To get to its next game, the Ketchikan (Alaska) High School football team will fly 24 hours and more than 1,300 miles — and players will never leave the state.
That’s the equivalent of flying from San Diego to Seattle, a reminder of just how big Alaska is.
This year marks the first that the Kayhi Kings, as the high school football team is called, will travel from the tip of Southeast Alaska to the North Slope community of Utqiaġvik (OOT-kee-AH-vik), formerly known as Barrow.
These high school athletes are no stranger to flying to away games: Neither Ketchikan, which sits on an island, nor Utqiaġvik are accessible by road.
Ketchikan High School Assistant Principal Melissa Johnson, who oversees activities and athletics, said the two schools were placed into the same conference based on their size, despite the fact that they are separated by hundreds of miles.
“One thing about flying from Ketchikan to (Utqiaġvik) is you can’t do it in one day,” Johnson said. “It takes about 24 hours of travel.”
Johnson said the Kings will board a plane Thursday evening after school, then fly the approximately 12 hours it takes to reach Anchorage, the state’s largest city. There aren’t many direct flights in the 49th State.
Then Friday, the team will board another plane for another 12-hour journey to Utqiaġvik. Nearly a full day of air travel for a conference game.
“Think of it like driving across the state you live in … and then times it by four,” Johnson said.
The travel poses a challenge, she said.
“These trips are really taxing because you miss school,” Johnson said. “But they’re still expected to do all the school work.”
Johnson said the team, which is 3-1 in a season that began in July, is confident despite the great distance traveled. After the game, they’ll spend the night in the local high school before turning around for the two-day journey home.
All that flying doesn’t come cheap. Johnson said the team receives a little money from the local school district, but the rest is raised through fundraising activities that include raffles, dinners and a “rent-a-football-player” benefit.
Despite that, Johnson said there’s an excitement that comes with flying from one remote part of the state to another.
“I think it’s a really cool cultural experience,” she said, with a different environment, local tribes, food and customs. “It’s almost like a different country.”
Shady Grove Oliver, of The Arctic Sounder, contributed to this report.