When Cathy Botelho's daughter Auri started cross-country skiing, she had to hold her mother's hand while traveling the fairly level Mendenhall Campground Trail. But like other members of Juneau's 4-H Nordic Ski Club, she's built confidence and now skis independently on harder trails, such as Eaglecrest's Lower Loop.
"It's definitely a growth that's happened in comfort level and skiing level," said Botelho. "Just to see kids without fear negotiate a downhill turn is wonderful - and to make it back up the other side."
The family - including Botelho, husband John Clark and daughters Auri, 7, and Lindsay, 10 - are part of a group of skiers who meet Sunday afternoons from early January to mid-March at the campground, Dredge Lake, Eaglecrest and other cross-country ski areas.
The group, open to skiers from kindergarten to 12th grade, is in its fourth year with a total membership of about 60 young skiers. It starts the season with a December registration at which members needing gear sign up to rent equipment for $20 a season.
"It's the cheapest way to keep them in skis and boots," said Jim Beedle, skiing Mendenhall Campground trails last Sunday with his family. "It's a very inexpensive way to go skiing."
The club began when volunteers wanting to encourage young Nordic skiers teamed up with the 4-H program, said Odin Brudie, who started the group with his wife, Frankie Pillifant, physical education teacher Guy Thibodeau, Foggy Mountain Shop owners Scott and Betsy Fischer, and Chris Gianotti.
City youth-activity grants and member fees were used to purchase skis, boots and poles for rental. While some skiers have their own equipment, organizers wanted to make sure everyone could participate.
"You don't want to turn kids away who don't have gear," Brudie said.
Last Sunday's outing started with a series of bends and stretches to loosen up the 45 skiers and about 15 parents. Standing in an uneven circle, the group listened to safety tips from Pillifant and Brudie.
"There are a lot of us sharing the trail today," Pillifant said. "Let's not have a head-on with any other skier or any of the dogs."
Volunteer Jim Powell headed off to Mendenhall Lake with the skate skiers, who use a faster technique powered by diagonal skating strides. Pillifant and Brudie took the classic skiers, using the traditional, straight ahead, kick-and-glide movement, through the campground.
With sun shining through gaps in the forest, young skiers quickly began shedding coats. They also left behind their poles for gliding practice.
"Where do you find the glide? On the bottom of your skis," Pillifant told the skiers. "I want you to understand what it feels like to be gliding."
The group then headed through the woods for a loop through the campground with a rest stop at a bridge near a frozen lake marked by ski tracks.
"I like skiing and seeing the mountains and things," said Lindy Olmstead, 9.
"We probably wouldn't have gone out today if it wasn't for 4-H," said her mother, Janet Olmstead.
Brudie and Pillifant, who ski with their children Aldyn Brudie, 10, and Elliott Pillifant, 13, said the presence of other kids helps young skiers move down the trail.
Botelho said club leaders and other parents often help with each others' children.
"Oftentimes kids just don't perform for family and here you can let them be with another adult and they'll be more responsive," she said.
Steve and Janet Ohnstad bring their children Hannah, 12, Benjamin, 10, Amelia, 7, and Peter, 5. The family skis other days, but the children like the dynamics of the club.
"They like Sundays more because there's other kids," Steve Ohnstad said.
After finishing the loop trail, Brudie, Pillifant and other volunteers reunited their charges with left-behind jackets and quizzed them on trail etiquette.
"We're such a large group we're stepping on each other," said Brudie, asking the young skiers for solutions.
"Pass 'em," called out a girl.
"That's the best way," answered Brudie.
"If you're fast enough and you're overtaking someone, you're the one who has to step out of the track," added Pillifant. "Say, 'Hi, I'm behind you. I'm passing on the left.' "
Although the group is open to all school grades, the majority of members are between 8 and 11, Brudie said. The group has 50 pairs of skis to rent, including 10 sets of skate skis.
Locations of the 1:30-3 p.m. Sunday meetings depend on the skills being taught and the amount of snow on the ground. Organizers prefer the Mendenhall Campground-Dredge Lakes area because of its accessibility, but also use Eaglecrest Nordic trails.
"Last year we hardly got to ski in the Valley at all because of the low snow," Brudie said.
Locations are announced by a recording posted on the 4-H office phone, 465-8749, Friday afternoons.
Although the season is almost over, Brudie said new members are welcome to join the 4-H Nordic Ski Club. A $6 fee must be paid through the 4-H office to include members in the organization's insurance coverage. More details about the club are available from Brudie or Pillifant at 463-1453. Parents are welcome, as are additional volunteers.
Organizers hope the group leads to increased interest in cross-country skiing and trails in Juneau. And Brudie wouldn't mind seeing a high-school-age racing team.
"When I was in high school in Anchorage, Juneau always had a great ski team," he said.
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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