MARS HILL, Maine — Approximately 13 years ago, officials at Big Rock Mountain in Mars Hill were looking for a way to get Aroostook County youths to lead less sedentary lifestyles and get more interested in winter outdoor sports.
They have successfully achieved both goals, Eric Hendrickson, director of the snow school at the Mars Hill facility, said Friday, by creating a program that not only reaches out to youths in Maine’s largest county but in two neighboring counties.
Hendrickson said Big Rock’s Ski For Life Program offers ski instruction and opportunities to more than a dozen schools in Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington counties with more schools scheduled to take part next year.
“It really has been a successful program for us,” Hendrickson said. “It is something that is impacting not just students attending regular schools but home-schooled students as well.”
As part of the program, events take place at Big Rock either after school Wednesday, Thursday or Friday evenings or on weekends, and students from participating schools are brought to the mountain by their respective school districts.
Students pay a $15 daily fee for a lift ticket and rental equipment and take part in an introductory ski program for a scheduled block of time. He said some students pay the fee themselves, but primarily schools raise the money through parent teacher organizations or foundations.
“We measure them for all of their equipment, their boots and skis,” he said. “We usually see very few kids here that have any ability to ski at all. We ask them to choose whether they want to try skiing or snowboarding that day, and we make them stick with it. We don’t allow them to switch halfway through because we really want them to try out the sport and see if they like it.”
Hendrickson said participating schools have included Houlton Southside and Houlton Middle-High School, Hodgdon High School, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Greater Houlton Christian Academy, Ashland High School, Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, East Grand School in Danforth, as well as schools in Machias, Eastern Aroostook Regional School Unit in Caribou. The program also has hosted home-schooled students from Lincoln.
Hendrickson said other schools districts, including School Administrative District 45 in Washburn, are planning to join next year.
“At times, we have 120 students here on event days,” he said. “It is noisy and busy, and it is a great chance for the students to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”
Hendrickson said Big Rock has received a great deal of sponsorship support for the program from McCain Foods in Easton, The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle and local Rotary clubs. Teachers and parents have been big supporters as well.
“We have three lifts here, and we start them off on a carpet lift so they get used to the feel of it,” he explained. “While that is going on, we will have an instructor working with another group of youth on skiing techniques, and a short distance away, a parent may be volunteering to assist with the instruction of another group. It really is a team effort.”
He said the overall goal, to get youths interested in outdoor winter sports and off of their couches, is being realized.
“You see how busy it is here on our Ski For Life nights and how interested the kids are, and it is wonderful,” he said “It is great to see them get interested in a sport that, without this program, they might never have had the chance to try before.”