It was the home run on the County Line Nordic ski trail on the Grand Mesa as groups of sixth graders from all Delta County schools, as well as fourth graders from Lincoln Elementary, glided to the finish. Their faces were lit up with exuberant smiles reflecting a new confidence achieved from completing the loop on cross country skis.
"This accomplishment is no small feat for these kids, most of whom have never been on skis before," says Anita Evans, Skis for Kids coordinator with the Grand Mesa Nordic Council. "It takes coordination, balance, focus and most importantly the desire to get yourself up when you fall and keep trying," she added.
It was a beautiful, blue sky, Colorado day with sun radiating and sparkling off the snow as the young skiers inspected the intricacies of ice crystals forming the deep winter snowpack around them. "How exactly do animals survive up here during the cold, snowy winters?" asks Cody Purcell, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologist. Purcell presented samples of wildlife pelts, examined by the students while he explained each animal's adaptions to surviving our winters. The students learned that fur, fat and feathers are keys to species survival.
"The kids are out here experiencing the winter environment all around them -- this kind of discovery accompanied with hands-on activities is a pretty effective take-away for them," says Priscilla Williams, Forest Service education specialist. "Following a classroom presentation and field trip the students complete the Junior Snow Ranger booklet. When the kids finish the booklet, they are awarded an official badge, bandana and card -- a sweet seal to the Junior Snow Ranger deal," she added.
On scene, students lined up along the ski track after slapping on their bindings, grabbing their poles, and pulling themselves up by their (ski) boot straps. They had plenty of time to practice balance and gain agility throughout the day, and quickly learned that "to fall" is simply an inevitability of Nordic skiing. As they skied, students observe the transformation of the snow from powder to ice to slush directly under their skis -- nature can be its own teacher. The sun or wind are the agents that sculpt the uniqueness of snowflakes -- each one constantly changing with time. Acquiring the knowledge to detect the changing snow conditions connects students to an understanding of the basics of snow layers and how avalanches happen. "It is important for us to emphasize the aspects of winter safety in the outdoors -- avalanche awareness is key as well as learning to fully prepare yourself by dressing in layers, bringing extra food and water," added Williams.
"Every Kid in a Park" is a new grant program through the National Park Foundation that awarded the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest funding to cover bus transportation for these field trips for several fourth grade classes from Delta, San Miguel and Mesa county school districts. This funding has allowed over 360 fourth graders to experience the national forest this winter. The GMUG National Forest and its many partners just received another grant to acquire more ski gear for smaller feet in an effort to expand this program to more fourth graders next year.
"We want young children to be connected to nature and to our forest because it truly is the ultimate classroom," Williams explained. "As these children grow up we hope these types of experiences will stay with them as they continue to cultivate a deeper affinity to the outdoors."
Now imagine yourself reaching for your own ski poles and gliding along a trail on a beautiful winter day on your national forest. It's all yours -- go play!