Learning to ski for free
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Lorraina Svitak pulled on snow boots and stepped onto downhill skis for the first time ever Monday morning.
By 2 p.m. that day she'd hitched three rides to the top of the mountain on the triple chair lift at Ski Anthony Lakes and tackled the Variety, Broadway and Lower College runs.
"It's fun, it's neat. I really like it," Svitak grinned.
Svitak was one of eight fifth-graders who took advantage of the Fifth-grader Passport Program at Anthony Lakes, which offers free lessons, rentals and lift tickets to any fifth-grader with a desire to learn how to ski or snowboard.
The program started at the beginning of March, continuing each Sunday plus Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of spring break this week. Students could attend one or all of the sessions.
"(Students) range from Pendleton, La Grande, Enterprise we've had a couple from Portland, and then Haines, Baker and Halfway," said Amy Barnes, the office and human resources manager at Anthony Lakes.
Ski Anthony Lakes modeled their Passport Program after national programs developed for fifth-graders.
"But none of them offer them completely free," Barnes said. "We just thought hey, how many kids could we expose to the sport in a positive way with professional instructors?"
She said the program averaged 25 to 30 students on the Sundays leading up to spring break, Barnes said.
Many are repeat participants, and by Monday she'd registered a total of 56 different fifth-graders for the month.
"I'd say we have a 60 percent return," Barnes said.
A few, like Svitak, were new to the sport.
"We probably have half and half with kids who it's their first time," Barnes said.
Riley Neer and Karrah Mattson signed up for the program to learn how to snowboard.
Neer has downhill skied for five years, Mattson for two.
"I like learning new things," Neer said.
This is why Anthony started the program, Barnes said.
"It's an age where kids are developing their personalities and find things that will stick with them throughout their life," she said. "Skiing is a lifetime sport. We have a huge base of skiers that are over 70."
Safety before the slopes
Prior to the lesson and free ski time, the fifth-graders spent 30 minutes learning about winter safety in a discussion led by Union County teachers Erich Dressen and Eric and Jaime Gustavson.
"It's really fun to watch the kids learn things," Dressen said. "Sometimes they have a hard time sitting they're ready to go."
The students first complete a chapter in the Junior Snow Ranger workbook, covering topics on avalanche safety, animal tracks identification, cold weather safety and how to measure snowpack.
Then they review the skier's responsibility code.
"The responsibility code is a huge part of this program," Barnes said. "When people new to the sport don't go through the lesson system, they don't learn this."
The code offers basic rules for the ski runs stay in control; people ahead have the right of way; check the uphill slope before starting downhill; observe signs and warnings; and know how to use the lift safely.
After the safety review, the young skiers and snowboarders have 45 minutes of free time on the beginner hills.
Those who have already attended Passport sessions can move on to the big runs once they can pass a turn test.
"They can't go on the lift until they prove they have control," Jaime Gustavson said.
Dressen, Eric and Jaime Gustavson stayed at the bottom of the short slopes to offer tips to the first-timers.
"There were kids who hadn't even had their gear on before," Jaime Gustavson said. "When they went to their lessons, they were more comfortable with just learning."
But even the beginners get up on skis and out on the snow. For the morning lesson, the fifth-graders were divided according to ability and equipment, and then spent an hour learning the basics from professional instructors.
The first skills to master are perhaps the most important how to slow down and how to make turns.
Then it just takes practice.
"The main thing is to get them skiing," Eric Gustavson said.
After the lesson and another review from the Junior Snow Rangers book, the Passport participants took to the slopes for two hours of free ski time with a parent who also received a free lift ticket with the program or an instructor.
"We're trying to get kids exposed to as many opportunities as we can for winter sports, keeping them motivated year-round," Barnes said.
The final Passport Program for this year is March 28. Barnes said they plan to make this an annual offering to area fifth-graders.
For more information, call Barnes at 856-3277, extension 16.