BETHEL — On a ball field behind Crescent Park Elementary School, 19 students from kindergarten to fifth grade stood in a circle and passed a rubber ball. If it were spring or fall, this might look from afar like a game of dodgeball. But it was the first week of March, with mounds of snow on the ground, and the kids were all on Nordic skis.

Wade Kavanaugh, one of two coaches with the Bethel Outing Club, instructed the children on proper pole and ski placement – while turning the class into a game. The kids were participants in an after-school Nordic program offered to all students at the school three days a week – regardless if their family can pay the cost. 

The affordable Nordic program is part of a synergy happening between several non-profits and organizations in western Maine helping to make Nordic and Alpine skiing affordable – and in some cases, free – for area children. While such programs exist across the country, the scope of these efforts in western Maine is unusual given the age range of the youth and the geographic area served. 

In Bethel, four non-profits have partnered this winter on a new Nordic learn-to-ski program. Several landowners have allowed a groomed Nordic trail to cross their land in order to connect the local elementary school to Inland Woods and Trails’ Nordic trail network about a half mile away. And Inland Woods and Trails has groomed the school’s trail and provided free ski passes to the students.

“The program costs $15 a day. That said, there are scholarships to anyone who wants to participate,” Kavanaugh said.

In its first year, the program has served around 50 children who all use gear provided at no charge by the Bethel Outing Club, which is kept it in an outdoor shed at the school.  

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“I’m not a cross-country skier. And I wouldn’t be able to afford this. And Will is now a fantastic skier,” Lucy Carter said of her 10-year-old son when she came to pick him up after the program. “I wish more kids would sign up. It opens up new friendships for Will.”

Students play catch while skiing around in circles during their cross-country ski lesson at Crescent Park Elementary School in Bethel. The lessons are taught by coaches with the Bethel Outing Club during an after-school program run by the Mahoosuc Kids Association. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Also this winter, Mt. Abram ski area in Greenwood has worked with the Friends of Mt. Abram and the Mt. Abram Ski Club to provide free Alpine ski passes to children ages 6 through 16 from the local school district that includes Telstar High School and Middle School, Crescent Park Elementary and Woodstock Elementary School. 

In the first year of the Alpine youth program, 200 ski passes were given out. 

“I think it’s amazing,” said Alison Ives, the mother of a 9-year-old boy who got a pass to Mt. Abram. “He has skied a handful of times. I heard they are going to ask for donations. I definitely would support this program.”

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association, said the ski-for-free program being offered at Mt. Abram is important.

“From a long-term industry sustainability perspective – as well as from the perspective of reducing barriers to entry and building community – I think it’s really important that operators remember and understand the value in supporting programs like these,” Isaac said.

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Darlene Rogers of Woodstock has a 10-year-old granddaughter taking part in the Nordic program at Crescent Park Elementary. Rogers also works in guest services at Mt. Abram, so she has seen the impact of both new programs this winter.

“These kids live up in the mountains. They should ski,” Rogers said. “Thursday and Fridays at Mt. Abram, it’s buzzing. And my granddaughter loves the cross-country skiing. She looks forward to it, no matter the weather. She gets to be with her friends. This has been free for us.”

Both in Bethel and at Mt. Abram, the goal is to expand the affordable skiing programs to the Oxford Hills and Rumford school districts.

Mt. Abram also plans to offer another program where older students ages 17 and 18 can get free passes in exchange for work. Mt. Abram didn’t have enough staff this winter to train students, but the hope is to roll out the work-for-ski program next winter. 

Zach McCarthy, Mt Abram’s spokesman, said the value of the free passes and equipment rentals has been close to $100,000 this winter, but in the future the expectation is to offset the cost through fundraising conducted by the two nonprofits that support the ski area.

“The reason it’s ages 6 and up is because everyone 5 and under already skis for free here,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t expect to get fully funded this year. We expected to take a hit. Hopefully we will have information so when the nonprofits are asking people to support the community program, they have concrete figures.

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“We’re striving to be a community mountain and we want to provide the opportunity for kids to try skiing. Certainly, there’s a high financial barrier. It’s one of the downsides of the sport.”

In Bethel, the Mahoosuc Kids Association (which provides after-school programming for youth), The River Fund Maine (which helps provide programs for youth enrichment), and the Bethel Outing Club work together to provide Nordic skiing lessons three days a week on the trails groomed by Inland Woods and Trails.

“It takes a village,” said Noah Tanguay-Collins, the director of the River Fund Maine, right before he led a group of five youth Nordic skiers out onto the trails on March 1. “I grew up in Rumford. And how I learned to cross-country ski was through a program that offered a pretty nominal fee. I know a (free offering) is uncommon. At least it is in our region of the state.”

Students from Crescent Park Elementary School in Bethel take part in an after-school Nordic ski program on a trail that runs across private land. The program is sponsored in part by the Mahoosuc Kids Association and the Bethel Outing Club. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer  

The River Fund, along with its partners, is working on raising an endowment to continue the program and expand it to other western Maine school districts in the future. 

The nonprofits first held an eight-week mountain-bike course in the fall – using bikes provided by the Mahoosuc Kids Association – to create a blueprint for the Nordic program. The hope is to next offer a spring program, possibly involving rock climbing.

“For some kids, cross-country skiing – even hiking – and the idea you can just go do these things is really foreign, even though people are constantly driving through this area going to do those things,” Kavanaugh said. “We want to make sure it’s not limiting.”

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