By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — On a crisp, clear Wednesday afternoon, the barn at the Rikert Ski Touring Center was bustling with pint-size skiers, longtime regulars and gangly high school kids alike.
Tim Reilly, the Rikert ski school director, manned the front desk, helping one diminutive girl — Rosemary — into her ski boots. “Do you need help lacing those up?” he asked. She did.
Nearby, volunteer coach Barney Hodges tended to his flock of Bill Koch League skiers. The league, with more than 50 children at some practices this year, provides ski instruction and races for children between 7 and 13 years old.
And as the Bill Koch kids piled out into the bracing air, Reilly warned bystanders of the next incoming wave of skiers.
“You’re in the traffic lane,” he called. Sure enough, just a moment later, another pack of school-aged skiers — this crowd from the Middlebury Union High School — came charging into the barn, slinging down their backpacks to search for their skis, pile into warm clothes and hit the tracks.
Pointing to January’s usually favorable skiing conditions, as well as the sport’s affordability and family-friendly atmosphere, local skiers and touring centers said interest in Nordic skiing appears to be up this year. The number of skiers enrolled in youth programs like the Bill Koch League has spiked, as have the numbers of recreational skiers hitting the trails at area touring centers.
“Things are going quite well,” said Tony Clark, the owner of the Blueberry Hill Inn and Ski Touring Center in Goshen. On an average Saturday or Sunday, he said, anywhere between 75 and 100 skiers hit the Blueberry Hill trails, more than last year. “There’s a lot of interest locally between Bread Loaf and Blueberry.”
At the Rikert touring center, numbers are up too, Reilly said, and with mittens hung up to dry by the wood stove, and a pot of soup simmering on a nearby burner, on Saturday it was business as usual at the Nordic touring center, owned and operated by Middlebury College.
THE BILL KOCH KIDS
When it comes to judging an uptick in the popularity of Nordic skiing, the Bill Koch League is a case in point.
Bruce Ingersoll, who with his wife, Sarah, heads up the league, said that the program is seeing more participants than ever. Three years ago, Ingersoll said, the program was fairly small. Now, the league sometimes sees more than 50 kids at Saturday morning practices. A smaller group typically turns out for Wednesday after-school practices.
In addition to the twice-a-week practices, the league also sponsors races throughout the winter.
A longtime fixture of the skiing community here, the Bill Koch League has been around in some form or another in Middlebury for nearly 40 years. In fact, Hodges, now a volunteer coach for the program, skied with the Bill Koch League himself as a child. The man who taught him to ski — Jack Eckels — still works during the week at Rikert.
Eckels said that the league’s popularity “ebbs and flows,” but that the emphasis hasn’t changed much over the years.
“It’s all about having fun,” said Hodges.
“It doesn’t matter how cold it is,” said Ingersoll. “(The kids) have a blast.”
That’s due in large part, he said, to the social aspect of the sport — something most of the kids pointed to as their favorite part of the Bill Koch League.
Nine-year-old Amelia Ingersoll said that she enjoyed “just getting to ski with other people, and getting to make new friends.”
Her 12-year-old sister Nathalie and 8-year-old friend Thomas Hussey agreed.
This isn’t to say that the kids aren’t passionate about the skiing. Nick Wilkerson, 9, considered the differences between classic and skate skiing techniques — and said that, these days, he preferred the latter.
“When you get good, you can go really fast,” Wilkerson said quite seriously. “Right now, I prefer skate. I like speed.”
AN ALL-AGES SPORT
Hand-in-hand with that emphasis on fun in the Bill Koch League is a goal to engage kids as lifelong skiers.
“It’s certainly in the back of every parent’s mind that they’re going to learn to be better skiers and learn to love to ski,” said Ingersoll.
Chris Hodges seconded that. She learned to cross-country ski in college, where she met Barney, her husband. She said she appreciates that the sport’s family angle.
“It’s something that the whole family can do together,” she said. “It’s about developing lifelong skiing skills. It’s about getting kids to enjoy cross-country skiing into their adulthood.”
That’s where groups like the Frost Mountain Nordic ski club come into play. While Blueberry Hill’s Clark pointed to the “renewed energy of the youth program” as one of the factors driving the popularity of cross-country skiing in the region, equally vibrant are all-ages and adult activities.
The Frost Mountain Nordic group serves as an umbrella organization for not just the Bill Koch League but also local middle school and high school teams, the Middlebury College Nordic team, a masters’ team and recreation skiers — for skiers “zero to 80,” Ingersoll said.
Unlike the long-running Bill Koch League, Frost Mountain Nordic is a relative newcomer to the cross-country scene in Addison County. But an active Web site and a blog fuel frequent events. Take the weekly time trials, jumpstarted last year by Ripton resident Bill McKibben. A women’s group heads out every Thursday morning, and a more competitive batch of juniors and masters skiers train on Wednesdays and Sundays.
And healthy numbers are turning out for many of these events.
“Just seeing the last couple of winters, I’ve seen more people up there going out for a ski, whether it’s before work or after work,” said Ingersoll. “They’ll slip out for an hour during the week.”
Though numbers are up at local ski areas, even skiers themselves could not offer a definitive answer to the question of why that is.
Clark, at Blueberry Hill, speculated that economics might play a role. Day passes at touring centers are less expensive than lift tickets at downhill resorts, and with touring centers outnumbering downhill resorts, travel is often less expensive as well.
“I think people are staying closer to home under the economic forecast,” Clark said, “traveling less and enjoying what’s in your own back yard.”
But there’s more to the appeal than pocketbook economics.
“People enjoy the skiing,” Reilly said. “I think people just appreciate the differences between (downhill and Nordic). You don’t have a bunch of people swooshing by you on the slopes at very rapid speeds. Here you can ski with people and carry on a conversation and feel like you’re spending time with them as well as outside doing something.”
On the weekends, he said, the Bread Loaf parking lot is often filed with three or four rolls of cars — a nod to that uptick in numbers that Rikert has seen this year — but the sport also maintains a certain degree of peacefulness that Reilly said he thinks Nordic skiers enjoy.
“Once you get on the trails, its almost impossible to see anyone,” Reilly said. “I think people very much appreciate that.”