Donlin-backed Skiku program ignites students’ passions for skiing

Students in the Bethel Skiku Program carry their equipment to the trailhead for a day of skiing. Photo courtesy of MSI Communications

Each winter, with the support of sponsors like Donlin Gold, the Skiku program sends volunteer coaches to remote villages in Alaska to teach kids the basic techniques of cross-country skiing, a healthy sport fit for a lifetime.

Last month, the popular program visited villages in the YK region, giving students a break from their routine P.E. classes in exchange for the opportunity to lace up their boots, clip on a pair of skis and hit the trails.

“The best part is how excited the kids are and how much they love to be outdoors playing games, finding a hill to climb up and ski down, laughing the whole time,” said Robin Kornfield, the program’s director.

In addition to lessons, Skiku outfits communities with skis, boots, poles and bindings so students can practice what they learned when the instructors are gone. The program forms partnerships with local schools and community leaders and would “like to develop more village-based coaches who can help get kids and families outside and on skis,” according to Kornfield.

This winter, Skiku’s coaches visited Golovin, Aniak, Chuathbaluk, Crooked Creek, Sleetmute, Stony River, Upper Kalskag and Lower Kalskag, Atmautluak, Shageluk and Bethel, along with other villages in different parts of the state. An estimated 7,000 students annually benefit from the program, which relies heavily on program sponsors, like Donlin Gold.

“The Skiku program supports our goal of ‘every person going home safe and healthy every day,’” said Andy Cole, Donlin Gold’s General Manager. “Studies have found that regular physical activity improves the health and quality of life of Alaskans of all ages, and that’s an outcome that Donlin Gold is pleased to sponsor.”

Skiku, a name that combines the Iñupiaq word for ice —siku—with ski, and its sister program, NANA Nordic, serve more than 40 communities across Alaska, from Anchorage to villages in the YK to the North Slope. It works in statewide partnerships with school districts, corporate and community organizations and volunteer coaches from the broader ski community to foster the health, recreation and competitive-sports benefits of cross-country skiing, biathlon and summer running.

Teams of staff and volunteer coaches instruct at local schools, supplementing the physical-education classes. They also provide after-school cross-country ski clinics to both adults and children.

For many of the volunteer coaches, which includes Olympians, World Cup skiers, university coaches, college athletes, dedicated high school skiers and community coaches, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to meet Alaska’s Native people on their home turf and develop strong mentoring relationships while sharing their love of cross-country skiing with the youth of rural Alaska.

While the program is designed to teach kids a healthy skill they can enjoy for life, the volunteer coaches come away inspired and ready to return. As one coach put it, “Watching kids go from total frustration at the beginning of the week to figuring out that they actually can ski, and their skis can take them new places, is insanely rewarding. The best was looking out the window after our ski program was done for the day and seeing groups of kids skiing around town, going from house to house, stopping at the store, or just enjoying the trails.”

To learn more about the Skiku program, see its village visit schedule or even volunteer, visit