Lea is tiny for a 3-year-old. It was a challenge for her mother, Lindsay Harmon, to find a helmet, ski boots and skis that fit the child — but she succeeded.
When asked what her first skiing experience was like, Lea said, “Fast,” with a toothy grin that rarely fades.
Her cousin Michelle Porter, 13, of Lincoln gave Lea her first lesson on the bunny trails of Sugarloaf Mountain.
“It’s something that my dad taught me how to do at a young age,” Michelle said.
She and her sister, Megan Porter, 11, learned to ski at age 3. Their father brought them to Mount Jefferson, where they now ski nearly every weekend with their friends. As “WinterKids,” both get to visit the most popular slopes in Maine for free.
WinterKids is a nonprofit organization based out of Portland that makes it more affordable for children to enjoy winter’s outdoor activities by offering free and discounted admission to outdoor recreation centers throughout the state.
Lindsay, who lives in Hampden with Lea and her husband, Andrew, buys her two nieces the $25 WinterKids Passports each year and brings them to different mountains.
“We mostly use it for downhill skiing,” Lindsay said. “Truly with my nieces, we wouldn’t have skied like we have with the passports.”
Even for children and teens, visiting ski resorts can be expensive. At Sugarloaf, a one-day pass for a teen is $66 and for a junior, $53. Sunday River is a few dollars more. But both mountains admit WinterKids for free.
When accompanied by one paying adult, WinterKids Passport holders receive free and discounted tickets, rentals and lessons at over 50 Maine outdoor recreation centers — downhill ski areas, cross-country ski centers, ice arenas, snow-tube parks and dog-sledding centers. The locations are spread throughout the state, from Powderhouse Hill in South Berwick to Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent.
“I guess if I didn’t use it, I probably wouldn’t be able to go,” Michelle said about the passport. “And it makes it a lot easier for people to go with you.”
Since the passports are only for students in grades five through seven, many locations offer additional discounts for members of the passport holder’s party.
From now until Lea reaches fifth grade, she’ll be able to use the WinterKids FunPass to cross-country ski and snowshoe for free at 20 participating cross-country ski areas.
“I think there’s more to do when you go skiing because if you’re inside, there’s not really any new stuff you can do,” Megan said. “You get to try and learn new things and go on different trails when you ski.”
Megan, who skis blue trails and some easier black diamond trails, will have her turn to teach cousin Lea in early February at Sunday River. She’s enthusiastic about passing on her love for outdoor activity.
“I say that people should toughen up and go outside anyway, even if they’re cold, because it’s a lot better than going inside,” Megan said. “At least, that’s my opinion. They might not like it, but they should still try.”
WinterKids began in 1997 as part of Ski Maine Association. They watched the rates of childhood obesity increase and the downward trend in physical fitness in Maine. In 2000, they became an independent nonprofit organization and made it their mission to help children and families enjoy healthy outdoor winter lifestyles.
Lindsay, who taught at Hampden Academy before becoming a stay-at-home mom, has noticed that children in her neighborhood don’t play outside as much as they used to.
“Children get off the school bus and go inside,” Lindsay said. “The other day, neighborhood kids were being really loud and having a snow fight. I almost told them to quiet down, but didn’t because I was happy to see them playing outside.”
Obesity is the fastest rising health problem in the country, and several health problems such as diabetes and heart disease are linked to it. The rate of obesity has doubled in children in 20 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007. In Maine, about 30 percent of children and teens are overweight or obese, according to Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I would tell [kids who don’t know about WinterKids] to look into it,” Megan said. “It’s really fun and you don’t have to pay as much, so it’s easier to be able to go and see what it’s like at new places.”
“To people who hate winter in Maine and carry on saying it’s too cold, I say, find a hobby,” Lindsay said. “There are few days you can’t bundle up enough and be active outside while staying warm.”
Lindsay started skiing when she was in fifth grade, and still remembers the tears and bruises. Megan and Michelle won’t remember a time when they didn’t know how to ski, and neither will Lea.
“If you start it at that age, it’s something you definitely stick with through life,” Lindsay said.
“I think I’ll ski forever,” Megan said.
For information, visit www.winterkids.org.