Steve's office at Wachusett Mountain



Steve Munden
Polar Kids Instructor

My day starts around 8:30. The actual lessons start at 9:30 [this was written in 2006; the schedule in 2008 is different], but people arrive early to get their kids outfitted with boots and skis (or boards). Many of the kids are repeat students so there's a lot of joshing between them and the various instructors as they get ready.

First crisis: A little girl is standing with her arm around her father's leg. Dad is telling her that this is going to be a lot of fun, but it's clear she's not convinced. I ask her if she'll take her shoes off so I can get her boot size; she shakes her head no. Unfazed, I ask if she'll at least go behind the counter with me to get boots; I explain that I'm scared to go alone because of the ducks. This is so unexpected that she forgets her resolve not to speak. "The ducks?" she asks increduluously. Yes, there are ducks that hide in the shelves of boots, and when I go back there they jump out at me and bite me. No, she won't go with me, but I have her undivided attention as I timidly go behind the tall counter to the boot shelves.

I bend over, hidden from view, and rattle the boots around for a few seconds, as I remove the duck call that I keep in my pocket. I give it two hearty quacks and then let out a shriek as I jump back and scramble away from the counter back to the now wide-eyed girl. "Did you see it?!" She shakes her head, but she's a believer now. Other kids gather around, some of whom know the secret already — I use it almost every day. Her fear forgotten, the little girl and I head back behind the counter to see if we can get rid of the pesky duck and get on with our business. I wait until she's got her head deep in a shelf and then toot loudly on the duck call right behind her, with gratifying effect: She jumps back laughing and glares suspiciously at me. I indignantly deny any trickery and declare that we'll have to keep an eye out for the duck, but meanwhile we need to get her fitted with boots. The ice broken, she complies.

Each student is measured for boots and ski length. We set up the skis in a separate room, putting the student's name on the skis with tape. They get their boots and pick up their skis on the way out, waiting outside for the instructors. The desk staff people come around with assignments for each instructor. I get a slip of paper with 4 names on it, a group of first-timers this morning. I get a pair of short skis and go up to meet my group.

The kids are all milling around, each with a bib like racers wear, names on a piece of tape on the bib. The bibs are coded by color according to ability of the skiers, to help the instructors keep track of their people. I gather up my 4, introduce myself, chivvy off the parents, and we set out for Ollie's, the carpet-served beginner slope. As we go I warn them about the ducks and their evil habit of landing on a skier's head, knocking the skier down. Once everyone is moving ahead I give a quack and cry "Watch out, there's one now!"

We spend the first half hour climbing laboriously up the slope a few feet and then sliding down. When we can slide without falling, mostly, I introduce them to the wedge. This is the foundation of a beginner's turning skill, but I sneak up on turns by trying to get them to use the wedge to stop. They do this by digging the inside of each ski into the snow. If you dig one ski harder than the other, you turn away from the ski that's being pressed harder. Since no small child can use completely uniform pressure on both skis, they all turn a little one way and the other. They notice this, not consciously, and the skill gets incorporated without any effort on my part.

The kids get tired of walking uphill sideways or in a herringbone, and they tire from falling and getting up (the ducks are working hard with this group), and they notice others riding the lift. Soon they clamor to ride the carpet to the top of the slope. If they're making good progress I promise to take them on the lift when we get back from the break.

After an hour we return to the Polar Kids school for hot chocolate or lemonade, and a snack of graham crackers. This is quite a production, getting warm clothing off, each person served, bathrooms visited, clothing back on. All the groups come in over a fairly short period of time, so on a busy day the area is a bedlam of students greeting their friends and brothers and sisters in other groups, with a few parents thrown into the mix as well. I grab a progress reporting card for each of my students and start to fill them out between visits to the drink counter for refills.

Back on the snow I get the kids' skis on but leave mine off. I put them on the carpet lift and then hustle about a third of the way up and grab each person as they go by, putting them beside the lift and sideways to the slope. As shallow as this hill is, this group is not ready to go to the top until their wedge turns and stops are significantly improved.

We start working on that by calling each student to slide down to me and then do a wedge to a stop. I spend much time grabbing kids as they go by, and picking them up after they fall. Gradually they improve and begin to ask to go higher, and also for me to get out of their way so they can slide all the way to the bottom of the hill. Gradually I let them.

Eventually I can no longer resist the pressure to go to the top. Three of them are ready, but Charles has no control of his feet and he can't hold a wedge. I put them all on the carpet and ride with them to the top. Ollie's is not crowded today, which gives me options that I don't have when the slope is swarming with beginners. It's easy to keep track of my 4 so I don't have to keep them together, and the path to the bottom is relatively clear. I tell the 3 more advanced kids to stay behind me and, grabbing Charles by the shoulders and keeping him between my skis, I set off at a shallow angle. Mai falls immediately but scrambles to her feet and reattaches the ski that came loose. The other two make it halfway down and then can't stand the temptation to go by me and Charles, so they head straight down the slope, yelling with excitement and fear. Mai is right behind them, and Charles and I bring up the rear, with me supporting Charles.

They can't wait to do it again so I don't try to make them. The last of the hour flies by, with Charles urging me to go faster each time, and the other three gaining balance with each trip. They're flailing their arms wildly as they ski, so I tell them to get a ball of snow, pretend it's an egg, and hold it in their two hands in front of them on the way down. This trick quiets their upper bodies considerably, forcing them to find another (and better) way to stay balanced.

On one run, Jason falls pretty hard and lies still. I ski up to him, take a look, and holler out "Oh no! I think Jason's dead!" Mike, a fellow instructor who happens to be on the slope, joins us and says "His parents are going to be pretty mad when they hear you killed Jason." He looks more closely and then adds "IF you killed Jason. You sure he's dead?" Jason's mouth begins to twitch as he fights back a laugh. "Well, I know how to find out. I have a sure-fire method." Mike is quite interested and asks how it works. "Easy: I just count his ribs." "Yeah?" Mike says; "I don't see how that would tell you whether he's dead or not." "Dead people have lots of ribs, see. But nobody knows how many ribs a live kid has. Here, I'll show ya." Jason's openly grinning by now, and when I bend over and put my hand under his coat and try to sneak it under his shirt (bonus points here for cold fingers) he lets out a yell, scrambles convulsively to his feet, and thrashes away. Mike and I exchange satisfied looks and return to our groups.

As noon approaches the parents start to gather at the bottom of the slope to applaud their offspring's accomplishments. We get everyone herded back to the office, fill out the progress cards, and go over them with the parents. Everyone is gone shortly after 12, we instructors grab a quick lunch, and by 12:30 the students begin to appear for the afternoon session from 1 to 3:30. The staff like to mix it up so I'll probably get a more advanced group next time, with a completely different set of problems and solutions.

That's a day in Polar Kids at Wachusett Mountain. Your children would love it.