EXPECT DELAYS – Lines of traffic move slowly down Sawmill Creek Road today as a repaving project progresses near the Indian River bridge. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

COVID No Match for Julie Hughes Tradition

Sentinel Staff Writer

Local athletes of all ages kept a Sitka tradition alive in spite of the ongoing pandemic by running, swimming, and cycling in the informal 36th Annual Julie Hughes Memorial Triathlon Saturday.

Dean Orbison finishes the swimming leg of the Julie Hughes Triathlon Saturday. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

The COVID-19 emergency has canceled or delayed sporting events around the world, from the Little League World Series to the Olympic Games, but triathlon organizers in Sitka overcame health hurdles by organizing an event to fit the circumstances.

“This was just like a flash triathlon, just word of mouth and people who had been committed to it,” said Carol Hughes, a race organizer and mother of the teen in whose memory the event was first held in 1985.

“It began as an honor to Julie, but over the years it became significant as the beginning of summer with families coming together,” Carol said.

“It’s really cool that we’re able to keep up this tradition,” said Darby Osborne, a Sitka High junior and a triathlon competitor. “I think the fact that we were able to pull this together is really demonstrative of the sense of community that Sitka has and continues to show.”

Julie Hughes, daughter of Carol and Bill Hughes, was 15 when she died of leukemia in February 1985. Before her daughter developed cancer at 12 she was an avid athlete and a particularly talented swimmer, Carol said.

Her parents said that Julie wanted to run a triathlon, but as her health declined, she never got the chance to do it.

Julie’s swimming coach, Siouxha Tokman, organized the very first Julie Hughes Memorial Triathlon in May, 1985.

“We started it in 1985 because Julie died and she had always wanted to do a triathlon,” said Dean Orbison. He was an organizer of the first event and has participated almost every year since its inception.

Orbison was the swimmer on his team in Saturday’s triathlon. In past years the swimmers did laps in the Blatchley pool, but with the pool presently closed, Orbison donned a wetsuit for this year’s substitute, a 1,000-yard swim in the ocean.

Orbison said preserving a decades-old tradition was one of the primary reasons for having the triathlon this year, despite the challenges.

“We ran the triathlon because we didn’t want to cancel it,” he said. “It is such a tradition for us, and we did not want to lose our folk tradition status.”

Orbison noted that under normal circumstances, the race receives support from the police and fire departments. Also, the Baranof Barracudas typically donate a portion of race proceeds to the Sitka Cancer Survivors Society, though this year no funds were raised due to the informality of the event.

Taking note of coronavirus concerns, the planners kept the event small, with staggered start times to ensure distancing.

Kevin Knox, who was 11 at his first triathlon and has helped organize the race the past decade, said that once organizers realized that the pandemic would not allow the usual event, “we just put out the message to people, longtime participants and other interested people, to get out there and do whatever you might do and then send us some of your pictures.”

In all, about two dozen people turned out on Saturday, he said.

Carol Hughes said that in contrast to previous races, this one was not official. No times were recorded, no roster was kept, and no results will be posted.

Even so, she said she was happy that Julie remains an important Sitkan symbol.

“She still is a symbol of the coming of summer and healthy activities,” she said.

To celebrate that symbol of summer, a number of Sitkans participated to some degree, whether in an individual leg of the race, in the entire event, cheering racers, or manning a safety skiff for the swimmers.

This year’s informal entrants ranged from ten-year old Zach Martens to 78-year old Bill Hughes, Julie’s father.

Bill Hughes said the race is “one of the longest continuous running triathlons in the world.” Though small and informal, Saturday’s event kept that streak going for its 36th year.

Zach Martens has participated in the triathlon for the past four years, twice on a team and twice solo. He said this year’s smaller group of racers made pacing difficult.

“This one was kind of harder,” he said. “Usually when I’m running I try to pace off someone and when I’m swimming I’m perfectly fine in the pool. But the bike was the same.”

He said that on the running part his sister Mackenzie was acting as his pacer, riding her bike in front of him.

“My sister really helped me this year,” Zach said. “She biked with me from Blatchley (the start point) to the beach, and when I was running she biked with me. And when I was at the beach (by the Science Center, for the swim) she cheered on me and everyone.”

After the running and cycling sections, Zach put on his wetsuit and swam a 500-yard stretch in the ocean. Kids under 12 race half-distances.

Unfatigued, Zach then paddled a distance in a canoe with his friend Rhett Walker, a fellow Baranof Barracuda.

“It was great,” said Zach’s mother, Amy Martens.

“He was really disappointed that the Junior Olympics in Anchorage was canceled this year,” she said. “So when it was Thursday and he said ‘Mom, I want to do the triathlon,’ I wanted to make it happen for him. Number one was the fact he wanted to get out there.”

“At one point he told me ‘Swimming is life,’” his mother said.

“It takes a pretty hardy person, even with a wetsuit, to do the ocean swim,” Bill Hughes said.

At 78 and the oldest participant in Saturday triathlon, Hughes completed the bicycle leg on an electrically assisted bike.

Asa Dow ran the course as part of a three-person team, all high school friends. 

“It was fun, a good way to get outside and remember that the community still exists and that people are still there and supportive,” Dow said. His teammates were Darby Osborne and Kobi Weiland.

“Kobi just texted that we were putting together a team, and Darby and I were like ‘Yeah, we should do that’” Dow said.

A Julie Hughes competitor the past five years, he said his favorite aspect of the race is “just the community. It’s such a nice happy race, it’s never about who wins or the competition too much really. It’s all about these really nice people coming together for just the spirit of the event.”

Once Dow finished the five-mile run, an out-and-back between the middle school and the Coast Guard base, Osborne started pedaling north on Halibut Point Road on the bike leg of the event.

It was her first time on a bike in over a year, she said. “But I biked so much when I was younger it still feels like second nature to me.”

The decision to participate was “a pretty last minute thing for me,” she said. “During my math call (for school) Kobi asked the group if anyone would be willing to be on a team with him.” Having raced in the triathlon when she was younger, she accepted.

Osborne rode her bike from Blatchley seven miles to the end of the road at Starrigavan, then back to the Science Center, where teammate Kobi Weiland was ready for the swim.

A rising Sitka High senior, Weiland has competed in the Julie Hughes Triathlon since he was a child. He recalled completing the swim portion as a young boy equipped with flippers and a kickboard. This year, Weiland swam the kilometer-long aquatic section of the race in his wetsuit.

“I’ve been doing it almost every year for a long time. I started, I think in the last year it was at the Hames Center, I was pretty young,” Weiland said. “My whole family was doing it, and they wanted people to do it this year so it wouldn’t die, because it’s the longest-running triathlon in Alaska.”

While the pandemic has canceled and delayed sporting events as monumental as NCAA March Madness, the Tokyo Olympics, Major League Baseball, and the NBA, COVID-19 was a manageable complication for the Julie Hughes Triathlon.

“It speaks to the spirit of Sitka, and the spirit of this event,” Knox said. “One of the things that was hard for us all to grapple with was that this is one of the longest consecutive running triathlons in the U.S. and we did not want to see that broken. But also the spirit of the event honoring Julie or being in situations battling cancer, we feel almost traditionally this time of year,” Knox said. He noted that this year, he was particularly impressed by some of the performances by younger Sitkans including Zach Martens, Rhett Walker, and Calder Prussian.

“It made me feel warm and good to be part of the Sitka community,” Carol Hughes told the Sentinel.

“The people who do this, I think it just has such a strong meaning for people. It humbles us every year, it really does,” she said.



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August 5, 2020

A Note To Our Readers

Reopening: Phase One:


On March 30 the Daily Sitka Sentinel began taking precautions against the coronavirus, which was starting to show up in Alaska.

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– The Sitka Sentinel Staff


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Alaska COVID-19
At a Glance

(updated 8-6-20)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 10:45 a.m. Thursday.

New cases as of Wednesday: 40

Total statewide – 3,484

Total (cumulative) deaths – 25

Active cases in Sitka – 19 (14 resident; 5 non-resident) *

Recovered cases in Sitka – 15 (11 resident; 4 non-resident) *

The state says the cumulative number of cases hospitalized is 141.

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

* These numbers reflect State of Alaska data. Local cases may not immediately appear on DHSS site, or are reported on patient’s town of residence rather than Sitka’s statistics. 




August 2000

The city’s solid waste incinerator closed Wednesday, two days after the contract with Sheldon Jackson College for its operation ended. ... The city will ship all municipal waste except biosolids off-island to a landfill in Washington. The biosolids will be buried in the Kimsham landfill, Public Works Director Hugh Bevan said.

August 1970

Ernest Robertson, a Sitka resident most of his life, has moved back here with his family after a five-year sojourn in Anchorage. “Anchorage was just too big,” Ernie said. “It wasn’t like Sitka, where every time you go out on the street you meet your friends.”