Jeremiah St. Arnault throws for Team Alberta North during Monday's junior male competition.
Photos by Roy Shapley
To alpine skiers, the term “snow snake” is used to identify that imaginary serpent that hides mercilessly in the middle of a perfectly groomed ski slope, and deftly bites the tip of the unwary skier schussing by, causing the skier to fly up into the air and land on his or her noggin.
In the Arctic Winter Games, snow snake is one of five Dene (pronounced dah-NAY) games that bring together young men and women from Native groups inhabiting the northern reaches of all the continents that extend up to the Arctic Circle.
A competition sport today, snow snake has its origin among primitive peoples who used the needed skills and technique in their quest for something to eat.
The hunter today’s player throws a 4 1/2-foot long wooden spear along the surface of the snow in an attempt to strike a ptarmigan, rabbit or other prey. Some say the practice also was once used to take unsuspecting caribou lying on the ground.
“The object is to stay straight and go far,” said Soldotna’s Samuel Peter, one of the junior males competing in snow snake at Mountain View Elementary School on Monday morning.
Competitors, fans and members of the media watch Team Alaska's Keith Bacon's attempt in the snow snake competition Monday at Mountain View Elementary. Athletes try to throw a pointed stick as far as possible down a lane of ice and snow.
Photos by Roy Shapley
In its game version, the snow snake player hucks the wooden stick, sharpened at one end, down a 400-foot-long lane made in the snow.
The throw, which must be made from below the hip, is a kind of underhand sidearm delivery.
The player may stand at the starting line or run up to it from no farther than 20 feet back.
If the stick stays in the middle of the 3-foot-wide lane, it goes farther than if it collides with the snow bank on either side of the lane.
The first group to compete Monday morning were males in the open-age category.
Ranging from tall, thin teenagers to portly, middle-age men, size or strength did not seem to matter as much as accuracy.
As each male came to the starting line, marked in the snow with orange spray paint, they stared downrange as if stalking some prey only they could see.
“If you get ptarmigan, rabbit or a caribou, you get extra ulu,” announced official starter Bobbie Drygeese from Northwest Territory, with a smile.
Considering the competitors were gathered on a snow-covered softball field just south of the school building, chances of anyone striking any game were just about zero.
Even if small game had chosen to winter alongside the ball diamond this year, the 100 or so competitors and fans lined up along the lane were making enough noise to put any animals to flight.
Although the Dene game is called a competition sport, it is not nearly as competitive in nature as a hockey game or wrestling match. In fact, from the sidelines, it was difficult to tell who was cheering for whom.
If a player inadvertently caused his stick to arc and take a perpendicular path right into the snowbank, most on the sidelines issued a collective, “Nice try, man.”
And, if a stick continued traveling and traveling and traveling down the course of the lane, the cheers rose in unison in loud approval.
After a warmup try, the competitors were given three attempts to outdistance the others, with their longest throw being the distance recorded.
Recorders down the lane with long tape measures marked off each attempt and radioed back the results to head official Sam Johnston, from Teslin, Yukon, and Drena McIntyre, an Alaska official from Fairbanks.
As Peter awaited his turn at the snow snake, he said hunters once used the technique to get seals coming up through the ice for air, and later to get caribou as they were lying down. Currently it is solely a sport.
Peter said he was picked for Team Alaska t the World Eskimo Olympics.
“The coach saw me go up against this really big guy and he said, ‘I want that kid. I don’t care how old he is or anything. I want him,’” Peter said.
“He said I showed courage.”
Although Peter is part Athabascan and part Cherokee, and his family’s village is in Tyonek across Cook Inlet, he was born in Anchorage and is in his senior year at Soldotna High School.
His ancestry also includes Russian, Irish, Swedish and German, but he said, “Put that in small letters.”
Peter only knows a few phrases in his Native Dena’ina language: “Yagli do,” which means “greetings,” and “chickanick,” which means “thank you,” but he said he has recognized some Inupiaq phrases being used by athletes from other polar regions.
“I’ve heard, ‘sagluui.’ That means, ‘lies.’ And, ‘adi.’ That means, ‘geez,’” he said.
Peter said he is getting to know some kids from Greenland, who are staying where his team is housed at Kenai Central High School.
“I’ve been playing basketball with them pretty much every day,” he said.
In describing what the Arctic Winter Games experience has been for him so far, Peter said, “It’s all about sportsmanship.”
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