Duluth, MN/Bethel, AK
Former Olympian George Hovland spoke to my 4th grade classroom at Chester Park Elementary in Duluth Minnesota. He talked about the fantastic new ski hill Spirit Mountain that would soon open and explained about how wonderful it was that we would have a new ski area right in our own backyard.
I thought he couldn’t know what he was talking about because Chester bowl was right behind my house with its two ski jumps and a rope tow. It was where I learned to ski and I had skied there from my backyard.
Many years later my biggest day on skis started at my house in Bethel, Alaska. I had learned to use a kite to pull me around on the frozen Kuskokwim River and the surrounding tundra on my downhill skis. That day I wanted to see how far I could go. After lashing two plastic tub sleds together loaded with a gps, hot tea, a borrowed sat phone, smoked salmon, extra gear, a smaller kite and a sleeping bag I left my house. I skated down Brown Slough wearing a backpack my gear towed behind in the sled. Once on the open river in front of town, I set up a 12 m Ozone kite, connected it to a waist harness and proceeded down river with no particular destination in mind. It was a perfect March day there was good ice on the river, a decent amount snow, sunny skies and plenty of daylight with temperatures on the teens. Wind was from the Northwest probably about 15 to 20. I made good progress. I crossed over the ice road used by trucks, cars, snowmobiles and four wheelers and saw several people ice fishing at the mouth of the Johnson River. As I took a tea break with snacks it seemed the wind was getting stronger. Upon launching the kite again the tow line between me and the sled caught on a frozen stump. In an instant the kite rose into the air and pulled against my harness, the harness pulled against the towline, the tow line pulled against the stump. The sled did not move. I found myself dangling in space between the two. After a just enough time to consider panicking, the stump broke, I dropped to the ice and was off again. I realized the wind was definitely picking up. At some point, I thoughtfully called my wife via cell phone to tell her that I would not be able to pick up the kids from daycare as I was somewhere near Tuntutuliak. Having never been down river I figured there was a trail going in about the right direction for the wind I was traveling with. After cutting off the river to the west I found a trail marked with tripods and switched to my smaller 8 meter kite. The wind was probably 25 to 35 ish mph. I was traveling over 35 miles an hour at times over the snow covered treeless tundra. I was soaring off the ground to give my legs a break. Landing through a layer of airborne snow streaming along the ground like flowing braids.
I would hit the ground, make a few turns, launch repeat. I proceed this way skiing, floating through space with a minor ground blizzard. The twilight added color to the sky the landscape looked like science fiction. Like dust in the wind I don’t think i left many tracks. Along the way I met some snow machiners traveling from Kongiganak to Tuntutuliak. They were coming from a basketball game and curious about the giant kite and the person it towed. I did not stop for long because the wind was pulling me off of the ground at the time.
I made it to Kongiganak, parked the kite by looping the brake line around a hand railing attached to a building and packed up the kite. Although the straight-line distance from Bethel to Kongiganak is about 70 miles I figured with all the tacking back-and-forth I skied around 100 miles.
I spent that evening at the school after making a deal with the principal to speak in classes the next day about my journey. It went well, the students had never seen downhill skis, boots, or kites before and were interested to learn more. I made sure to tell them that they had a wonderful ski area in their backyard. I am sure that they thought I had no idea what I was talking about.
Click here for a short video of Eric kite skiing.