FARMINGTON — Three tiny skiers, ages 5 to 6, talked and laughed as they made their way through the lighted woods trails at Titcomb Mountain’s Nordic center on Monday evening.
As they slipped, walked and did some version of tap dancing on skis, the happy travelers looked unmistakably like Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow dancing along the yellow-brick road in the “Wizard of Oz.”
Their legs moved fast – but not always in a forward direction. One continually fell. Another scissor-kicked in the air without gaining ground. But their joy in this first Nordic ski class was obvious.
As the popularity of cross-country skiing continues to soar during the pandemic – with season passes at many Maine Nordic centers on pace for a second winter of record sales – youth coaches say parents should let their young children have at it, even toddlers.
“When they’re so little, the idea of gliding and flying – some kids get it and some kids just walk on skis. First they have to feel a little like they have a comfort level with balance. Then the kick and glide comes,” said Chris Knapp, a youth ski coach with the Farmington Ski Club at Titcomb Mountain.
Nordic skiing done right can be challenging to learn, even for adults. It’s not just sliding the skis back and forth and reaching out with a pole. The correct motion in classic cross-country skiing resembles more of a kick-and-glide. Skate skiing, which by all accounts is more difficult and done on thinner planks, can be more challenging. Most classes in Maine given for young children (generally those in kindergarten and first grade) begin on classic skis.
Nordic youth instructors across Maine differ on the sure-fire teaching techniques – but all recommend making it fun, with many turning lessons into a game. During the lessons last week at Titcomb Mountain, Knapp asked the children to envision themselves as coyotes – encouraging them the first time out to “find their pack” by skiing with “coyotes running at the same pace.”
“I can’t say everyone gets it,” Knapp said of learning Nordic technique. “I had a kid last year in the older group, we talked about it a bunch, but he just kept running on his skis. He was a runner.”
Knapp doesn’t believe small children necessarily need a lesson. He said a child going out with a good adult Nordic skier can be enough, as they watch and imitate the adult’s movements.
Quarry Road Trails in Waterville has about 30 children, ages 5 and 6, from nearby towns such as Skowhegan, Rome and Hallowell taking lessons this year. Caroline Mathes, a youth instructor at Quarry Road, adds in games, including hiding stuffed animals in the woods to create a “safari” where children have to find the animals.
“Generally after two weeks, they feel pretty confident in their skills,” Mathes said. “Still, some kids pick it up really quick and catch on, and some not. That’s just genetics.”
Mathes’ daughter, Sarah Hross, brought her 6-year-old girl, Heidi, to the once-a-week lesson at Quarry Road last week. Hross felt having a class with many other children was key in Heidi picking it up.
“She never had the patience for it. She’ll stay in her skis for 10 minutes and then want to play in the snow,” Hross said. “This was more of a fun environment, compared to her (skiing with the family) getting annoyed that her big brother is so much better.”
At Carter’s XC Ski Center in Bethel, owner Jes Carter can attest to the success toddlers can enjoy learning to cross-country ski.
Carter learned at 18 months on wooden skis her late father, David, made from repurposed wood from an old barrel. Then Jes Carter taught her daughter, Veda Carter, at the same age on the very same skis. And last year, Carter watched her 18-month-old niece, Ella Carter, slide and glide for the first time on those old stable wooden skis.
“Dad put old (Eastern Mountain Sports) 75-millimeter bindings on the skis. And he had a cute little leather boot from back when he worked at EMS in 1978,” Carter said. “I think about four kids tried them last year. My niece loved it. Her parents were standing next to her and shoved her along. The wooden skis have a lot of grip. They don’t glide as much as modern-day skis. That’s actually a nice feature for little kids starting out. Because when kids slip, they fall down.”
Carter also emphasized the importance of fun in that first lesson. That’s how she taught her daughter, Veda, 15 years ago. And she continues to teach children today at Carter’s XC Ski Center.
Carter recommends bringing a pulk sled, which many Nordic centers rent, so when a child gets tired, they can hop a ride.
Carter also recommends keeping it simple by having children first try cross-country skiing first without poles. She said it’s easier to learn balance and allow kids to swing their arms and learn proper movement without having a lot of things to think about.
But most of the time, young children learning to ski will never look perfect.
At opening night of youth ski lessons at Titcomb Mountain on Monday, spills and tumbles were part of the experience for the young beginners.
Indira Gowell of Kingfield skate-skied around the lighted trails as her son, Abel Tomazin, took a lesson. When she saw him, she stopped to photograph the 5-year-old as he passed. Abel was one in the “Wizard of Oz” trio who proved steadier on their skis on the way out of the woods.
Monday was only his third time on skis, following his first try at Pineland Farm in New Gloucester last month. Gowell said Abel was outfitted in rentals his size at the Pineland Nordic center, and was so determined to keep up with her that he skied 3 miles.
She said it gave them both great joy.
“He was staying upright,” Gowell said with a smile at her son. “He always hears me saying I’m going skiing. So he was interested. He even wanted to try skate skiing.”