Road warriors

Sometimes, getting to and from a game for Alaska sports teams is as memorable as playing it

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

Alaska's geography makes just getting to the game seem like the plot of the film "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - with ferries, snowmachines and other modes of travel added in.

With many of Alaska's 53 school districts off the road system, coaches can't call up the bus barn when they need to get to a game. So teams fly, ride the state ferry or find other ways to get around. Even those teams on the road system can drive thousands of miles over the course of a season - often in weather that makes travel difficult at best.

Travel is one of the biggest costs for student activities, especially for those schools off the main highway system. Not only are road trips expensive, but they can keep students away from classes for more than a week.

Haines High School girls basketball coach Ray Chapin spent several years coaching at Unalaska High School in the Aleutian Islands, where he said road trips were always an adventure.

"I remember a 2,700-mile trip that lasted 13 days," Chapin said. "We went from Unalaska to Anchorage to Fairbanks and finally to Tok for a tournament, then on to North Pole and Minto, where they had some great moose meat stew and we went ice fishing, then on to Nenana, ... then back to Anchorage. ... But the scary ones are the trips to places like King Cove and Sand Point, where the pilot gets out of the plane and kisses the ground."

With Unalaska-Dutch Harbor's always-marginal weather, getting back home can be a problem.

"One time, after the state tournament, we flew out to Unalaska on Monday and circled the airport before we came back to Anchorage," Chapin said. "We did the same thing on Tuesday, circled and came back. On Wednesday we got as far as King Salmon, and we finally got home on Thursday."

Many schools around the state have similar travel stories.

The Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team missed a game in Cordova when the team's commercial jet developed a malfunction and the flight ended in Yakutat. Another time, the Juneau softball team's trip to Anchorage became an expensive shopping junket when a freak snowstorm canceled all eight scheduled games.

Yakutat High School Principal Rod Schug told a similar tale of a basketball trip to Prince of Wales Island for games in January. His school's boys and girls teams flew to Juneau, where they spent the night at a church, then flew on to Ketchikan the next morning. Since the Alaska Marine Highway System's schedule to Prince of Wales is limited, his teams caught an Inter-island Ferry Authority boat, which broke down and had to return to Ketchikan for repairs.

His teams finally got to the games by catching the state ferry. However he had to charter a plane to get his girls team back to Ketchikan for a junior varsity team game because the IFA boat was still in repairs.

Schug, who used to coach basketball in Kivalina in the Kotzebue-based Northwest Arctic Borough School District, said his team sometimes took snowmachines to get to games in nearby villages. He also used to teach and coach basketball for Alaska Gateway School, which serves the villages of Tetlin, Eagle and Dot Lake. He said a van would pick up kids in four or five villages and take them to a restaurant in Tok for meetings.

"The travel is incredible. It's not like we can jump in the bus and drive 40 miles," said Schug, who graduated in 1978 from Anchorage's Bartlett High School, where his longest sports road trip was to a basketball game 175 miles south to Seward.

Ferry schedules that don't line up with game times make it difficult for teams in Southeast to use the cheapest form of transportation available. Riding the ferry also means a time commitment, since it can take more than a day to get from Skagway to Ketchikan.

When teams on the north end of Southeast head south, or vice versa, they try to double up on games to cut down on missed school time. For example, Skagway's basketball teams will play at Klawock on the weekend, then at Kake early the next week.

For the larger Southeast communities of Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, teams use a mix of ferry travel and Alaska Airlines scheduled flights when they go to league games. On some road trips, Juneau will fly to Sitka or Ketchikan the morning of the first game of the series, then catch the ferry home after the second game.

When the ferry schedule doesn't align with game times, Juneau has been known to rent a catamaran to get basketball teams, cheerleaders and the pep band to regional tournaments.

To get to Region V basketball games in Wrangell in February, some Petersburg coaches, cheerleaders and players were given a lift by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Anacapa, where staffers taught students about boating safety.

On Alaska's West Coast, where there isn't a ferry system, flying is the only way to go for most teams.

Since most of Alaska's rural villages are served only by small planes, there are limitations on how many basketball players make the trip. In many cases, the plane holds 10 people the pilot, the coach in the co-pilot's seat and eight players. On longer trips, when the plane has to carry more fuel, players have been known to leave their backpacks home, taking only their game gear and the clothes they're wearing. Giving up the extras means the eighth player can make the trip and the plane still meets weight allowances.

The Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District - which serves a 50,000-square-mile region larger than Minnesota - decided a few years ago that buying its own plane was a better use of money than leasing a plane or chartering flights. The district bought a Cessna 406, which seats a pilot and nine passengers. The district uses the plane to transport teams to games, school board members to monthly meetings, teachers to in-service training sessions and to haul freight.

Business Manager Kerry Jarrell said the plane only meets about a third of the district's travel needs, so charter flights with commercial carriers fill in the gaps. On a typical sports weekend, the plane will pick up a boys basketball team in Stebbins and fly it to Shaktoolik, then take the Shaktoolik girls to White Mountain, where the White Mountain boys catch a ride to Shishmaref.

"Activities are an integral part of the complete educational program of our schools," Jarrell said. "In an area where students are isolated from each other, where no roads connect villages and where winter weather prevents most outdoor sporting events, activities are an important means of communication and of alleviating cultural isolation."

Even schools on the road system can spend a lot of time getting to events.

A typical bus trip from Region III schools Palmer, Colony or Wasilla south to Homer can take eight or nine hours, depending on road conditions.

Before he retired from coaching a decade ago, former Susitna Valley High School basketball coach Norm Solberg estimated he traveled more than 5,000 miles a year on buses because his then-Class 2A teams from Talkeetna Junction annually headed north to play games at Tok, Healy, Anderson and Northway, as well as south to play in Ninilchik, Seldovia, Nikolaevsk and Homer. The trips north frequently took place when temperatures were well below zero, sometimes as low as minus-60, in white-out blizzards, Solberg said. The trips south sometimes took place in freezing rain, with extremely icy roads.

With that much travel, there have been close calls.

In April 1998, a Hageland Aviation Cessna 207 crashed near Scammon Bay while carrying a group of six Native Youth Olympics competitors from Hooper Bay High School, leaving two of the athletes with minor injuries. The pilot later had his licensed revoked by the FAA over the incident.

And just two weeks ago, a van carrying seven Sitka High School students and their chaperone crashed near Fairbanks when the weather turned bad on the way to the Fairbanks airport from an Alaska Association of Student Governments conference in Healy. The vehicle hit some ice and slid down a 30-foot embankment, then rolled over several times at the bottom. But the only injury was a superficial cut on the head for one of the students.

"Once you start sliding, there's not a lot you can do," Sitka Superintendent Steve Bradshaw told the Daily Sitka Sentinel. "Fortunately for the kids, they all had their seatbelts on and no one was hurt. We're all real fortunate. ... Everyone here feels lucky."

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