We braved bears, beers and bright lights in the middle of the night to uncover rugby’s development in America’s last frontier, Alaska. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in August.
Is this the most beautiful rugby ground in the world?
THE RAP on the door startles us awake. “Guys, come quick, there’s a bear,” hollers Justin Green. “Quick or you’ll miss the bear.” Clad only in our pants, we trundle down steps as quickly as we can to join Justin, his heavily-pregnant wife Melissa and a squadron of kids, trying to get as close to the young black bear nosing around their ‘garden’ as possible.
Oh yeah, and as if this isn’t startling enough an image, Justin’s front yard also happens to be a fully-functioning rugby ground nestled into an Alaskan mountainscape. Mondays, am I right?
This is the stunning Alaska Mountain Rugby Ground, climbing high into the vista over Anchorage, the largest city in the vast US state at the north-west of North America. A green haven amongst the saw-tooth peaks of this rugged landscape, this is also the site of a yearly sevens tournament, the Midnight Sun 7s, which we are here to take in.
Of course we knew all of this stuff beforehand, the bare context. We knew that we were headed for a ground unlike any we had visited before, where the wild intersects with the man-made. We also knew that we would be disorientated by a combination of heading to the extreme west, jetting backwards in time nine hours while also arriving at a time of year when the sun never really falls beyond the horizon.
On our very first night on the grounds this is sharply illustrated when, after 10pm, we witness an adult and baby moose refreshing themselves at the pond on the skirt of the playing field, bathed in honeyed sunshine.
But while we expected extraordinary settings, that was the extent of our knowledge before embarking on the journey. Our photographer Sam visited the state more than ten years ago, during white-out winter, but rugby here was something neither of us had a handle on and we barely understood the ‘why’.
According to the legend, Green was at the pub with his mates when talk turned to the need for a beacon for Alaska rugby and right then and there he sketched out a design for his own field of dreams, on a napkin. He had a grand vision.
“I had played here since I was 14 and when I was younger they barely had two men’s teams, so I knew we had to do something to grow rugby in Alaska,” Green says, sitting pitchside. “I went to boarding school in England and I understood the clubhouse and the camaraderie of rugby. I knew how the field and the clubhouse preserved the culture of the clubs and their history. We had to start that history in Alaska and grow things.”
Green was, in his words, a “naughty boy” who grew up on ten acres of wild land in the state. When his mother insisted that her three unruly Alaskan sons get a European education, they were sent to St Lawrence College in Kent, England.
Undisciplined at first, the kids were taken under the wing of Welshman Ian Gollop, who taught them the game of rugby. Green was bitten by the bug.
The ground founder admits that such a project here would have been, eh-hem, pie in the sky, were it not for his successful company Alaska Demolition “paying the bills”, but the role of the rugby community around him was also a vital one, particularly when certain other people could not see what he saw.
He reflects: “There were times when neighbours were trying to shut us down. There were a lot of people who said, ‘This ain’t gonna happen!’ There were a lot of doubters. Then it happened.
“Now we’re enjoying all the work we have done. We have had some teams from around the world come here, big names, and when they showed up everyone was like, ‘Hey, he did it’.”
According to the collective, rugby began here between 1972 and 1973, and there is undoubtedly a trace of legacy that deserves to be coloured in. During the sevens event, fold-out chairs are dotted around the field, with local veterans of the game taking in the view, some leaning against the stonework with a small cooler of ‘soda’ at their feet.
Weaving between the crowds of players slumped on the sideline is former Alaska Rugby president Cameron Vivian, known to many here as Mr Alaska Rugby. He stops to explain that back in those early days of the Seventies, two teams made up the rugby landscape, the Barbarians and the Dragons. Things evolved over time.
Asked if his beloved Alaskan rugby was a bit of a spit-and-sawdust affair for a while, he replies earnestly: “Oh there was a lot of that! Back in those days the boys were big and we did a lot of mauling around the field… There was one team that was pretty much entirely firemen, there were other teams that grew over the years… Some Canadian teams would come up and join us sometimes. We’ve had touring sides from all over. I’ve been part of so many tours out of Alaska. The game’s taken me all over, I’ve been to 30 different countries. It’s very rewarding.”
Current president David Delozier echoes how rewarding things can be and is rightly proud of the game here being at, as he calls it, its strongest point ever. In 2014 a dedicated youth programme was installed and there are 13 men’s and women’s teams in the state now; the majority are based in Anchorage, but there is rugby in Fairbanks, Kenai and even on the more remote island of Sitka.
There is a startlingly large Polynesian community in Anchorage – they’re a big part of what makes Alaskan rugby tick – and also more than 500 Alaskan kids registered to play the game here, according to some interviewed. But both Delozier and Vivian express their appreciation for having such a fine facility to rely on, here in Anchorage.
“I think one of the reasons rugby’s so popular up here is because it really speaks to who Alaskans think they are, who we tell ourselves we are,” reveals Ben Mohr, who sits on the board of the Alaska Rugby Foundation. “It’s about being rugged. It’s about being able to push through adversity. That’s the history of Alaska. So on a philosophical level rugby resonates with Alaskans.
“So we’ve 700,000 people in Alaska, we’ve got about 350,000 in the Anchorage area. On a map, we’re about the size of Europe. We’re pretty damn big. But even here in the Anchorage area, per capita, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a region of the country where rugby is more popular.”
Mohr’s sentiment about rugby talking to the Alaskan ideals makes total sense when uttered out loud. On the pitch there are a number of styles being played: chip-and-chase rugby, burly, physical play, and slick movement. There are players from Honolulu in Hawaii, there’s an invitational side called the Stars, there are Tongan and Samoan flavours, and the organisers keep talking about attaining a more international feel. Indeed, so many interviewees who call this land home are transplants; we meet several from all over North America who visited the state, fell in love, moved here.
What unites all of them, on and off the field, is that get-on-with-it attitude and an unwavering positivity, even when the going gets visibly tough.
In steps Erica Thynes, who is here with the Anchortown team, to encapsulate just this with one anecdote.
Slipping out her prosthetic tooth for a picture, she says: “So a bunch of us were hanging out watching the Northern Lights, away in a cabin right by Skilak Lake – our team often just hang out socially like that.
“It was winter time and pitch-black because there’s no sun, right. I woke up in the middle of the night and jumped out of bed to go to the bathroom, thinking I was at home. But I wasn’t. I fell out of a f****** bunk bed, and there was a small amount of space between the bed I was in and a picnic table which had a bottle of Jameson sitting on it.
“I smashed my mouth on the bottle. My tooth split and went back up into the roof of my mouth. It all opened up.”
Laughing and pointing to her mate nearby, she concludes: “My friend Lauren there then drank the bottle of Jameson and took the bottle cap and made a magnet out of it for me. She said, ‘Here’s a little memento to the destruction you did to your face!’”
One of the other things they are so proud of here is the intern programme they run, where players from all over are encouraged to spend their summer at the grounds and help out with the game (for details, see our panel). After all, winters here are extreme and so in summer, aside from this event, 15s is the main meal on their menu, while all over the United States others sample sevens.
One returning Kiwi, Grant Johnston from the Otago rugby scene (who we later discover is in his early 40s), heard of the scheme a few years back when he was hungover on his couch, and when he was told the next day that he had a lot of mandatory holiday time to take from work, he booked up. He keeps coming back to Alaska because of the social nature of the rugby, the idea that he can help their game and also due to the region’s natural beauty.
Which is all positive. But in a land where everything is just that much bigger, there must be big hurdles too.
“Our finances are the biggest challenge,” says president Delozier, hinting at the logistical toll of being based at least three hours away by plane from other rugby hotspots around the continent. “Obviously the economy can be rough and anything that costs money means it is a challenge to get people out here.”
He adds: “I’m super happy. I’ve been the president for three years and I’ve had some major milestones and some major rocks. Physicality off the ball was also one of the biggest problems we’ve had with our rugby but we have sorted that out. I can’t present it in a different way – there has been zero punch-ups here, zero handbags, we just don’t play that way anymore.”
The Stars win both the men’s and women’s events, with Hawaiian tourists HNL women and locals Manu Bears men losing out to the select side. As the sun hovers over the horizon, thoughts turn to the future of rugby here.
There are unfinished sections of the site where Green plans to build a grand standalone clubhouse with a viewing area and changing facilities, connected by walkways – another draw for tours. Seattle Seawolves have visited and the Crusaders International High Performance Unit put on clinics in September.
There is also a lot of talk of establishing an Arctic Nations competition, to be set up in the style of the Six Nations, with Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Russia and Canada potentially joining Alaska, a proxy for the USA. As Green says: “The dream is to put Alaska on the international stage.”
Perhaps more significantly than this, though, is the plan to build the ‘Aurora Grounds’. The local government is tasking these visionaries with turning an area of disused Anchorage land into a six-field facility, with space to put on concerts and host other sports. It would be a rugby mecca for the people of the area, with man-made embankments ringing the fields so that the sport can be played in an amphitheatre.
Drawing more international attention to this corner of the rugby world will be exciting and touring sides would be thrilled to discover this adventurer’s paradise. And if the zeal for the game here is translated into significant youth development down the line, more rugby talent will be exported to the wider world from the state of Alaska.
But once the bear lollops off behind the cabins and we forget about the serious stuff, all that’s left is the view. And boy, what a view it is.
The Alaska Rugby Intern Programme is open to men and women players. Interns will be expected to cover the cost of flights and should have enough money to cover the price of food, personal travel and other supplies.
However, accommodation is provided at the Mountain Grounds while interns will have the chance to coach at youth level and will be given jobs managing the facilities. Each intern will be placed with a local club that matches their own skill-set. There is also ample opportunity to explore the state.
If interested, please email DavidD@akrugby.com
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in August. All pictures taken by Sam Riley.