The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Kids learn to ski at Mt. Zion


January 24, 2020


Ironwood — Area elementary students will soon join siblings and parents and sometimes grandparents in saying they learned to ski on the mild slopes of the conveniently located Mt. Zion.

Gogebic Community College has operated a ski instruction program for elementary students ever since the school took over operation of the hill in 1968, said Jim Vander Spoel, director of the Ski Area Management Program and Mt. Zion Operations. Youth ski programs predate GCC back to 1958, and with city or private owners back to 1937, he said.

Around 90 students are learning to ski and snowboard this year, he said. The kids also have the option to learn ice skating at the nearby Pat O’Donnell Civic Center.

“The ski program at Mt. Zion is a wonderful opportunity for our students to learn how to ski,” said Melissa Nigh, principal of Luther L. Wright K-12 School in Ironwood. “It provides students an opportunity they may not otherwise have, to enjoy the outdoors, get some exercise and learn a new sport.”

Aila Ruotsala, 9, of Ironwood, said she hadn’t ever skied before and enjoyed it enough after her second lesson to say she’d probably stick with it after the program.

“It’s fun,” she said.

Lauralei Wall, 10, of Ironwood, said her uncle taught her to ski a little bit before the program but that she was putting the focus on snowboarding at Mt. Zion. Snowboarding reminds her of surfing, something she was familiar with while living in Florida.

“We get to try stuff and they’ll help us, but we’re mostly on our own,” Wall said. “You have control and you can do tons of cool stuff.”

Chris DeTray, a snowboarder for 20 years and a Blackjack Resort employee, said he’d only been skiing a couple of times in his life and thought that learning the basics with his daughter, Riley DeTray, 10, would be a great experience for the both of them.

“So, we’re going to learn together,” DeTray said.

Tia Sampson was another parent who came with a child, her son, Myan Coulter, 9, of Ironwood.

“So, I’m kind of tagging along,” said Sampson, who rollerblades and ice skates but hasn’t had much experience on the slopes. It was a fun activity to experience with her son on a weekday afternoon, she said.

“He made it through all the tests they had and was able to get on the lifts and everything on his first day,” she said.

The public school buses fourth through sixth-grade students to the hill, and Bluff View Christian School brings kindergarten through sixth-grade students. The Tiny Tot program allows parents to bring their children ages 5 to 8.

The kids have discounted $4 dollar half-day lift ticket rates and relatives who come with them also pay less than the regular $20 price, Vander Spoel said. Equipment rentals are also less than half-price, he said.

“It’s not free to the students but I wish it was,” Vander Spoel said. “It’s a very cost effective program for us. We are not in it to make money but it helps cover the costs.”

The Rotary Club donated around $4,000 to help offset program costs, he said. No child has to be turned away because they can’t pay, he said.

The Ski Area Management students will cross-train in all aspects of the ski operations from rentals to grooming snow to making snow and running the chair lifts, he said. They also get a chance to be a ski instructor.

“They get their fingers into all of it,” he said.

One of the instructors, Reid Corby, a first-year Ski Area Management student from Grand Rapids, said offering ski instruction to children feels like second-nature after working as a behavioral therapist for autistic children.

“I do have a passion for this sort of thing,” Corby said. “When you see them improve it makes you feel good. No matter what little step it is when you reach a landmark it’s awesome for both of you.”

The opportunity to rotate over to other program duties and experience all aspects of running a ski hill is a real plus of the program, he said. At other hills, the ski lift people are “lifties”and the groom people are the “groomers,” but here everybody does it all, he said.

“I like that we’re given a chance to do everything that we might have to do if we go to a different hill,” Corby said. “No matter what your skills are you still get a chance to try it and see if you’re good at it and to see if you like it.”

There are nine Ski Area Management students and another five GCC students in other areas who are working part-time jobs that are flexible with the school schedule, Vander Spoel said. The students work the rentals, the store and snack bar along with ski operations.

Freshman go through an intro to ski instruction course in the fall to learn first aid including concussions, he said.

“This is all gone through prior to opening the hill,” Vander Spoel said. “They are pretty much ready to handle most situations.”

Once kids have learned to ski there needs to be an activity for those who seek competition, Vander Spoel said. There needs to be a stronger ski team presence in Ironwood, given the opportunities of the area, he said.

For the past 25 years the Team Z youth program has been available to K-12 kids who can attend Tuesday and Friday trainings for the price of a lift ticket. They compete with slalom and giant slalom events on Saturdays here and at hills all around the northland.

One skier went on to make the B team of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, he said. Others have gone on to ski in college.

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