Four Old Ski Shooters Return to Alaska | Out and About August 2012

Prior to the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, where biathlon was reintroduced after a 36 year hiatus, the US Army established a training center for the sport at Fort Richardson, on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. For 15 years, during the Vietnam era, promising skiers in the military sought an assignment to “The Unit” to train for, and compete in, the challenging sport of winter biathlon. Most of these athletes had competed on collegiate or university ski teams before being drafted into the service or fulfilling an Reserve Officer Training Corps active duty commitment.

For the majority of soldiers assigned to Fort Rich, many from the deep South or urban areas throughout the Lower 48, Alaska seemed to be a hostile planet: months of alarmingly brief days and endless nights, unbelievably cold temperatures and howling winds, all surrounded by vast stretches of wilderness inhabited by fearsome wild animals.

Aside from their arduous and constant physical training, the biathletes, in contrast, regarded Alaska as a smorgasbord of outdoor adventure. There were countless peaks to climb, rivers to paddle, as well as hunting and fishing opportunities widely regarded as the best in the world. Of the several hundred athletes who cycled through the training center between 1958 and ’73, many would remain in Alaska to make their homes and establish careers, while most of the others returned to Alaska sporadically, to reunite with friends and get their fix of the great outdoors.

Pete, a member of the ’72 Sapporo Olympic Team and veteran of the training center, had the foresight decades ago, to purchase an abandoned fish cannery site on Raspberry Strait, not far from Kodiak. In the years since, he has spent a couple of months every summer cleaning up the debris from the cannery, building a comfortable cabin and exploring the nearby bays and streams with his fishing gear and camera. Earlier this summer, Pete hosted three of his former biathlon buddies, Terry, David, and myself, to a week of the best Alaska had to offer.

From Kodiak’s no frills airport, Pete drove us to the harbor, packed with all types of craft from modest, open skiffs to the massive, commercial fishing vessels made famous on television’s popular “The Deadliest Catch.” After stocking up with groceries and adult beverages, we loaded Pete’s 26-foot aluminum fishing cruiser for the 90-minute sprint to his cabin. The Alaskan scenery was breathtaking: snow covered peaks in the distance, forested hillsides descending to the shore, and the icy, dark water dotted with countless, comical sea otters, floating casually on their backs as we roared past.

We spent the next week fishing for halibut, cod, and rock fish off Pete’s boat. For variety, we rowed an inflatable Zodiac to shore and fly-fished for the red salmon that were working their way upstream to spawn. The fly-fishing was especially exciting considering the massive bear tracks evident in the beaten trails along the streams. Terry took the fishing honors by landing a 150-pound halibut, while David succumbed to Pete’s traditional prank of secretly attaching a five gallon pail of bricks to the rookie’s line. After Terry’s monster, Pete’s pail trick was very convincing until David reeled it to the surface.

After a full day of fishing, we would stop to pull Pete’s crab pot, which several times provided a delicious, tanner crab dinner for the four of us. To take a break from fishing, we spent a morning helping Pete repair a sea wall which had been damaged by a winter storm, and the afternoon hiking the impressive hill behind the old cannery site. The panoramic view from the summit was unforgettable, the snowcapped Alaska Range and Shelikof Strait to the northwest, Raspberry Strait and Kodiak Island to the south.

There was only one, somewhat sobering aspect to this otherwise spectacular Alaskan reunion. As we began comparing notes of the 40 years since we were stationed at Fort Rich together, it became apparent that we’d all experienced some close calls and near misses. Three of us had survived serious heart issues, one had endured a recent brush with cancer, and we’d all had our share of wake up calls. In fact, two other buddies were unable to attend, due to knee replacement surgery and cancer treatment.

I guess the message here is, even highly trained, Olympic athletes are not immune to the challenges of the advancing years, and the corollary might be, if you’ve always wanted to experience Alaska, go now.

John Morton

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.