SEELEY LAKE - To some of the youngsters, snow was meant for eating, not skiing.
Other kids didn't quite make it out of the parking lot before tipping over. Still, the number of Seeley Lake elementary school and middle school children gung-ho for strapping on a pair of cross-country skis surprised the moms running the informal, weekly after-school program here.
Originally, they had anticipated attracting kids who had equipment and go regularly on the weekends with their parents.
As it turns out, Nordic skiing is appealing to all students - even those who've never tried to glide before.
Soon, all Seeley Lake students will have the opportunity to learn how to cross-country ski thanks to a new school program. Thanks to the generous support of the community, the school was able to purchase new Nordic ski equipment for every fourth grade student. In the next four years, the goal is to outfit every student between fourth and eighth grade with Nordic skis, boots and poles and making the sport a part of the children's exercise curriculum.
"We live in a beautiful area with a proximity to Forest Service land that's unprecedented," said Chris Stout, Seeley Lake Elementary principal and district superintendent.
Yet, many kids here have no more connection to the outdoors than a child living in New York City, he said. Many have never cross-country skied despite the area's many miles of groomed trails so close to town.
Out of 22 children in the fourth grade class, only two cross-country ski regularly with their families, Stout said.
Nordic skiing is an individual sport that children can continue to do as they grow older. It's low impact on the environment, promotes stewardship and a sense of respect for nature, and it's basically free after the equipment is purchased (unlike alpine skiing). And Seeley Lake has an abundance of snow.
"It seemed to make perfect sense," he said.
For years, teachers in Seeley Lake have incorporated snowshoeing and cross-country skiing into school activities. A winter science project may include Nordic skiing to the test site, for example. But it was always meant as a form of transportation rather than the focus.
In recent years, the town of Seeley Lake has taken a reinvigorated look at Nordic skiing. It's become an opportunity for economic prosperity. A feasibility study is underway to examine whether the town could support a Nordic ski lodge and training facility.
Stout was asked to sit on the Seeley Lake Nordic Challenge Steering Committee. He encouraged the committee to think about including kids when planning how to generate a Nordic culture in town.
The school then received two grants, one from the local hospital board and another from the Seeley Lake Foundation. Then the private donations trickled in, some from residents who don't have children in the school system but support getting kids outdoors.
In a matter of months, the school raised $7,500 to purchase ski equipment for the fourth grade class. The gear arrived last week. Stout hopes to have kids using the skis by February at the latest. They will ski at least twice a week during their gym class. Two teachers became certified in teaching cross country. The kids can even take the equipment home.
"I refuse to have a big closet full of skis," Stout said.
Bridget Laird is glad to see the school helping get kids outdoors. It's something that she and several other moms have been doing voluntarily the last year and a half with adventure club.
The club is open to all Seeley Lake students. On Saturdays, the moms take the kids hiking in the spring and fall and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter. The ski outings became so popular that they decided to host a mid-week ski day on Thursdays when the kids are released early from school.
The local Nordic club grooms a ski trail on the soccer fields behind the school.
"We're getting more and more kids who have never done it before," Laird said. "Here, we are living in Nordic skiing paradise and only a handful of the kids have ever skied before."
Fourteen-year-old Jon Dodd took it upon himself to click into a pair of used cross-country skis he checked out from the school. Local businesses donated about 20 sets of used skis to the school last year. The eighth grader decided to teach himself.
"I wanted to learn so I could ski down to my bus stop," Dodd said.
The teenager has had a few too many close calls, almost failing to catch the bus to school. It's a quarter mile from his house to the bus stop. He figured cross-country skiing could get him there faster.
"And I could get home faster to watch my favorite shows," he said.
Dodging pot holes on the dirt road and avoiding getting sucked into tire tracks was challenging.
"I only fell down a few times, but it was kinda hard," he said.
On Thursday, dressed in camouflage wool pants and a sweatshirt (no hat, gloves or jacket), Dodd decided to give the sport another try-this time on the soft surface of the school's snow-covered soccer fields.
Dodd was encouraged to attend the after-school ski program by his friend Jacob Ogden, a 14-year-old who competed in the Seeley Lake Biathlon the last two years. He recently got a pair of cross-country skis, and hopes to borrow some skate skis for the upcoming competition, but it wasn't the skiing that got him interested in the biathlon.
"I like to shoot guns and stuff," said the eighth grader.
Stout anticipates more interest in the after-school program once the kids begin skiing as part of the school day. Right now, the lack of equipment limits the number of kids who can participate in the after-school program.
Plus, it's important to introduce the kids to a new sport with equipment that is not old and falling apart, he said. No kids will enjoy cross-country skiing if their feet are cold or their boot keeps popping out of the binding, he said.
It costs $192 to outfit one child. As the kids get older, that cost goes up. Stout predicts outfitting the eighth grade class may cost $6,000 because all of the kids will be using adult equipment.
Already Stout is looking to order equipment for the fifth graders next year. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, and it may take four years to outfit five grades of students, but Stout is confident that the reward is worth the wait.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com.