By Mary Thill
On one of those winter afternoons when night falls as the clock says it’s still day, a line of small children moves up a white trail, marching wide-legged like ants on a branch. Then they bunch up and one by one point downhill and glide or tumble toward the bottom. Older kids pole and sail by, pumping to catch air off bumps.
For Helena Dramm, age seven, hills are the best thing about cross-country skiing. “It’s actually the funnest part,” she says. Helena is one of fifty kids enrolled in Dewey Mountain Youth Ski League, Saranac Lake’s learn-to-ski and race program for five-to-thirteen-year-olds. Dewey is not one of the Adirondacks’ larger Nordic ski centers, as measured by trail kilometers, but with plenty of steeps and vertical it makes an honest claim to funnest.
“The kids play a lot of games here, but the reality is they’re learning how to turn and other techniques without even noticing it,” says Don Poulsen, whose two young sons are enrolled in the ski league. “They always come home with a smile on their face.”
Most of the children at Dewey are there because their parents ski, or their friends do, and it’s a satisfying way to release energy after school. Some go on to race with high-school or New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF) teams. Their numbers have grown in recent years, an indicator of what appears to be a regionwide resurgence in cross-country skiing.
“We have seen a steady increase in enrollment numbers and family involvement with the Nordic sports since 2006,” said Margaret Maher, NYSEF’s cross-country head coach.
Nordic teams have been resurrected at Tupper Lake High School and at Paul Smith’s College. The town of Keene, home to some great backcountry skiers, instituted a kids’ program at Cascade Ski Touring Center last winter. Tupper Lake four years ago started a new program for second-through-eighth-graders, and Tupper Lake brothers Charlie and Willie Bencze are in the thick of a pack of young Adirondack racing prospects from Keene to Old Forge. Ski classes in the two-time Olympic village of Lake Placid have record attendance, and the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) last winter even initiated “Wee Ski” mornings for two-to-four-year-olds and their parents.
“As a little kid, the thing I wanted more than anything was to be a ski racer. That was pretty much the point of all decisions. My heroes were Norwegians, they were Swedes; they were people I never had the opportunity to see much less be around,” says Kris Cheney Seymour, who grew up in Saranac Lake. He went on to coach professionally and study architecture and to return home and volunteer as head coach of the Dewey Mountain Youth Ski League.
Now, he says, Adirondack kids know ski heroes from their own hometowns. Dewey was the childhood training ground for two-time Olympian and World Cup–podium biathlete Tim Burke, who was raised in Paul Smiths, and 2010 Nordic-combined Olympic champion Billy Demong, who is originally from Vermontville. Lake Placid sent two biathletes—Lowell Bailey and Haley Johnson—to the 2010 Olympics, and Saranac Lake up-and-comer Peter Frenette competed in the Nordic discipline of ski-jumping.
These athletes are part of a crew of other talented local skiers and sliders who benefitted from the Olympic bump. Born after Lake Placid’s 1980 Winter Games, they were able to train at Olympic Regional Development Authority–maintained venues under expert coaching. Lake Placid still attracts World Cup competitions. The NYSEF program, Olympic Training Center, and Uihlein-Ironman Sports Fund there all help young Adirondackers and others get on a top-athlete path. The U.S. cross-country World Cup team has trained on roller-skis around Lake Placid every fall for a decade. Sprinter Andy Newell, of Vermont, and Nordic-combined competitor Taylor Fletcher, of Colorado, accompanied Billy Demong to meet star-struck young racers at Dewey last autumn.
For kids who dream of competing beyond the North Country, these guys bring glamour to a sport sometimes viewed in the U.S. as second tier. Cross-country demands more work than lift-served downhill. You depend on your own strength and aerobic capacity to power you up a hill, and it takes finesse to steer long, thin, edgeless boards down.
But one of the beauties of cross-country skiing is that it’s relatively inexpensive and can be done almost anywhere there’s snow. Many North Country youth programs provide gear for families who can’t afford it. And in addition to many well-groomed ski centers, the region provides more than three million acres of free public lands to explore.
Places like Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, and Old Forge have a proud racing heritage dating back more than a century, to the days when skis were introduced to the mountains and long winters of the Adirondacks. But now kids are clicking into skinny boards even in towns that don’t have as deep a ski heritage.
“In upstate New York, if you’re not playing in the snow, you’re not a happy camper,” says Elaine Hage, activities director at Potato Hill Farm Outdoor Education Center, in the Black River Valley between the Adirondacks and Tug Hill Plateau.
Lake-effect blizzards blown off Lake Ontario make Tug Hill the snowiest place in New York State, with annual totals over three hundred inches. It’s the heart of snowmobile country. But since 2009, it has also been the site of a from-scratch effort to encourage young people to embrace other outdoor activities. Backed by a private family foundation, Potato Hill is making available skis, snowshoes, and instruction to every fourth-through-eighth-grader in seven counties (primarily Oneida, Herkimer and Jefferson) and eighteen school districts. As this winter was beginning, the program had served 13,600 students, Hage reports. The only comparable offering in the region is Lake Placid’s Trailmarkers program, which offers all nearby third-grade classes a free day of skiing and instruction at Mount Van Hoevenberg, sponsored by Centerplate, the venue’s food concessioner.
Potato Hill kids begin around age nine with a day on snowshoes; they get geared up and take lessons in the morning, eat lunch, and then explore woodland trails with guides. In fifth grade they do the same on skis, alternating up to eighth grade. Returning is optional for grade nine and above. The site of the trails is the Black River Environmental Improvement Association (BREIA), one of the largest groomed cross-country ski systems in the East with more than fifty kilometers of free trail. The network was pieced together over the past two decades by the same benefactor as a gift to the people of the region. Potato Hill provides year-round outdoor and environmental education on BREIA lands. “Our ultimate goal is to engage young adults so they can come back to the BREIA trails,” Hage says.
In northern Europe, where skiing originated, the sport is televised and the athletes are heroes, says Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team. He has noticed momentum in ski-racing in this country and gives some credit to Internet sites that make it more accessible. “Kids all of a sudden understand they are not the only ones doing this sport, that there are kids all over the country doing this sport,” he says. “And on top of that there are kids from the United States going to Europe to compete against the best skiers in the world and having success. It’s built the idea that cross-country skiing is a cool thing to do, it’s a worthwhile pursuit, and I think that’s helped us create more interest and more momentum in the sport in this country.”