Dave Knudsen, in red, explains the plans for the day to Mountain View Elementary students, from left, Keir Johnson, Isabella Zulkanycz, Courtney Stroh and Christine Blackburn. The group was skiing on the Kenai Nordic Trails at the Kenai Golf Course on Monday.
Photo by Will Morrow
“If you live in a place with ice and snow,” said Tustumena Elementary School teacher Dave Michael, “you might as well learn to enjoy it. It’s going to be around for a while.”
To that end, Michael has more than 40 students out enjoying a 2.5-kilometer loop behind the Kasilof school as they learn to cross-country ski.
Other elementary schools also offer activities intended to help students relieve cabin fever. Mountain View students also can participate in cross-country skiing, and Nikiski North Star students can try both skiing and snowshoeing.
“We’ve done it almost every year,” said Mountain View teacher Dave Knudsen of the school’s ski program. “I’ve been involved for 13 years, and they’ve had it ever since the school opened, so for 20 years we’ve had something, weather permitting.”
Mountain View Elementary fourth-grader Courtney Stroh practices her downhills, while Robert Blackburn, also a fourth-grader, works on getting up after a spill on the Kenai Nordic Trails at the Kenai Golf Course on Monday.
Photos by Will Morrow
This year, seven Mountain View students are enjoying the sport on the trails at Kenai Golf Course. Knudsen said there normally are a few more students out skiing, but a lack of snow early in the season and wrestling and dance programs available at the school may have contributed to the lower numbers.
Knudsen said four of his skiers are just learning the sport while one has advanced to skate skiing.
“For some kids it’s getting out and having fun, for some, it’s learning a new sport,” Knudsen said.
At Mountain View, students supply their own equipment. Knudsen said one student is renting skis from a local shop.
Michael said at Tustumena, they’re able to find some skis for just about every student who wants to give it a try.
“We had some money given by our parent-teacher organization that helped get us off the ground, and we also scrounged some equipment, and got some hand-me-downs from other schools. We bought some and inherited some. We try to keep it so it’s free of charge,” Michael said. “If they have their own equipment, it’s a bonus, it fits them a little better, but we try to outfit everybody.”
Michael said that an old snowmachine had been made available to the school to help groom the trail loop, and he gets help from the community setting tracks.
“It’s a great community to work with very outdoors-minded,” Michael said.
Michael noted that Alaska has produced more than its share of world class skiers over the years Kasilof’s own Jay Hakkinen is competing in his third Olympics in biathlon and attributed those results to getting kids interested in the sport at a young age.
“I think that grassroots education at the elementary level is essential for building a strong program,” said Michael, himself a qualifier for the 1980 Olympics.
Indeed, Michael said he razzed his class last week when they couldn’t tell him about the opening ceremonies of the Turin Olympics, and razzed them even more when they weren’t sure who Hakkinen was.
Michael said he has enjoyed seeing some of his former students go on to be successful at the high school level and beyond, but added that his goal isn’t to develop racers.
“I really don’t care if the kids carry on to race, if they just learn to enjoy winter,” Michael said. “... It doesn’t have to be skiing. It could be sledding or ice skating. At least they’re not sitting on the couch.”
Michael said the effects of healthy activity are noticeable in the classroom.
“It’s amazing what it does for mental health,” Michael said. “Quite often, (kids that have trouble behaving) are the ones that want to come out and ski, and it does some amazing things for helping them moderate some of their behaviors.”
Both Michael and Knudsen said the key to a successful program is making sure participants have fun.
“I try not to make it work. We play games, and I challenge them with a 25-mile club, and a 40-mile club,” Michael said.
Skiers also stay off the trails if it gets too cold or too icy.
“If they’re not having fun, you don’t want to sour them on it,” Knudsen said. “You need to have fun. It’s always a great group of kids, and they like being outside.”
Knudsen said that during a session last week, one of his students stopped for a moment to take in the view across the Kenai River flats and commented about how nice it was a sentiment that made Knudsen smile.
As Michael said, learning to have fun outdoors in the winter is the best part of the program.
“Winter is a pretty cool thing if you can learn to enjoy it, and not to fight it,” Michael said. “We tend to fight it too much.”
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