It's who, not what, that makes Arctic Winter Games life-changing experience

Grasping spirit of Arctic unity

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

Having been involved with the Kenai Peninsula Borough's bid to host the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, I was well aware of what the games were, but until I watched my daughter enter into the Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory, 2002 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremonies, I had no idea of who the games were.

Natalie made the women's 19 and under Team Alaska Hockey team and would be traveling to Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory (one of the three territories of Canada) for the 2002 Arctic Winter Games. It was fantastic that she had made the team, and it would be the first long-distance trip on which I would be able to go with her. Already well traveled through sports, Natalie was seemingly nonchalant about the trip, but the remote, Baffin Island location definitely garnered more than normal attention from the precocious 14 year old.

Though I was not actually traveling with her, I, too, was slated to attend the games halfway around the world in a place where polar bear hunting is common; seal, caribou and wolverine skins are available off the rack in NorthMart; and whatever you need for the winter comes in on the last ship before the ice pack sets time in neutral.

Team Alaska? What exactly was it? How many would be going? How long would they be gone? What about security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? Questions, concerns, excitement!

Learning along the way, we came to understand that more than 300 Alaska athletes, coaches and chaperones would head across North America on a chartered flight to the small town of Iqaluit, population 5,800. There was little information available on the Internet but enough to raise an eyebrow.

No need to worry about polar bears in town, but it definitely would be long john territory with an average March temperature of 10 degrees. Quickly the departure date was upon us and off Natalie went. I was one day behind her.

The Team Alaska flight was direct. For the Kenai Peninsula bid committee, with whom I was traveling, travel time lasted for a day and a half with an overnight stay in Ottawa. Our arrival was nothing short of amazing as we entered into another world in a far-off place.

A toddler darting around the small airport served as an immediate notification that we were most definitely not in Kansas, or even America, anymore as she donned her sealskin snowsuit and traditional sealskin boots while waving a welcome flag to the 18th of 22 commercial 747s to land that day in the tiny town of Iqaluit. She was part of the welcoming committee for all -- us, the Canadian minister of sports, state legislators from Alaska, athletes, media, press camera crews, officials. A huge assortment of people converged on the tiny town, which was no longer asleep for the winter. Desolate and cold yet warm and welcoming, the neatest place that had never been on my list to visit opened its arms and heart to 3,000 strangers.

I located my daughter, who had arrived the day before, by tracking her to the athletes' village where, to my amazement, more than 1,500 athletes were mingling and somehow bridging the barrier of more than six different languages.

It defies description to see 1,800 athletes from the circumpolar north, in one location, seemingly speaking the same language: the language of the Arctic Winter Games.

My wonder and amazement continued to grow only to be eclipsed as I arrived at the opening ceremonies.

I have seen many productions through the years, having worked at a number of arenas, and this setting rivaled most of them. I was thousands of miles away from any metropolitan center and a full-stage production was set to welcome the thousand-plus participants of the 2002 Arctic Winter Games.

As impressive as the games were expected to be, I could have never have imagined the enormity of what the games were until the ceremony began. I had traveled across North America on behalf of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, city of Soldotna and my daughter, and yet I still had no idea about "what" the games were until this point.

The fanfare erupted followed by speeches and then the athletes entered the soldout arena. Team Nunavut came first, then Team Alaska with a huge bang. A thousand lights went on inside me as the tears began to stream as I realized their experience and seemingly shared smiles that barely fit on their faces.

More than 300 smiles of pride entered the arena; 300 young athletes filled with pride in representing their state and themselves. Overwhelming as the emotion and pride for my state and daughter were at this time, it was only the beginning.

I next found myself with the same tears and emotions as I shared in the Team Yukon's pride and then again as the Team Alberta North entered and then as the next team and the next entered.

It was no longer about Team Alaska, my daughter, the Kenai Peninsula's bid or even me; it was about the Arctic Winter Games Experience. The experience and dissolution of the distance normally present between the participants, the absolving of any cultural differences between the geographies.

All differences were removed then and forever, vanquished by the Arctic Winter Games spirit, the spirit of Arctic unity, the spirit of life above the 60th parallel.

In addition to being the parent of an Arctic Winter Games athlete, Andrew Carmichael is the parks and recreation director for the city of Soldotna and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Arctic Winter Games Bid Committee. The site committee of the Arctic Winter Games is scheduled to visit the Kenai Peninsula on Friday.

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