have an idea, at least, what Alaska is all about...” "And we hope the word they carry home about Alaska will be a good one. We would like to have them back again -- along with their parents and brothers and sisters and all their friends.''
Hosting the Arctic Winter Games is a positive development for the Mat-Su Borough.