“Mama, I wish we could ski,” Elinor sighed from her booster in the back seat as we drove past mountains on the road to Vermont. She looked wistfully out her window at slopes in the snowy distance.
I reminded her that we were going to ski — cross-country ski — and that it was just as fun as downhill. Always a pleaser, she corrected herself and explained, “I like cross-country skiing, but I prefer skiing.” I decided to let it rest, realizing this is what happens when your first exposure to a sport goes badly.
I’d assumed she’d love Nordic skiing — specifically, cross-country — gliding on groomed terrain in a movement that mirrors running. Easier to learn and more affordable than downhill, it’s a family-friendly alternative to hating winter in New England, with conditions often peaking in March as accumulation persists.
Any powder will do, in my experience. My sister and I cross-country skied right out of our garage as girls, circling our suburban neighborhood. On days school was canceled, our parents strapped our gear to the station wagon and took us to a national park to roam free.
We liked downhill, too, though it held less appeal growing up in Virginia. This explains why I momentarily forgot about Nordic skiing as an adult in Boston, distracted by my proximity to alpine resorts with black diamonds that merited the rating.
It wasn’t until last year that I thought to introduce cross-country skiing to my own children. Certain of our success, I told my husband to stay behind at the hotel. “Remember that time mom overreacted?,” Elinor has enjoyed asking her brother ever since.
Ten-year-old Graham took straight to the sport — and took off. When I said he could ski ahead, I didn’t realize how far ahead he’d get on the trails traversing a golf course. Elinor, then 6, kept falling and tossing me her poles.
Determined, she refused to quit despite my pleas to ditch her skis and walk back. I had a meltdown around hole seven and then called the rental office, confirming a boy in blue had indeed returned, and we inched on.
Which brings me to our recent mother-daughter trip to Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where good conditions and grooming can continue through April. I saw it as a redo, a chance to show her cross-country skiing in the best possible light.
Operated as a nonprofit since 2008, Craftsbury remains a mecca for the sport, with an extensive trail system that covers thousands of kilometers, crossing villages, farms, fields, and forests, thanks to generous landowners. Friends went one weekend and bumped into the US national team.
Outdoors enthusiasts of all abilities have long gathered here to commune with nature; cell service is nonexistent, and Wi-Fi is spotty, offering an antidote to today’s digital lives. Craftsbury does tweet — a wholesome photo — about once a year.
We met the rosy-cheeked Hilton family soon after arriving. “Hans was saying that he doesn’t have to take a chairlift. He likes that feeling of working hard,” Kate Hilton said of her 6-year-old. That’s hard work that doesn’t involve a joy stick.
His dad, Andy Hilton, elaborated on Craftsbury’s charm: “The Nordic center is often the stepchild. This is what it’s all about. Everyone’s here to Nordic ski. It’s not a golf course that’s retrofitted.”
When Elinor and I entered the activity center on our first afternoon, instructor Sam Messer put her right at ease. A former preschool teacher, Messer knelt down to show her how to cinch her boots. He suggested shorter classic skis without poles to start and sent us onto Round-a-bit.
It was just the thing. “Wee, this is fun!” Elinor exclaimed, coasting along tracks among trees. She was like a new kid. As evening approached and snowflakes swirled, lights clicked on, heightening our enchantment.
Famished, we stored our equipment and walked to the renovated dining hall. Overnight guests filled the communal tables by 6 p.m., where talk turned to temperature and layering for the next day — not a phone in sight.
The food, included in the lodging rate, deserved full attention. I paired my salad-bar greens with a kale-portobello-gruyere frittata. Elinor stuck to salmon and a cheddar-chive biscuit, washed down with sea-salted chocolate milk.
Back in our rustic room, we slept the deep sleep of exertion and full stomachs. We refueled in the morning before heading to the activity center for Elinor’s 45-minute lesson with Messer, who rubbed a local balm onto her face to prevent frostbite.
He took a play-based approach, using familiar skiing phrases like “pizza pie” and falling when she fell. After some initial reluctance on Elinor’s part, he had her fully invested in a game of one-ski soccer with mini cones. The technique followed.
Soon enough she was tackling Duck Pond, a favorite of Hans and his little brother, Hugo. “We’re going to run up it,” Messer told her on a hilly section. “It’s you and me, kiddo.” And run up it she did, racing him back.
“This is going to be a good report,” she informed me, knowing I planned to write an article, whatever the outcome. We both sighed in relief. “Guess, who’s the fastest now?” she asked, rushing to answer her own question, “Graham and me!”
Relishing last place, I sighed, again, in contentment. What more could a mom ask for than to launch a child on her own path, a path that promised time spent in the woods, and to share in her happiness.
If you go . . .
Craftsbury Outdoor Center, 535 Lost Nation Road, Craftsbury, Vt., 802-586-7767, craftsbury.com, 30 percent off the lodging rate, which covers meals, now through March 30.Megan Lisagor Stoessell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.