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  • I’m Five. Let’s Ride!

    by Mitch Kaplan

    Photo courtesy Smuggler's Notch Bill Salmon has a lot of energy. Good thing. Because he expends a lot of energy. Spend a morning just watching Bill at work, you come away exhausted.

    Bill teaches snowboarding at Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch Resort. Nothing particularly exhausting about that, you say? Well, you’d be right if Bill on the hill with an adult group lesson, or even school-aged kids. But, Bill’s specialty is pre-schoolers. Ages four and five, to be exact. And, to teach a four year-old snowboarding . . . well, let’s just say this: much vigor is required.

    I met Bill as kids were gathering for Smuggs’ daily Discovery Camp. Bill sat at a cafeteria-style table amid the typical kids’ ski/ride school organized chaos awaiting his students. While other tables filled up rapidly, Bill waited patiently. He didn’t expect many kids in his group. Indeed, no more than three kids would be permitted.

    Most resorts require children to be age seven to enter group snowboarding lessons. They will, if parents think the kids are ready, take them in private lessons. Smugglers’, ever the children’s learning innovator, welcomes fours and fives. Yes, you could say that Smugglers’ three-kid limit in little ones’ classes amounts to a private lesson. But, of course, privates are much more expensive than group lessons. And, here, the four and five year-olds come to boarding school just like the eights or tens - as part of the whole lift/lesson/lodging package.

    What keeps resorts from putting these youngster on boards? “Primarily, It’s been the equipment,” Bill offers. “There hasn’t been a board that kids this small could flex torsionally.” Smuggs’ worked with Vermont neighbor Burton to developed such a board, a 90-centimeter off-shoot of Burton’s Learn-to-Ride board. “Secondly,” Bill continues, “there’s the approach. Once we got the right board, it was a matter of developing an approach that would teach them technique.”

    We’re interrupted when Bill’s students suddenly arrive. Conor, then Anthony, both five years old. After carrying out the arrival ritual with the kids’ parents - checking on registration cards, reviewing the apres-ski kid pick-up procedure - Bill turns to Anthony. “Where’s your board?” he asks.

    Anthony points at an adult board leaning against the wall (it’s Bill’s, actually).

    “That one?”

    Anthony nods.

    “Nah - can’t be! Bring your board over, I want to see it.”

    Anthony wanders towards the wall where several boards stand. He comes back lugging Bill’s board. Bill bursts into laughter.

    Conor’s itching to go. “What are we going to do?” he asks.

    “We’re going for big air!” Bill exclaims.

    “Give me five!” shouts Conor.

    Bill introduces his assistant, a young lady named Anne. “You can call her Al,” he tells the boys. They look at her quizzically.

    It’s time, Bill announces, to take to the slopes. Like a samba line - Bill dancing at the head, kids in the middle and Anne at the point, the little troop heads out the door. For all his playfulness, Bill Salmon knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s been teaching here for “a lot of years,” he says, first skiing, now riding. He was instrumental in working within the ski school to develop this program for the very young. “We do sessions of an hour to an hour and half with our own instructors, working on things like how to talk to children,” he explains. “We look at fours and fives and break down how to teach them by playing games with skill-development in mind. We work visually and use props.”

    The learning hill sits alone, separated from the lift-served slopes. It’s a relatively wide-open space, with gentle pitch. Arriving, Bill ducks into a tiny house at the hill’s bottom while Anne shows the kids the board, explaining what’s a “leash,” the “base” and other parts like the “high-back” on the bindings. Bill emerges with a collection of miniature, orange traffic cones. He places them along the hill in parallel lines. Up the hill everyone trudges.

    “Have a seat,” Bill says.

    “Huh?”

    “Please. Sit down. On your snowboard.”

    The boys sit on their boards. Bill gives Anthony a mighty push, and down the hill he goes, as if riding a sled. “Try to stay in a straight line! Stay between the cones!” Bill shouts as he runs down the hill next to Anthony. Sliding while sitting acclimates the kids to how the board feels with no fear of falling, and teaches rudimentary steering by leaning side to side. Cones fly for a few runs, but soon the boys are successfully negotiating the lane. Time to stand up.

    Standing on their boards, no binding straps are used. “If you strap them in, they’ll tend to lean back,” Bill explains. “This way they’ll find their balance.”

    Again with a push, down they go between the cones. Bill runs alongside happily yelling “Keep you hands up!” sometimes adding an extra nudge with a gentle hand on their backs. Conor rides about ten feet on his first try before crashing. Anthony goes a bit further. Each scampers - accompanied by Bill - back up the hill to do it again. Soon, the boys are riding the full thirty yards or so to the bottom without Bill running beside them.

    “Okay!” Salmon announces, “How about some bumps to get air?”

    “Yeah!” comes the answering chorus.

    Bill ducks into the little house and comes out with a shovel. He furiously digs, making a small snow pile. Now, when he and Anne launch the kids downhill, he instructs them to aim for the mound and ride over it. “This teaches them balance and a bit of steering,” he says. The words “balance,” “steer” or even “bend your knees” are never spoken.

    Conor’s up first for the bump run. Splat - he’s on the snow at the first pile encounter. Anthony, too, splays out in the snow. He doesn’t want to get up. Bill hoists him high into the air, then pulls him uphill on his board. (Like I said, much energy is required.)

    Trial, error and natural reaction are in command, but by the third set of mini-runs, the boys are sliding over the mound without problem. Bill takes to shoveling again, first building another bump, then creating two mildly pitched snowbanks, one on the right before the first bump, the other on the left between the two. He lines the tops of these banks with the cones. It’s a teeny-terrain park.

    “Aim along the cones to reach the bumps,” is all he says. With a push each kid takes off. Again, the first efforts result in crashes. But within a few tries each kid is riding the banks and over the bumps.

    “The contour of the snow makes them edge toeside and heelside,” Salmon says between runs. “No need for me to say a thing.”

    This instruction goes on all morning without any talk of technique. Later in the day, after they can do the whole course consistently, they strap into their boards. By then, Bill Salmon’s boundless energy has paid its dividends. Two small snowboarders have been born.

    For information on Smugglers’ Notch Discovery Camp and learning programs, visit www.smuggs.com or call 800-451-8752.

    ...... Mitch Kaplan is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.

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