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Snowmobiles Help Train Alaska's youth

By Mark Boncher
Published: March 9, 2011
alaska-snowmobile
alaskan-youth
A class strictly on snowmobiling? That’s not something we hear about every day. But there’s one in Alaska.

This afterschool extra-curricular program is not strictly a class, there is no homework, no written tests, and a few Alaskan high schoolers are learning things no book can teach. This isn’t your typical snowmobile safety class either.
Gunnar Johnson a resident advisor in the dorms at Galena Interior Learning Academy (Galena, Alaska) is in charge of the program.

“Our public high school is unique in that it is a boarding school for teaching kids from all over Alaska important vocational skills such as education in aviation, automotive, welding, carpentry, culinary and cosmetology,” Gunnar says. “The kids live in dorms and the snowmachine program is a chance for them to get out in the wilderness, unwind, relax and release.”

The students have their own snowmachine shop, but only a couple kids have their own sleds. Still, they have a common goal this year, revamping an old REV 800 with a 144-inch track.

They have stripped the project sled down to the frame and rebuilt it, replacing worn parts and simply learning how a sled is constructed. The students also are trying to see if they can make the REV even lighter, while adding a few pieces of bling and aftermarket parts. A number of companies have rallied behind the project. Ice Age Manufacturing donated some trick rails, Curve Industries donated a new set of skis to the build. Ski-Doo also sent posters and stickers to the kids and Poly Performance sent T-shirts as well. Carlisle also helped the project by donating several belts.

Why are the students so enthusiastic about the project?

The rule is that if a student helps to build the sled, then he or she gets to ride it!

Gunnar says there are 5-13 teens in the shop each session working on the sled and learning. This isn’t just a guy thing either, several girls are in the program. It’s a relaxed setting where kids just get to learn how to turn wrenches.

The students are 14-19, freshmen to seniors, and come from more than 50 communities from all over Alaska. “Many have never left their villages or homes and this is a good way to build a sort of community around a pastime they all love,” says Gunnar, a lifelong Alaskan who has been on sleds since he was eight. His grandfather Harold Johnson was a distributor for Polaris in the early 1960s, his dad grew up with snowmachines and now Gunnar is looking to pass down some of his knowledge and passion to the kids.

There are virtually no roads out of Galena, a town of 500, and snowmobiling gets kids outside and provides a learning experience. Dealing with temperature extremes dipping down to -50, Gunnar teaches the students frostbite prevention, survival techniques and simple on-trail maintenance, like changing belts.

Snowmaching in the villages these kids call home is huge. Many residents don’t have cars, and use sleds to hunt, fish, and travel to neighboring villages. Many of the kids are already great mechanics when they get to GILA, but many learn how to work on sleds and then take their knowledge back to teach others in their community.

GILA is a growing publicly funded high school that accepted 210 students this year - up from about 165 a year ago. GILA is accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools and since it is a public school, tuition and room & board are free. The school uses facilities once used as a U.S. Air Force base, but now re-invented as a multi-faceted vocational school.

More info: gila.galenaalaska.org or to help with the project contact Gunnar at snowmachiner9@hotmail.com
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