Four-year-old Skyler Johnson (“41⁄2,” she insists) made her skiing debut last week.
It was the right time. Skyler is an active, outgoing young girl who loves to play and have fun. It is winter where we live. Who says she should stay inside? She has a good warm jacket, snow pants, boots, waterproof mittens and a warm hat that covers her ears. And when it snows, she likes to build snowmen, make snow angels and ride a platter down a hill.
Now, she is “a skier.”
There are lots of places in our area where you can learn to ski. After all, skiing — and snowboarding — is a family activity and ski areas know it is good business to bring newcomers into the sport.
And no one knows this better than Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont, north of Burlington. Kids’ programs may not have been invented there, but “Smuggs” has come a long way toward perfecting them. Don’t take my word for it, check the annual reader surveys in Ski Magazine, and see who is consistently rated No. 1 in the childrens’ programs category.
Smugglers was developed in the 1960s by IBM president Thomas Watson, whose vision was to build a second-home, slope-side community around a ski hill. While on-mountain development is commonplace at ski areas throughout the country now, it was not 50 years ago.
But while other areas caught up, and with deep pockets and friendly lenders, brought in modern high-speed lifts, and fancy base lodges and in some instances, gourmet dining and high-end shopping to their base areas, Smugglers decided on something else — kids.
No other ski area that I know has the kids’ meeting place at the center of its main village. No wandering around wondering where to go. The area shuttle bus system starts there. To buy a lift ticket or a cup of coffee or get something to eat, you have to walk past the kids’ center. This place is designed around children.
While there is an excellent nursary and one of the first active programs for “tweens” ages 13-15, what makes the “Smuggs’” program special is its “kid’s camp” approach. Children spend the day with instructors. For those as young as 3, it starts at 8:45 a.m. in a large cafeteria-style setting for organization and play time with instructors and others in the group. By the time all are ready for the slopes, it is about 10 a.m., and those in the small group formed by ski level, as well as age, have had a chance to interact in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Skyler is one of four “never-evers” that morning. The goal for the first session is to get them familiar with the equipment and be able to stand up on the skis. Each child has a kid camp vest with a large loop on the back (guess why?) and a GPS card, just in case. By 11:30, they are in for lunch. By 1 p.m., they are back on the slopes for more instruction, except on Thursday, which is “Cookie Race” day.
The children come in most days about 2:45 p.m., and can be picked up after that. There are after-ski programs in the afternoon until 4 p.m., and most evenings, there is an activity for “campers” like games in The Fun House kids center, or a dance party where “Smuggs” costumed characters like Mogul Mouse, BillyBob Bear and The Friendly Pirate (what is his favorite letter, kids? “Rrrrr!”) hang out with the kids.
The program was originally designed for five days, but as family vacation patterns have changed, can be taken in shorter lengths. And there is a report card with the instructor discussing the child’s progress each day. After three days, Skyler had successfully completed the first of the nine levels of the program which go from standing up to master of the entire mountain.
How did Smugglers’ come up with the idea to focus on children? After all, in the 1970s, this was a sport promoting glamour and
social interaction among young adults. Stretch pants were still a large part of the appeal.
Longtime Smugglers president Bob Mulcahey said the idea of focusing on children just evolved, mainly from two sources — successful all-inclusive programs elsewhere and the 1976 Summer Olympics
“In thinking about the Montreal Olympics, we came up with the idea of starting a summer camp for children during that time so families could stay with us while parents attended the games during the day. It worked very well,” Mylcahey said.
“About the same time, I visited the Gray Rocks ski area north of Montreal to look at the all-inclusive ski week program it had invented for adults. I also visited the Club Med ski program then at Copper Mountain in Colorado, and looked at their all-inclusive program.
“From there, it was a matter of evolution in building a children’s program that would fit a family all-inclusive approach to the resort.”
So at a time when most areas were concentrating on getting baby boomers in their doors, Smugglers had the niche of children’s program almost all to itself.
Then, there was Peter Ingvoldstad.
A highly respected ski instructor at Smugglers, Ingvolstad was interested in the teaching of children. And he was a creative woodworker, as well, who spent summers at the mountain on various building projects. Before long, he was putting the two skills together, building an instruction program and facilities especially for children.
Ingvoldstad was an innovator. He was convinced young children could learn to ski, and the age to start instruction continued to drop, based on his observation. Now, children as young as 3 are being taught not only to ski, but to snowboard at Smugglers, using specialized riglet equipment designed in conjunction with the Vermont-based Burton Company. Before Ingvoldstad, no one regularly tried to teaching boarding to children younger than 6.
Ingvolstad retired several years ago, succeeded by his former assistant Harley Johnson, whose 15 years of working with children includes being the mom of three youngsters.
“Our program is about getting kids outdoors and into adventure.” said Johnson, who presides over a ski school of some 250 full- and part-time instructors, 150 of whom work with kids.
It is not about babysitting.
“We spend a lot of time teaching our teachers,” Johnson said. “We have a great training program. The focus in our selection process is on working with children. We can always teach instructors the technical aspects about teaching the sport.
“For the instructors in our kids’ program, teaching children is not a consolation prize.”
So, how did Skyler Johnson make out?
After three days, she could stand on her skis. And walk on skis. And ride the magic carpet lift up the slope by herself. And get in her “piece of pizza” stance and make turns while sliding down the gentle hill.
And get up by herself after a fall? Well, there are some areas that still need a little work.
Will she likely become another Lindsey Vonn on the slopes? Probably not. Will she have as much fun as Lindsey Vonn on the slopes? Well, at age 4 (“41⁄2!”) she is off to a good start and ready to go again.
The 2013 World Luge Championships will be held at Mt. VanHoevenburg in Lake Placid in February, and if you would like to get an idea of what is coming for these athletes, mark New Year’s Eve on your calendar.
Unlike the bobsled, where there are passenger rides offered regularly during the winter, this will be the first and only time in 2012 you can take a luge run on your own, on a sled, lying on your back, from curve 5, about midway down the run.
Tickets for the event, which will be from 5-8 p.m. Monday, are $125 and includes a dinner and music at the venue. Olympic luge silver medalist Gordy Sheer will be on hand for orientation. On the sled, you are on your own. For more information, check www.whitefacelakeplacid.com.
EMPIRE STATE GAMES
The Empire State Winter Games, in danger of cancellation just three year ago, will be held once again in Lake Placid. The dates are Feb. 7-10.
Now sponsored mainly by a regional coalition of private and non-profit organizations, there will be competition in 19 events held at sites in and around Lake Placid.
Entry information for this year’s games is available at www.empirestatewintergames.com.