Arctic Winter Games returned in grand fashion

From left to right, Gabrielle McLeod, Jerrica Sanderson and Desiree Charlo captured gold Ulu in the Dene Games hand games event on Wednesday. (Ollie Williams/Team NT - image credit)
From left to right, Gabrielle McLeod, Jerrica Sanderson and Desiree Charlo captured gold Ulu in the Dene Games hand games event on Wednesday. (Ollie Williams/Team NT - image credit)

The drums have stopped booming in the gyms and arenas.

The thwack of mittened applause has stilled along the race courses and snowy hills. Some 1,800 lovers of Northern sports are finding their way home from Wood Buffalo, Alta., following the 26th edition of the Arctic Winter Games (AWG).

For 13-year-old Northwest Territories Dene Games athlete Desiree Charlo, those drums are still echoing.

"The beat of the drums feels like it's inside of you, like there's nothing else and all you can hear is the drums," said Charlo.

Perhaps as she nears home, Charlo will also hear the quiet clinking of the gold ulu she won in hand games. It's been five long years since Team NWT's last win at the AWGs in Fort Smith, N.W.T., in 2018.

The Games were cancelled due to COVID in 2020, and postponed for the same reason in 2022. For young athletes around the polar region, it must have felt like their biggest multi-sport event would never return. And now of course, it has, come and gone in an instant.

The good news? It won't be such a long wait for the next one. The Matanuska borough, surrounding Anchorage, Alaska, will host the 2024 Arctic Winter Games. And the biennial celebration of sport, northern culture, and indigenous tradition will be back on track.

WATCH | Inside the pursuit of the AWGs knuckle hop record:

Getting rid of the rust

For Nicole Clow, CEO of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games, "back on track" was key to this year's success. She had seen youth sport losing momentum during the AWG's hiatus.

"It had broken up a bit, the coaching continuity. We are all knocking the rust off. We extended some age eligibility so kids did not lose out … but that happened in all sports everywhere in the world, right?"


But northern communities also face a perennial shortage of opportunities for competition, so these Games couldn't have happened soon enough. Another thing about the delayed Games: the AWGs are usually held in March. But because they came in an odd year this time, they crowded the calendar for the Canada Winter Games.

And as every northerner can tell you, January and March are very different beasts, weather wise.

For Team Sápmi skier Vetle Knutsen, the January cold was a serious X-factor. The cross-country skier owns a Norwegian national age running record, but cold below -15C is brutal for asthma sufferers like him. So, he's feeling good about how these Games came out, weather considering.

"The cold was worst the first race, but in the second race I did not feel it. I impressed myself and everyone else on my team with the fourth place. Haha!"

Like many others from Team Alberta North, the Wills family runs in a pack at the AWGs. Grandmother is hosting, mom is on the mission staff, dad's a former athlete, brother and sister are participating.

'We help everybody' 

What does 15-year-old Jordan want visitors to take away from these Games as they leave his home turf?

"I want kids to know about our hospitality. About how we help everybody. And it is a pretty cool place to be."

Mom Ashleigh confides, "I loved talking to the Greenlanders at the Dene game tryouts. They had so much knowledge to share. I could listen to them all day. You can see and feel the heritage in those Games."

Palle Jerimiassen, the mayor of Ilulissat, Greenland came to these AWGs to cheer on his team — and to drum up interest in a new "Avannaa Arctic Games" in 2025. The Greenlanders need no convincing about the many social, cultural, and public health benefits that follow from events like these.

Brendon Smithson, the CEO of the North American Indigenous Games, was here to learn too. He watched for organized and unorganized events and spaces that the kids enjoy. And, though he hasn't seen much of it, he was also looking for things that were less perfect. Bus rides that are too far, meal times that conflict with competitions.

Smithson loved what he saw at the AWGs.

"You see culture and sport together like no other place in the world. It's not just music and dance. Its everything. It's language. It's how they interact. You see faces come alive. The smiling faces of tomorrow's leaders."

WATCH | An essay on the Arctic Winter Games' return: 

Gearing up for North American Indigenous Games

Like the Arctic Winter Games, the upcoming Halifax NAIG was postponed for three years. That's three more years of pent up excitement. On his way out of Wood Buffalo, Smithson has a message for all the indigenous athletes he encounters:

"We are excited to host you in Halifax. We are excited to share the mi'kmaq culture and learn about yours. Our message is pjila'si which means welcome, we are saving you a seat at the table. These games have been postponed for three years and that seat is still waiting for you. Your seat's not going anywhere. It's waiting for you."