Snow much fun

Fourth-graders learn important life lessons through Junior Snow Ranger Program

Fourth graders glide through the forest on Grand Mesa during an outing this winter. The children were participating in the Skis For Kids Program.



Matthew Fowler from Taylor Elementary School cruises along a trail on Grand Mesa during an outing this winter.



Fourth graders Jamison Anderson, left, and Jacqueline Romero, right, from Clifton Elementary School ski around County Line on Grand Mesa. Matthew Fowler, bottom left, from Taylor Elementary School cruises along a trail on Grand Mesa during an outing this winter.



Grit might best describe the essence of a young student’s first cross-country skiing experience. This winter, more than 1,700 students gripped their ski poles and shuffled their skis — peering down the snowy path of possibility into their national forest.

Leading into the winter field trip, students first participate in a classroom presentation with multiple activities guided by a Forest Service Snow Ranger. They learn about basic snow safety, avalanche awareness and winter animal adaptations for survival. The Junior Snow Ranger Program provides students with official badges and bandannas after completing the ranger activity booklet.

Outside in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests, students apply their new skills as snow scientists with hands-on tasks and experience a new physical activity — cross-country skiing. While digging in a six-foot deep snow pit, students discover the importance of Colorado’s snowpack and how unstable snow layers cause avalanches. Students also play the role of a winter naturalist while skiing and spotting wildlife tracks in the snow.

“Outdoor education can be a valuable component of gaining understanding to the world around us. This program challenges students to navigate that same world in ways that might not feel easy — that’s what makes it rich,” said Paul Kimpling, a Forest Service employee who assisted with this program. 

Over the course of four months, students from Mesa County and Plateau Valley School Districts participated in the winter ecology program, sponsored by the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and partnering organizations, including The Nature Connection, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and many community volunteers. Participating schools included fourth-graders from Clifton, Taylor, Plateau Valley, Dos Rios, Pear Park and Nisley elementary schools.

A National Park Foundation grant provided funding to cover the cost of bus transportation for fourth-grader field trips in the forest. The program provides the opportunity for every fourth grader to receive a complimentary park pass to access America’s National Parks during their school year. Additional funding from the Forest Service and The Nature Connection was used to acquire additional ski gear that expanded outreach and programming to youth from second grade through high school.

For more than 13 years, the Skis for Kids Program has provided outdoor experiences — with cross-country ski gear for youth on the Western Slope. The Nature Connection is a newly formed non-profit organization that runs the ski program and will be expanding their programming to year-round youth engagement through outdoor recreation opportunities. Of the 1,700 youth who visited the National Forest this winter, The Nature Connection supplied the gear to outfit students, youth groups and under-served populations in the area. This past winter marked a record year for youth reached.

Ongoing partnerships produced an incredibly successful outreach and education program to bring youth to public lands.

“Not only are outdoor activities safe and accessible, spending time in nature helps empower, teach and even heal individuals,” said Anita Evans, director of The Nature Connection.

There is no substitute for firsthand experiences in the outdoors. Skiing provides an opportunity to build up some of that necessary grit to succeed in life. With a persistent attitude, students quickly learned to balance and glide on skis. Even through occasional spills, kids met the challenge with resilience, committed to the next hill or turn on the track.

One of the most important things to remember is to pick yourself up after you fall. A little grit is all you need.

It’s a small life lesson many learned through cross-country skiing.

Priscilla Williams is a ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.


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