A pack of roughly 260 teens and tweens are in Alaska this week last to compete in the 

Fairbanks 2014 Arctic Winter Games. The 10-year-olds right up to the 19-year-olds, will have been managing their adrenaline all week, bolstering their courage and drive to compete against youth from around the northern tip of the globe in a variety of indoor and outdoor sports.

Between March 15 and 22, the Arctic Winter Games features events in traditional First Nation and Inuit sporting competitions, and a variety of mainstream sports such as skiing, gymnastics, and volleyball. The Yukoners are up against teams from Greenland, Russia, Alaska, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

Sport Yukon president George Arcand says the opportunity to compete in the Arctic Winter Games is not only a physical challenge for our youth, it also exposes them to some valuable life lessons. Lessons such as how to be comfortable away from home, that there are a whole bunch of different cultures out there, and that it’s possible to communicate with people even when they speak a different language.

“The lessons are not just on the competition field – they’re learning how to become part of the world by dealing with other people, other cultures, other languages,” Arcand says. “When you really think about it, we’re not just sending them out to go to, for example, a volleyball game.”

In the downtime before and after the youth compete, they are being exposed to situations that are different from home.

“If you’re on a hockey team, there are 19 people that make up that team, and they’re going to stay together in a classroom (in Fairbanks) together,” Arcand says. “They have to learn to get along, to share, and to do everything that it takes to make that a good experience, not a bad experience.”

One of the most important lessons the youth can learn, Arcand says, is how to lose well. Of course everyone’s rooting for them to win, but learning how to be a good sport through a loss is a lesson that will serve kids well.

“Everyone is a good winner, but if you can learn how to lose, it makes you a far better person,” Arcand says. “To be well-rounded, you have to be able to win or lose, because you’re not going to win every competition you go to.”

This year Team Yukon has 10 kids participating in Arctic Sport, which derive from traditional Inuit games. The Arctic Sports include the one foot high kick and the knuckle hop. With the knuckle hop, the competitor will be in a plank position on the floor, their hands in a fist with their knuckles touching the floor, and they have to hop in that position. The athlete who covers the greatest distance wins.

“You’ve got to give them credit, because (the traditional sports) are extremely physical – some people call it brutal,” Arcand says. “When I grew up we played basketball and volleyball, but this is what these guys played, and it was a test of their manhood. I’m sure it was even more physical in the days gone by.”

Arcand has been involved with the Arctic Winter Games since 1992, which was the first year that Whitehorse hosted the games. He has noticed since then, and including during the 2012 games that were also hosted in Whitehorse, that both sets of traditional First Nations and Inuit games, called the Arctic Sports and the Dene Games, always draw a large crowd.

“That’s in part because they’re so unique, compared to hockey,” Arcand says. “That’s not to say the hockey arenas aren’t packed at the playoffs – they are. But we get a lot of people following the Arctic Sports and the Dene Games.”

The Yukon Team has 15 kids in Dene Games this year. Those events include the finger pull, snowsnake, stick pull, and pole push. According to Northwest Territories physical education and science teacher Darren Wicks, who created a website to showcase the Dene Games, the games were a way for the Dene people to practice and strengthen their survival skills. Skills such as carrying heavy fish by one finger (the finger pull), slaying a caribou with a spear (snowsnake), and carrying a canoe far distances (pole push).

Many more kids from the Yukon are competing in other outdoor and indoor events, such as four kids participating in dog mushing, eight in curling, eight in snowshoeing, and seven in snowboarding. The indoor events include eight kids participating in table tennis, 20 in volleyball, and 27 in soccer.

In addition to the sporting events, approximately eight Yukon youth are also in Fairbanks to perform as part of the cultural exchange component of the games.

“Every contingent takes six to eight kids and they perform all over the city,” Arcand says. “They try to get the kids out in the community, performing, so the general public gets to see it for free.

“There could be just 10 people in the audience, and I’ve seen it where you couldn’t get near them because there were 200 people watching.”

By the time the Arctic Winter Games wrap up on Saturday and our Yukon youth head home, no doubt they’ll have some interesting stories to tell about their experience with other Canadian, American, Greenlander, and Russian kids.