RED WING -- In the week before the holiday break, Heather Nagel took 200 fourth-graders from Burnside Elementary into the field next to the school and gave them each two lessons in cross-country skiing.

Working with 50 students at a time, Nagel, with help from volunteers from the Environmental Learning Center, the Red Wing Nordic Club, and the community, outfitted students with boots and skis and sent them out across the snow, and then skied alongside them to demonstrate how to shift weight and make the skis move forward.

The city of Red Wing groomed the trail so students could ski right outside their school. P.E. teacher Mandy Stokes and music teacher Mikkel Gardner donated time from their classes so the students could have enough time to experience the ski lessons.

Heather Nagel helps a student learn to shift weight from ski to ski to move forward. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Heather Nagel helps a student learn to shift weight from ski to ski to move forward. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

“Volunteers are what make this work,” Nagel said. “If you don’t have enough people out there, especially on day one, kids get really frustrated, and it turns into a mess. If they spend 10 minutes sitting in a snowbank, you’ve lost them. You will never get them to ski again.”

As the volunteers helped fit students with boots and skis, many students were anxious. Only a handful in each group had ever skied before. They followed the instructions and learned the basic movements. When they came back for the second day, many were able to make multiple laps around the field.

Nagel’s enthusiasm for teaching cross-country skiing is infectious. The students skied, fell down, got up, and skied again. Laughter and shouting spread across the field.

“This program gives them an introduction to skiing,” Nagel said. “What’s cool is that often, those kids that are dragging their feet end up saying they had a lot of fun. If we can spark that interest, that is really important.”

It took more than energetic coaching to get this elementary school program launched. Nagel knew she had to provide the equipment to get students to try skiing. She wrote a grant with the Red Wing Area Fund, and took over managing the Turkey Trot at the YMCA. The Red Wing Nordic Club helps with registration and other details, and the ski program gets the proceeds from the race.

More than 200 fourth-grade students enjoyed nice weather and good snow for their ski lessons the week before the holiday break. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
More than 200 fourth-grade students enjoyed nice weather and good snow for their ski lessons the week before the holiday break. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

With some help from Finn Sisu, a ski store in the Twin Cities, and Atomic Skis, Nagel was able to buy 78 pairs of high-quality boots and skis to make sure that the students have a good first experience.

Those who want to learn more can join the Screaming Eagles, a club for fifth- and sixth-graders, and then join the Red Wing Nordic Club in seventh grade and beyond. Those not interested in racing can join a variety of programs offered by the Environmental Learning Center or ski recreationally on their own.

“I am hoping that we can come in every year, because that means that everyone that goes into Twin Bluff has skied,” Nagel said. “These kids are so excited to try new things. Once you get to the older kids, they become more reluctant. They have a mindset, and it is harder to flip that. If we can give them a really good, positive experience here, they are more apt to get involved.”