With streamers and fanfare, the Arctic Winter Games open in Mat-Su

Mar. 11—WASILLA — Amid chants for their home regions and under purple, blue and emerald streamers, more than 1,800 youth athletes from Alaska and seven areas of the circumpolar north filed into the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla on Sunday to kick-off the 2024 Arctic Winter Games.

The athletes, ranging in age from 11 to 18 years old and hailing from regions across Canada, Greenland and the traditional Sapmi region in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, will spend the next week competing in 20 sports, including alpine and cross-country skiing, wrestling, hockey and Dene Games. Winners will take home medals in the form of gold, silver and bronze ulus.

"Whether you medal or not, you're all winners," Alfred Tellman, president of the Knik Tribal Council told the athletes during the opening ceremony. "I ask you all to dream of a bigger, better, brighter tomorrow."

The hour-long event also included a musical performance from the Chickaloon Native Village tribe Ya Ne Dah Ah school, plus remarks from a wide variety of local tribal and government officials, including Alaska Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom and Mary Simon, Canada's governor general. A pair of children representing Chickaloon capped off the ceremony with the lighting of the Games torch.

The teams will spend the week circulating between sport venues and seven Mat-Su schools that have been converted to dorms for their stay.

Most sports will be held in Mat-Su, but there are a few exceptions caused by a lack of regulation courses or facilities within the borough. Biathlon will take place at Anchorage's Kincaid Park; speed skating and figure skating will happen at the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center in Eagle River.

Hosting the Games is a first for Mat-Su, which rolled out a variety of venue updates in preparation, including expanded downhill ski runs at Skeetawk in Hatcher Pass and a large new parking area at Government Peak Recreation Area.

Officials expect thousands of visitors to descend on Mat-Su roads, restaurants and sporting venues over the course of the week. Alaska State Troopers issued a warning Saturday, telling locals to "expect increased traffic and a visible law enforcement presence near sporting venues and area schools."

The Games last came to Alaska in 2014 when they were hosted in Fairbanks.

[Arctic Winter Games bring hundreds of athletes, fans and families to Mat-Su]

While Sunday's ceremonies marked the first large-scale event of the week, some sports got started earlier in the day. The first puck drop for hockey was at 8 a.m. at the Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla for a match between Nunavut and Yukon, and futsal kicked-off at 10 a.m. in the Palmer High School gym with the first match between Alberta and Yukon.

Wearing a lanyard peppered with collectible pins from the 2012 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse and the 2014 Games in Fairbanks, Luke Hopkins, who served as Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor during Games there, stopped by Palmer High Sunday to see his grandson, Henry Kendall, play for Team Alaska. He said he's excited to see in Mat-Su the energy he saw for the Games when they were in Fairbanks.

"We had so much enthusiasm and huge crowds," he said.

Stan and Sherie Moodie took in the 10 a.m. futsal game from the balcony above the court at Palmer High Sunday morning, snapping photos of their niece, Samantha Lee, who plays on Team Alberta. Their first time in Alaska, the couple said they flew into Anchorage on Saturday via a multi-layover route from Grande Prairie, Alberta. The athletes, including Samantha and their son Brant Moodie, who plays on Team Alberta's hockey team, instead came in with no stops via a chartered plane.

While Brant and Samantha are housed with other athletes at a series of borough schools converted to dorms for the week, the Moodies said they're staying in Eagle River due to a lack of hotels in Mat-Su. Games officials said all local hotel rooms are fully booked, with other support crews, parents and fans staying in nearby vacation rentals.

Preparing for the Games was a years-long endeavor for local officials eager to bring the events and their anticipated influx of tourist dollars to Mat-Su. Funding for the $7 million price tag came through a combination of donations and government grants.

Organizing the Games was a massive undertaking led by a combination of full time volunteers and staff, and final preparations late last week were not without hiccups, staff and volunteers said.

For example, on Friday morning, a team of about 30 volunteers armed with shovels and sleds spent three hours resetting the snowshoe race course at Alaska Pacific University's Kellogg Farm campus in Palmer after days of heavy winds early in the month blew all the snow off about a half-mile of the 3-mile course.

And despite robust volunteer registration — about 2,000 people with a waitlist of 600, according to Games officials — critical shift spots at a variety of sporting events and athlete housing remained unfilled going into the weekend because not all of those signed-up selected times to work or were unavailable for must-fill roles. Organizers ultimately opted to hire a security firm to augment overnight volunteer shifts at the schools doubling as dorms, they said.

The coming week of Games events also includes a series of non-athletic activities, such as a winter carnival at Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer, a cultural gala and an indigenous fashion show.

All Games sports except gymnastics, figure skating, archery and Dene Games have competitions scheduled for Monday and are open to the public. The carnival and most sports are free to attend; the other events and some sports' medal rounds require tickets. Prices range from $15 to $40, depending on the event.

A full schedule of events is available on the Arctic Winter Games website,