Boards, skis, boots and enthusiasm add up to winter fun By Brad SpencerAs many as 2,000 children participate in the Barnevirkie cross-country event each year in Hayward, Wis.
There's a foot of snow on the ground outside. It's cold and dreary. Inside, the air is thick. Kids bounce off the walls. Parents pace. Everyone has a lethal combination of cabin fever and winter doldrums. The day is lost to the effects of winter.
Or is it?
This isn't Vail, Colo., but the air is crisp and the snow is packed smooth. Sure, these are molehills compared to the mountains of Telluride, but kids are laughing and parents are happy. They're all busy schussing down the glistening slopes, negotiating half-pipes on their snowboards, coursing through the wilderness on their cross-country skis or soaring through the air off a ski jump. And all of it is just a few hours outside of Chicago.
Twelve years ago, Suzanne Hoffman, a lifelong skier who lives in Chicago, was eager to introduce her 8-year-old daughter to the slopes. She planned an extravagant trip to Colorado, ski capital of the United States. But when she visited a ski shop to prepare for the trip, Hoffman discovered there was a school in the area where her daughter could be bused to the Wisconsin-Illinois border, learn the basics of the sport, schuss down the slopes and be back home in Chicago by the end of the day.
"I signed up my daughter for the school on the spot," says Hoffman, referring to the Blizzard Ski and Snowboard School. Hoffman tagged along on the first trip north and has been a certified instructor for the school ever since. "The purpose is to teach kids how fun this sport really is," she says. "Once they take the chance to learn the sport and find out how fun it is, they're hooked instantly."
Like many clubs and schools around the Chicago area, Blizzard offers fundamental ski and snowboard instruction at a reasonable price. The school charges $95 to join and $45-$50 per week for the bus fare and lift ticket. Pickup spots on 10 to 13 Saturdays a season, weather permitting, include Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Glenview and Oak Brook, among others.
"It's good to know that you can be outside in the winter season and enjoy the season," says Evelyn Nesbitt, marketing coordinator at Blizzard. Her mother, Mary Pappas, started the school 48 years ago. "In all the years I've been doing this, I've never taken a kid skiing who didn't have a great time. Even the ones who weren't that athletic learn how to have fun with such a sport."
Blizzard takes kids 75 minutes north of Chicago to Wilmot Mountain. "It's a perfect distance because kids don't get too anxious and rambunctious. Just about the time we roll into the parking lot, the movie on the bus is over and they are ready to ski."
Both Hoffman and Jim Loufman, co-owner of Trolls Ski Club, another school that buses kids ages 9 to 16 to Wilmot, say their young skiers are mostly into snowboarding. "It's very popular because kids are getting to watch the sport a lot more on television. The X Games and Gravity Games are on [television], and that's what kids want to learn first. And that's fine, because the games on television make it cool to ski again," says Loufman, who has been running Trolls for 40 years. "I know what a kid's first reaction to skiing is going to be: ‘It's going to be cold, there's all the stuff you need to have, it's a hassle.' But specialized schools make it so easy for a kid to enjoy the sport and learn something new. Once they do it, they can't believe they're skiing and snowboarding and having so much fun." Loufman insists snowboarding isn't a difficult sport for kids to learn. "In many ways it's easier than conventional skiing," he says. "There's one ski basically, and once you get the balance and maneuvers down it's a piece of cake."
Skiing the flats
If you'd rather enjoy the wintry wonderland without having to negotiate slopes or half pipes, cross-country skiing is also an option. Since 1998, Chuck Wolski of Tinley Park has taken his family to Hayward, Wis., each winter. Wolski, an avid fisherman and outdoorsman, had never skied before 1998. Friends asked him to join them volunteering to work at cross country marathon called the Birkebeiner. "Ever since then, we've been skiing around Hayward every year," he says.
Cross-country skiing is a little more rigorous than downhill, but Wolski says his family enjoys it. "My 11-year-old daughter, Kathryn, has been skiing for four years now and she loves it. Sometimes the hills can wear you out a little, but that's when you stop and rest and then get back on the trail again. It's a great family sport and great exercise. You have a chance to spend all that time together outside during winter."
The Barnebirkie is a free cross-country race for kids held annually in Hayward—about seven hours northwest of Chicago—as part of the American Birkebeiner, an adult cross-country skiing marathon. The children's race, a 1-, 2.5- and 5-kilometer, noncompetitive event, is for ages 3 to 13 and draws families from all over the world. "The numbers vary from year to year but we tend to draw in about 7,000 adult skiers and about 2,000 children skiers from around the Midwest and countries such as Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Russia," says Jan Jenkins, office manager for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. "It's a wonderful event for families who love to cross-country ski."
Wolski recommends a little training. "It's not a sport to leap right into. Some conditioning needs to be done or it may be a short trip, but it doesn't take much," he says. "Once the kids get the hang of it, it goes a lot smoother."
Frequent walks or time on a treadmill is enough to prepare for a few hours on the trail, Wolski says.
For the thrill-seekers
If the slopes and the trails don't seem adventurous enough, there's always ski jumping. The Norge Ski Club has been around since 1905. The Fox River Grove-based club offers skiers and non-skiers an opportunity to learn how to ski jump. Kids 5 and under can learn to jump in the junior program. They start on a 2-meter-high jump and move up from there. Adults learn to leap from jumps that range from 40-64 meters.
"It's a wonderful family activity for the winter months and all year round," says Mary Jo Schauer, corresponding secretary for the club. Schauer's sons Evan, 14, and Andrew, 16, are members of the Norge team that has competed in the Junior Olympics two years in a row. Her daughter Lindsey, 18, began ski jumping in fourth grade.
"Kids don't have to be downhill skiers to join our club," says Schauer. "We have the equipment to teach year round, so they don't have to relearn technique and skill every winter season."
In December, the junior program travels to tournaments as far away as Iron Mountain in Michigan. "It's not much of a competition, these tournaments," says Schauer. "It's more for the kids and the families to get to know people from other ski-jump clubs. They form a unique bond and enjoy the season."
Downhill / snowboarding Blizzard Ski and Snowboard School (708) 848-3831 Ages 8-18 Pickup locations: Chicago, Glenview, Oak Brook, River Forest, Schaumburg, Wilmette and Lake Zurich Membership fee: $95; additional cost: $45-$50 per week Run-time: 10-13 Saturdays
Trolls Ski Club (630) 323-4320 Ages: 9-16 Pickup location: Hinsdale Membership fee: $180; weekly fee: $30 Run-time: 10 Saturdays, December-February (Classes are full this year.)
Cross-country The Barnebirkie is said to be the largest children's race in the country with 2,000 kids ages 3 to 13 skiing. Courses are designed with the age and experience of the children in mind, and a medal is awarded to each child who participates. For information, call (715) 634-5025 or go to www.birkie.com Ski jumping Norge Ski Club (847) 639-9718 www.norgeskiclub.com Ages: 3 and up Run-time: Year round
Brad Spencer is the father of twin daughters, sports editor of the Wednesday Journal and a freelance writer based in Oak Park.