SKIING IN NWT
The Northwest Territories has a proud tradition of participation in cross country skiing. Twin sisters, Sharon and Shirley Firth, became the most celebrated skiers in Canada’s cross country skiing history.
These athletes, along with their Mackenzie Delta teammates, formed the nucleus of Canada’s national cross country ski team in the early 1970’s. Sharon and Shirley represented Canada in World Championships and Winter Olympic Games.
This inspiration percolated throughout the north and inspired ski club development in small settlements and larger communities alike. In the mid- 1970’s, Sport North established itself, providing support for various ski development programs.
Father Mouchet was an Oblate priest who came to Northern Canada in 1946, from his hometown of Malbuisson, France. He was initially posted in Telegraph Creek, BC, but then was posted to Old Crow, Inuvik, Whitehorse and Ross River.
While living in Inuvik, Father Mouchet founded the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) Program. This program was supported by the NWT Government to develop an outdoor education program in Inuvik. The TEST program grew to include many Northern communities, including the home base of the program in Old Crow, Yukon.
It was Father Mouchet’s hope that providing the community with competitive and recreational sports training it would serve in delivering “more self-esteem and confidence, motivation and a tool for the rest of their lives in a complex and complicated world”. The inspiration that cultivated from this program stimulated ski club development and cross country ski training programs in communities across the Northwest Territories.
INUIVIK'S SKIING LEGACY
“Top of the World skiing sounds colourful, and it is more than just tundra skiing in the spring. It is probably the finest spring skiing in the world – constant temperatures and weather, blue skies, sunshine into the late night, and well groomed trails on the unique Mackenzie Delta setting.”
– Bjorger Pettersen, Coach of the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) Program, Inuvik 1968-72
"I was in lots of sports but only xc skiing took us out of the North...we used to go to training camps in Norman Wells and Lutsel'ke and Fort Smith in the winter and summer and train our butts off. We went to the Canada Winter Games and Arctic Winter Games...it was fun because we won!"
- Former NWT team member Eleanor Firth-Klengenberg
Books & Resources
Guts & Glory: The Arctic Skiers Who Challenged the World
"This is a book for anyone who's ever had a dream. It recreates the glory days when a cadre of young Aboriginal skiers blazed their way from Canada's Arctic to the pinnacles of international racing. Theirs is a saga of courage, commitment and triumph against tremendous odds. It's a story of individual and team effort that has a real lesson for all of us."
- By Sally Manning with a foreword from Becky Scott
ARCHIVES: NEWS & PHOTOS
Inuvik Racers Sweep Own Meet (1969)
FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS-MINER, 15 April, 1969
Sixteen-year-old Fred Kelly of host Inuvik burned up the 16 Kilometer cross-country trail with a time of 62.69 last Saturday to take top honors in Inuvik's Top of the World Ski Championships held on April 12 and 13.
Kelly, winner of the National individual title, that is the U.S. title, for the last two years, whipped teammate John Turo of Inuvik by over two and a half minutes while the top American was third place Pete Kerns of the U.S. Biathlon team who finished in 65.14.
Lathrop High's Greg Wyman was the top Fairbanks racer, coming in 16th with a time of 74.60. The U of A's Mike Sallee was 17th with a 74.79 clocking while Lathrop's Eddie Denbow was 20th with a clocking of 79.11.
The event was a success with 150 skiers from seven towns, cities and villages taking part.
Canadians from such places as Quebec and Fort McPherson entered while Alaska was represented by Fairbanks and the Biathlon contingent from Ft. Richardson.
Inuvik racers swept all six individual and both team events to send all the visitors home winless but determined to to better next year.
The Firth sisters, Shirley and Sharon, both won their events as expected with Roxanne Van Enkevort placing third in the Women's 8 Kilometer Race for Fairbanks' best showing.
In the 8 Kilometer Juvenile Boys event, Bob Brooks was the top Fairbanks racer with a time of 41.63 for seventh behind winner Herb Bullock's 35.80.
Laurie Van Enkvort of Main placed 10th in the 8 Kilometer Juvenile Girls event with a time of 44.41
In the Elementary Division, Angus Cockney sped over a 2 Kilometer course in 8.76 minutes with Kent Pyne the top Fairbanks racer with a time of 11.03 for 14th place. Kent is from University Park.
Sheryl Sharp of Denali Grade School placed eighth in the girls elementary race with a time of 11.82 over the same course.
Lathrop's top team placed sixth in the Men's 3X5 race with a time of 54.79 compared to winning Inuvik's 49.56.
The high school girls fared a little better with a fourth and a sixth place with times of 65.32 and 68.20 compared to Inuvik's 56.05.
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Hurrah for Inuvik (1971)
NANAIMO DAILY NEWS, 27 February, 1971
Inuvik is rapidly becoming one of Canada's best-known communities -- and it's all because of our cross-country ski-whizzes. This town, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, will be hosting the fourth annual Top of the World Ski Championships April 11 to 18.
Six years ago, a more unlikely location would be hard to imagine. But then the Inuvik cross-country program got started, and this has since become one of the country's most successful. Judged purely on international results, it has brought more credit to Canada than all other skiing combined. Inuvik sisters dominate the Canadian cross-country team.
This season, twin sisters Shirley and Sharon Firth, aged 17, have consistently placed one-two in almost every major meet on the continent. At the Canadian championships, the cross-country men and women from the Arctic Circle took five of the six top places. Shirley Firth was first in the women's division, followed closely by sister Sharon, and Roseanne Allen. Malcom Hunter of Ottawa won the men's event, but Inuvik's Roger Allen and Ernie Lennie took second and third spots.
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Indian-Eskimo Skiers to Olympics? (1968)
THE OTTAWA JOURNAL, 16 March, 1968
By R. M. Hill
Young northerners at the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik are training hard and winning national races in cross-country skiing. In February at the Canadian National Junior Ski Meet in Port Arthur the Inuvik Ski Club captured first place in the boys' race and the first five places in the girls' race. Participating in the United States Ski Association santioned meet in Anchorage at New Years, the Inuvik skiers took 11 of the possible 15 medals in the cross-country events. These Indian and Eskimo youths are making a distinguished showing in the North American ski world.
The Inuvik Ski Club is based at Canada's model town located on the east side of the Mackenzie River Delta just 50 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Inuvik has a population of 2,500 Indians, Eskimos, and Southerners plus 500 school children who comt into Inuvik from along the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Coast. The ski club has been organized for three years and now has an active membership of 200 cross-country skiers.
They work out on the trails behind Inuvik and never think of riding a ski lift or worry about racing full out for 10 kilometres (five miles) in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. When the sun remains below the horizon for five weeks at mid-winter the skiing continues on illuminated trails. Local races are held every weekend as long as the temperature is higher than 40 degrees below zero. Practice skiing continues even if temperatures are down to 60 below.
Skiing was brought to Inuvik by Father John Mouchet, OMI, from Old Crow in the Yukon where he had sucessfully introduced the sport to young Loucheux Indians. This year the skiing is under the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program which is partially funded by the Canada Fitness Council. Bjorger Pettersen, a certified ski instructor from Prince George and Oslo, is the director or ski activities.
The TEST program is an action research project to evaluate the effectiveness of competitive sports in motivating Indian and Eskimo students to a higher over-all achievement. The program is operating in Inuvik with nine racing teams and 170 participants in Old Crow with three teams and 25 participants.
The long range plan is to develop a complete program for a large number of cross country skiers throughout the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Co-operation with ski clubs, education authorities, and recreation groups will be encouraged and a series of races will be set up.
It is expected that northern youth will soon represent Canada in cross country skiing at Olympic and other international ski meets and that they will win a place of respect
Team Coach Bjorger Pettersen, writing in his own diary, twlls of the elation he felt, when an Indian skier placed first in the Canadian National Junior Ski Meet in Port Arthur.
"I swallowed heavy, glanced at my watch -- ten minutes and fifty seconds -- THERE someone just crossed the mark where I was taking my intermediate times from. My heart stopped for a moment then started beating violently -- THERE, running like a clock, relaxed and gliding with the same stride used by the Norwegian Olympic Champions and moving FASTER than anyone else, was the Kelly Express. I jumped five feet into the air and screamed at the top of my lungs, 'You're leading by a few seconds'.
"I only had one ski on but I started running after him to the finish line. When I arrived at the finish area, Fred was standing modestly over with the rest of the team behind the crowds. I rushed over to him, picked him, his skis and poles up in my arms and embraced him -- the cameras flashed. Harold, John, Maurice and Roger, who placed 5th, 6th, 9th and 10th, respectively, gathered round.
"We were all happy and on the last 5 km, the boys had proved that there still is a lot of fight left in the Natives of Canada's far North. Racing in what experts termed the toughest cross country field ever assembled in the National Junior Championship, a modest Indian boy of the north had become the champion of Canada."
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Eskimo-Indian ski runners seen Olympic hopes for 1976 (1970)
THE MONTREAL GAZETTE, 7 January, 1970
By Chris Allan
Bjorger Pettersen doesn't expect much this year.
"We lost an entire month of training because the snow came late," he was saying yesterday. "That's gone. I don't think we can make that up now."
Pettersen is the Norwegian-born coach of the Inuvik Ski Club cross-country team. He didn't expect much last season either, which he regarded as only a 'learning year'. By the end of the season his racers had won 81 events, including seven national championships in Canada and the United States.
The Inuvik skiers, a group of young Indians and Eskimos, are the elite of a federal government program known as TEST (Territorial Experimental Ski Training) in the Northwest Territories. It is almost an instant sports success. Started by a Catholic priest to motivate the youth in the far north, Inuvik skiers won the national junior cross country titles for men and women in their very first year of competition.
"They can be the best in the world," asserts Pettersen, who has coached them since that sensational debut in 1967. "We can win Olympic medals in 1976 if the program proceeds at its current rate."
Even though a Canadian winning a medal in cross-country skiing would rank with lunar landings in terms of achievement, Pettersen finds himself fighting a strange misconception. Along with the tremendous impact of the Inuvik racers in junior competition, press reports from the first foray overseas last winter led people to believe they were skiing with the best seniors in the world.
"Nobody realizes that it takes just years to master technique and more years of hard training to make a cross-country champion," said Pettersen. "We have the potential, but also a long way to go."
The potential has been recognized by the best in the field. Last season on the European circuit, where cross-country racers draw as many as 40,000 spectators, the young team was the toast of Scandinavia where the racers were besieged for autographs and given rave publicity.
"The experts were astounded at the advanced technique and speed of our racers," said Pettersen. "Canadians have not been noted for their technique in the past."
Currently, eight of the Inuvik skiers are on the national squad which broke up a 10-day training camp at Morin Heights Sunday and left yesterday for the Kennedy Memorial Games at Lake Placid. Pettersen, who is also national coach this year, expects six to be on the final national team to be selected Jan. 26 for the European junior championships in Austria and the world senior championships in Czechoslovakia two weeks later.
Outstanding among the northerners are Fred Kelly, current U.S. junior champion, and Roger Allen on the boys team. Leading the girls are twins Shirley and Sharon Firth, and Anita Allen, Roger's sister.
Last year Kelley became the first Canadian to win a world sanctioned race, at Bergsjo, Sweden, while Shirley Firth wound up the season with no less than seven junior championships in the Canada and the U.S.
"They have tremendous drive and desire," explained Pettersen, "and great physical stamina. In three years I have never seen a drop of sweat on the Firth girls, which is an indication of what lies within them to be developed."
training is hard for the Inuvik racers where the sun dissapears completely for a month and where they only suspend the daily workouts when the thermometer drops past 60 degrees below. Much of the training is done in minus 30 and 40 degreed.
"We train on a lighted two-kilometre circuit when it's dark," said Pettersen.
The circuit is lit by 150-watt bulbs on top of the wood trestles because there are no trees tall enough to use as light posts.
Close to 500 youngsters are now involved in cross-country skiing both in Inuvik and at Old Crow in the Yukon. The program has been an astounding success and many of the older Eskimos consider the success of Pettersen's team their sole remaining pride. The father of one racer embraced his feet in gratitude.
But success has also brought acute social problems. The father of one racer keeps pestering him to return to the trap lines and the other racers have a more general attitude to overcome.
"The Indian and Eskimo communities share despair," said Pettersen. "They reject anyone who rises above it. Consequently a lot of the kids don't want to do well at home, we have to get them away to see their best performances."
Such performances, Pettersen believes, could mean an Indian or an Eskimo winning the first Olympic medal ever for Canada in six years time.
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