I no longer remember who gave us the advice, but when our family first moved to Vermont some wise soul told my husband and me: “The winters are long and cold. The best way to survive them is to find an outdoor activity that you enjoy.”
For the first couple of years, we stumbled around trying to settle on the optimal winter recreation. Snowshoeing was pleasant and could be done in the woods right behind our house, but it required substantial snow and willing children – both of which were lacking during the past two years. Sledding was fun for the kids but not for the parents; on our end, it mostly involved lugging 80 pounds of little girls uphill. Ice skating was lovely in concept, but since my husband claims he can’t skate due to “flat feet,” it required me to navigate inconvenient rink times for the pleasure of skating around picking up fallen children who flopped around on the ice like eels out of water.
This year, however, our family has a newfound sense of clarity: we cross-country ski.
We chose cross-country skiing due to a combination of affection and practicality. Affection, because it’s something that my husband and I enjoyed together pre-kids. Practicality, on multiple counts:
1. It’s cheaper than downhill skiing.
2. It’s very convenient, since we’re within easy driving distance of both Rikert Nordic Center and multiple trails around Middlebury.
3. We’ve heard that you can teach kids to cross-country ski and then transition them easily to downhill skiing, but you can’t go the other way around; once they get a taste of speed, it’s all downhill from there….
4. It allows us to keep a sense of control over our children; managing four girls ages six and under is always like herding cats, but I can’t imagine trying to keep tabs on them when they’re all hurtling down a mountain.
So last year we signed up our oldest daughter for weekly cross-country ski lessons as part of the Bill Koch League that practices up at Rikert; our second daughter was able to take classes through Rikert’s own “Snowflake” program. We did the same thing this year, but with added commitment: My husband and I each bought a pair of cross-country skis at Middlebury Mountaineer’s promotional sale.
“Commitment” is an important concept when it comes to cross-country skiing with kids – with our kids, at least. Just getting out the door every Saturday morning requires the patience of a saint and the endurance of a distance runner: all those wriggly limbs needing to be stuffed into layers and mittens and hats and boots.
Once we reach Rikert, our two oldest daughters head off to their respective lessons, giving us roughly an hour “alone” with the baby and the two-year-old. We could pull the toddler in a polk and put the baby in the carrier and head out on the trails together, but usually my husband and I tag-team it, one of us going out for a 20-minute run while the other stays in the lodge with the children.
Those 20 minutes alone in the quiet, snow-dusted woods are what sustain me whenever I start to wonder whether the effort is worth it.
The truth is, it’s not much fun to ski with our girls right now. Our oldest is determined but cautious; our second is more daring but less persistent. Both of them spend most of their time on skis falling and complaining; so far, the only move they’ve mastered is how to get up off of the ground.
When it comes to life with four young kids, we get through the crazy now based on the hope that everything will be great in five years. Cross-country skiing is no different; we’re giving our girls cross-country skiing lessons now because we envision a time when our whole family will be able to ski through those woods together -- and enjoy it.
So, when we’re out together and I’ve skied 50 feet in 30 minutes, and I’m coaxing my daughter into getting up just one more time and trying again, I think, “I won’t have to do this in five years; in five years, this’ll be great!”
Then, I remind myself that I can’t live completely in reference to the future, that I need to find ways to enjoy the crazy now. Whether we’ve skied far or well, we’re all together now; in five years, my girls may have discovered the lure of downhill skiing and they’ll have no interest in tagging along with their slow, embarrassing parents.
I resolve to do it all over again next week.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.