DAY 16: Tournament director John Bania hung up the phone and sighed. ``Forty-nine below here. Sixty in Noatak. Sixty-five in Shungnak. Ambler? You don't want to know.'' His weather report meant one thing to the waiting coaches: No one was going anywhere. Again. The extraordinarily cold weather that gripped Alaska for most of last month slipped south last week. Near-normal temperatures (0 to 20 degrees F.) were expected soon. But the frigid cold left indelible memories for the 130 basketball players and 40 chaperons who were caught in Kotzebue, a community of 3,600 in Alaska's northwest corner.
Here, where 20 below zero means business as usual, life froze to a virtual standstill. Temperatures ranging from minus 35 degrees F. to minus 70 settled in.
The cutoff for student air travel is 30 below, and planes are the only option; there are no roads. Everything in the northwest arctic - mail, freight, people - moves by small aircraft. And, at those temperatures, where steel turns brittle, oil becomes paste, and gasoline refuses to vaporize, flying is risky business.
The teams had gathered in Kotzebue Jan. 12 for the regional tournament, an annual event that attracts high school teams and spectators from nine Eskimo villages scattered across a wilderness the size of Indiana. The population of most villages is well under 500, and some teams have only five or six players. Still, they traveled as far as 150 miles by chartered plane; up here, basketball is the king of sports.
The three-day competition was fierce; many of the tournament's 20-odd games were decided in the final seconds. In the championship round, before 1,000 screaming fans, the Noorvik Bears (girls) bested the Ambler Grizzlies by a point, and the Selawik Wolves (boys) upset the Noorvik Bears by one to take the title.
The winners went off to the state championships in Anchorage (cold-weather jet flight is considered safe), but everyone else sat in Kotzebue, waiting on the weather, as Eskimos have done for centuries.
The 130 basketball refugees presented the Northwest Arctic Borough School District and the town of Kotzebue with a host of logistical problems: food, shelter, education, and entertainment.
The modern but already crowded Kotzebue School was the only choice for housing. Every night the classrooms doubled as dormitories; each morning the teams rolled up their sleeping bags and moved out, piling their gear in the halls.
Everyone had the routine down pat - desks straightened, floors vacuumed by the time the teachers arrived. ``The kids have been real troopers,'' said Kotzebue principal Pam Van Wechel.
The only complaint was chilly rooms. The heating system wasn't designed to keep up with a steady 40 below. The cold seeped in everywhere; frost coated doors and windows, the floors were like ice.
Meals were the largest problem. Food in bush Alaska may run 50 or 100 percent above prices in the Lower 48, and labor costs for the cooks, working seven days a week, were equally steep - $2,000 a day at least, according to Bania. The school district was already strapped by falling oil revenues.
The first break in the weather came Jan. 28: A band of clouds moved in, raising the temperature to 30 below - the minimum for small-plane flight. Every available plane in Kotzebue - a half dozen or more - began to ferry students, till all but the Kivalina team were left. Then the weather closed in again - and the two winning teams flew back from Anchorage the next day. Now they were stuck, 47 in all. (They had something to celebrate, though: The Noorvik girls' team had taken second place, and the Selawik boys' team, fourth.)
In the arctic, where man seems small and nature vast, people have always banded together in times of trouble. ``Helping each other, that's the Inupiaq [Eskimo] way,'' says Robert Newlin, chairman of the regional Native corporation, NANA. Local groups pitched in: The Kotzebue Lionesses and NANA provided meals, and the Kotzebue Technical Center put its food-service trainees to work; local stores gave discounts; Alaska Airlines flew in food given at cost by McDonald's and Pizza Hut.
It was an ``outstanding'' response, said Northwest Arctic superintendent Jerry Covey. ``We are gratified to find there are so many good neighbors to education.''
School, too, went on in makeshift fashion. Using borrowed books, photocopies, and ingenuity, the stranded teachers organized classes. Kotzebue opened its doors to help. The National Park Service, the Kotzebue Technical Center, the National Weather Service, the hospital, the radio station, and others organized tours and presentations, including a ``Stranded Student Conference'' hosted by NANA.
Entertainment wasn't neglected, either. There was basketball in the gym almost every night. A volleyball tournament, a dance with a live band, movies, and free use of the Kotzebue Recreation Center helped pass the time.
``This is more like a vacation than being stranded,'' said one Kiana student. ``Yeah, I could go for this every year,'' agreed a Noatak youth.
Most people were less enthusiastic. The adults were on 24-hour duty - supervising, organizing, sleeping in snatches. Contact with some villages was cut to messages read over the public radio; the cold had disrupted phone service. A few parents braved wind chills of more than 100 below, driving 100 miles by snowmobile to take their children home. Halfway there, one Kivalina family broke down and had to walk five hours in minus-40 weather.
Despite the cost, the school district resisted the urge to push the weather and risk children's lives, though there was talk of using special cold-weather aircraft or even mobilizing the National Guard.
The last of the children left Jan. 31, when the record-setting high pressure system that had brought wind chills of up to 118 below in Kotzebue moved off.
At the height of the cold, students sat in the hall, waiting. ``I wonder what's for lunch?'' one said.
``Sure wish I could eat caribou soup.''
``I heard we'll have a dance tonight.''
Then one gave an involuntary shiver. ``Alapaa!'' he said - ``It's cold!'' in Eskimo.