BOHART RANCH — The “elk” were hungry, but to get to the green grass on the other side of the meadow they had to ski — without any ski poles to help them glide, maneuver and stay upright — past the “wolf pack.”
“If you try running on your skis, you can see you’re not going to be very fast,” explained Ellen Whalen as Joe Kassay awkwardly demonstrated the difficulty of running in cross-country skis.
As instructors for the Adventures in Winter Ecology program at the Bohart Ranch Cross Country Ski Center, Whalen and Kassay were making a point about proper Nordic skiing technique, while also mixing in information on ecology and providing lots of laughs, collisions and screams of near misses as the elk ran from the wolves.
The fifth-graders from Bozeman’s Morning Star Elementary School were learning an important lesson on the interconnectedness of nature while standing in the cool, snowy woods below the peaks of the Bridger Mountains.
The 28 youngsters were bused to the Nordic ski area northeast of Bozeman last Friday for the full-day outdoor education program.
“As far as we know, there are no other programs like this in the United States that have a ski program integrated with a school science curriculum,” said Theresa Leland, director of the AWE program for Bohart.
In the 12 years of the program’s existence, Leland calculates she has helped to educate more than 15,400 students in science as well as the basics of Nordic skiing. When the program started in 2001, only three classes were conducted. This year, the ski area is giving 57 classes, and on 20 of those days Bohart is double-booked. Twenty-eight schools from the surrounding area participate.
“It inspires students to look around them,” Leland said. “What is an ecosystem? Why is it important?”
The program has the added benefit of getting children into the outdoors in winter and exercising as they learn more about nature.
“We’re trying to encourage a family sport as well as a lifetime activity,” Leland said. “Skiing is a very active, healthy choice as compared to hibernating indoors and playing on your iPad.”
The students seemed to agree.
“It’s fun,” said 11-year-old Zac Boxwell as he quickly ate his lunch before another science game, which involved the survival of voles based on the presence of predators and available resources. “I get to ski, have fun and not worry too much.”
For classmate Shawnee Harding, 11, it was her first trip to Bohart.
“I’ve learned a few different things,” she said, including that voles live under the snow all winter — called the subnivian space, a thin air layer between the snow and ground.
Teacher Missey Dore said her school thinks highly of the program “on so many levels.
“We study biomes in the first trimester, adaptation and survival,” she said. “Then they come up here and see it in person. It’s really well organized and rich.”
The AWE program caters to students from third grade up, Leland said. Each grade has a curriculum that meets state science standards and reinforces what is being taught in the classroom.
Leland is assisted by a diverse corps of seasonal teachers. Kassay, for example, is a 23-year-old recent college graduate with a degree in secondary education who had a summer job guiding hikers in Glacier National Park. When he went online to look for a winter job, the Bohart job popped up, and he applied.
“All of us come from environmental or education backgrounds,” he said.
His favorite part of the lessons is “seeing the kids out of the classroom and getting fresh air.”
Kassay, Leland and Dore all agreed that the active learning environment appeals to what Dore called kinesthetic learners.
“A lot of the times the kids who struggle in the classroom, they feel empowered and are succeeding out here, whereas in the classroom they are not as successful,” Leland said.
That’s because in class they are not allowed to move around, whereas at Bohart movement is part of the program and is encouraged. The students are broken up into smaller groups based on their skiing skills. Those who are better skiers may glide across more than 6 kilometers of groomed trails that wind through the forest, up and down hills and across mountain meadows. Along the way, instructors make frequent stops to integrate science into the trip, asking questions and offering insights on the winter environment.
“I feel like we’re doing something important,” Leland said. “We ski through these biomes and they can look at it, feel it and touch it instead of just reading about it.”
Classes usually rent gear from the ski center for the outings, but Morning Star has its own ski collection, so the children are already outfitted and fairly comfortable from their physical education classes. Ski classes at Morning Star start in third grade.
“I sometimes ski with my kids in PE,” Dore said.
Chaperone Kristin Wilmer, whose son Nik is in Dore’s class, had her children on cross-country skis almost as soon as they could walk. Yet the program still engages Nik, as well as her older son, Jesse, who had the day off from school and joined in.
“They are totally excited about it,” Wilmer said. “They like the outdoors and these guys make it interesting.”
In a tight circle, “Professor Gray Jay” and “Professor Subalpine Fir” had their hands and arms intertwined in a mass in the middle of five other “professors” — a tangle of species.
“So that’s how we’re all connected,” said Kassay, the lone adult knotted in the crowd during a lesson on the interconnectedness of species.
“Oh my gosh, this is a crazy web! That’s how we’re all connected.”