Basketball team travels 70 miles by snowmachine to its first competition since the pandemic began

People standing around a line of about 10 snowmachines on the open tundra
The Togiak basketball team on their way to Dillingham. Jan. 27, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lund)

Basketball is a huge part of life in rural Alaska. But the COVID-19 pandemic means that in Bristol Bay, teams haven’t been able to play against each other since 2020.

That changed at the end of January, when Dillingham held the region’s first major high school basketball tournament. But one of the schools wasn’t able to fly to Dillingham, so the athletes took matters into their own hands.

The Sockeye Classic basketball tournament in Dillingham was the Togiak Huskies’ first competition since the pandemic began two years ago. And they really wanted to play.

“They were excited to come here and play. And I have two seniors. And it’s their last year,” said Ina Togiak, the coach for the girls team.

Togiak said the school shut down when the pandemic hit, so it was hard for the students to practice, let alone compete.

Now, games are back. But students still face obstacles when traveling to competitions.

Most Bristol Bay communities aren’t connected by roads, and students fly to other schools for sports competitions. The first day of the Sockeye tournament in January was cold and extremely windy, and no planes were flying to Togiak.

So the coaches and the school came up with a plan: Take 10 student athletes, coaches and chaperones across at least 70 to 80 miles of frozen tundra, streams and lakes to the tournament — on snowmachines.

Thomas Dock coaches the Togiak boys’ team. He said they had discussed traveling by snowmachine for games in the past, to no avail. But this time, parents and coaches met with school officials and agreed that the team should make the journey.

Once the superintendent approved the trip, it took the team just an hour to get ready. They had survival equipment and gear and help from guides, including members of Togiak’s search and rescue team.

A young man standing by a snowmachine parked next to a car
Koby Pauk examining a snowmachine on Jan. 29, 2022. (Photo by Izzy Ross/KDLG)

Senior Koby Pauk said the ride was tough.

“Long, backbreaking,” he laughed. “Never thought I’d get tired of riding a snowgo.”

“And scary,” said sophomore Lloyd Kritz.

They expected the route to take four hours. But the snow was rock hard, and the wind ripped across the tundra.

“It was awesome — in the beginning. We had 10 snowgos, but one broke down,” said Dock. “It was a beautiful trip, we were going in the rate that we were going, but some snowmachines — it’s glare ice — some snowmachines are liquid cooled. They had overheating problems.”

The trip took six hours instead of four.

Dock said the team arrived too late to compete on the first day of the tournament. They played their first game the next morning.

“It’s really nice to hear people say that everybody in the southwest region parts of Alaska knew Togiak was coming by snowmachine to Dillingham to play basketball,” he said. “That was awesome and we were greeted really well here.”

A group photo of students and chaperones standing outside
Togiak coaches and students in Dillingham. Jan. 29, 2022. (Photo by Izzy Ross/KDLG)

Senior Alyssa Coopchiak has played basketball for eight years. She said it was hard not to compete during the pandemic.

“It was kind of depressing, because we couldn’t travel anymore,” she said.

It was her first trip to Dillingham by snowmachine. She said it’s exciting to compete again. The team — and coaches — were excited for the rest of the tournament

“We’re going to win the whole thing,” Coach Dock joked. “We’re just shaking ourselves off, relaxing.”

Sophomore Shantae Kamkahpak and junior Natania Hyexikok were in the stands during one of the games the day after they arrived. They have both played basketball for years.

They said the ride to the tournament was tough, but fun. It was their first long trip on snowmachines.

Two young women smiling and posing for a photo
Shantae Kamkahpak and Natania Hyexikok at the Sockeye Classic tournament in Dillingham on Jan. 28, 2022. (Photo by Izzy Ross/KDLG)

“It was a lot of fun,” Kamkahpak said. “It was pretty warm. I dressed really warm. I had like two coats and two snow pants.”

“But when the sun was setting it got colder and windier,” said Hyexikok.

“I sat in the sled for part of it,” Hyexikok “My head was just bouncing, and it was just… not great.”

“The jumps on the snowgo. When you’re a passenger when you’re holding on it feels like you’re going to freaking tip, and crash,” Hyexikok said. “Our legs would get so sore we would have to stretch.”

“It was fun,” Kamkahpak said.

“Even if we’re sore,” Hyexikok said. “I really wanted to come here.”

Later on in the tournament, the team gathered outside the Dillingham boardinghouse where they were staying.

Alvaro Sutton is one of the parents who traveled with the team. He said when one of the machines broke down during the trip over, they figured it out.

“We lost a spring and it tore the track,” he said. “We had to make do with what we had — packed a couple of kids on some sleds and we just came on over.”

A basketball player falling while another player reaches out to steal the ball from him.
Togiak Huskies play the Tanalian Lynx at the Sockeye Classic tournament in Dillingham on Jan. 28, 2022. (Photo by Izzy Ross/KDLG)

Most of the players flew home. But a few had to help get the snowmachines back to Togiak.

“I’m probably going to take my daughter with me and we’re just going to go straight back home. She wants to follow me,” Sutton said on the last day of the tournament.

Neither the boys nor the girls placed in the finals. Togiak’s girls team won the tournament’s sportsmanship award. And, the athletes said, the long trip there was definitely worth it.

KDLG - Dillingham

KDLG is our partner station in Dillingham. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

Like what you just read? KTOO news stories are member supported. Support your community news source today. Donate to KTOO.

Read next

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications