The 3 degree temperature matched the age of the eager skiers who gathered at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Wednesday morning for their weekly lesson with the Ski and Ride School’s Buckaroos program. The frigid weather wasn’t of much concern for the little ones. Plenty of hot laps and high fives — and maybe even a hot cocoa — were on tap for the day to keep them warm.
Ski instructor Corby Fuhriman met his group of three at the bottom of the Big Easy Carpet for the two-hour lesson. His crew of 3- and 4-year-olds have met on Wednesdays since early January, and were progressing swiftly in their abilities.
“These guys are pretty comfortable on skis now,” Fuhriman said. “Today, we’re working on making parallel turns.”
Young Emma Dotter and Gracyn Pohlman, both donning tutus over their snow bibs, played follow the leader with fellow student Alex Anderes while making perfect turns down the beginner slope. After a few quick zips on the Big Easy Carpet, the group headed higher up on the mountain with the goal of skiing Chair 2 intermediate terrain by the end of the day.
While progressing in ability is an important part of the Buckaroos program, Fuhriman emphasized that fun would be the top priority for the day. They’ll hit the “tunnel trail” off Chair 6 that’s wildly popular with the group, explore some whoop-de-doo terrain, as well as play some creative games.
“We’ll play follow the leader or make animal sounds as we ski,” Fuhriman said. “Just have fun.”
Mike Davies, snow sports director at Whitefish Mountain Resort, says Buckaroos is geared specifically for local families who want to get their kids on skis for the first time. An instructor is paired with a group of three students and will be with that group throughout the nine-week program.
Week 1 is typically an introduction to the mountain environment, and offers a chance for instructors to make a personal connection with their group.
“There is so much stimulus on the mountain,” Davies said. “It might be the first time they are away from mom and dad. It’s as much about making a connection with the child as it is skiing.”
From there, the lessons progress to simple on-snow exercises such as putting skis on, balancing on skis, and walking around in ski boots.
“As we continue, it’s about trying to get them to stop and move into turning,” Davies said.
“We like to challenge our students on easier terrain first, then bring it to more difficult terrain. If we take them to terrain that’s too challenging too soon, we might develop bad habits we don’t want.”
By week 7, students typically are using edges to make turns, exploring variable terrain and riding chair lifts. The 4-year-old groups, he added, often move to chair-lift served slopes more quickly.
Davies said teaching the youngest skiers isn’t for every instructor. It takes a gentle touch and plenty of patience.
“It can be an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “It can be challenging to figure out what a child needs — whether they’re hungry, cold or just need mom. They aren’t able to explain it like an adult. The challenges are more emotional than physical ... trying to keep all three of the kids happy and focused on skiing.”
Instructors often will tap into a child’s imagination to overcome those challenges.
“There is a lot of adventure and playtime built in,” Davies said. “A lot of imagination is used to keep them engaged.”
Davies does offer some advice to parents planning to sign their child up for the program next winter.
First, parents should introduce their child to the mountain environment and skis before the first lesson. Wear skis in the back yard, and take the child up to the Base Lodge area so they can absorb the bustle of the slopes.
“And for moms and dads, have realistic expectations,” Davies said. “Day One, they’re not going to be ripping around the mountain. It takes time and patience. Not every child is going to love it from Day One — there will be challenges and struggles.
“Our staff focuses on the fun part of it, and we prioritize that over making them a great skier. We want kids to be excited to get outside.”
For Fuhriman, who has been on skis most of his life, he said teaching new skiers reminds him of why he still loves the sport.
“It’s inspiring. They get so excited about just being on the snow,” he said. “I get to view the world with fresh eyes every day.”