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Photo submitted Garnet Mesa fourth graders are geared up and ready to ski around County Line on the Grand Mesa.
Photo submitted Richard Hypio holds up a layer of snow to demonstrate how many snow layers made up our snowpack this year.
Photo submitted North Fork Valley sixth graders experiment with snow as insulation in a snow cave.
Photo submitted Lincoln fourth graders climb into the snow pit to get a close up look at the snow layers.

Cross-country skiing with a dose of grit

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Grit might best describe the essence of a young student's first cross-country skiing. Throughout the winter, hundreds of Delta County students gripped their ski poles, as they shuffled their skis and peered down the snowy path of possibility and adventure on their national forest.

Leading into the winter field trip, students first participated in a classroom presentation with multiple activities relevant to the upcoming field day guided by a Forest Service snow ranger. They learned about basic snow safety, avalanche awareness and winter animal adaptations for survival. The Junior Snow Ranger Program provided students with official badges and bandanas after completing the ranger activity booklet.

On arrival to the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests, students engaged in various snow science activities, along with an introduction to a new physical activity -- cross-country skiing. While looking into a six-foot snow pit, students discovered the importance of Colorado's snow pack and how unstable snow layers cause avalanches. Students also played the role of a winter naturalist while skiing and spotting wildlife tracks in the snow.

Over the course of four months from January to April, students from Delta County School District participated in the winter ecology program sponsored by the United States Forest Service and partnering organizations, including The Nature Connection and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Participating students included fourth graders from Garnet Mesa, Lincoln, Crawford and Plateau Valley elementary schools, as well as sixth graders from Delta, Hotchkiss, Cedaredge and Paonia middle schools. The National Park Foundation supporting the "Every Kid in a Park Initiative" (EKIP) provided funding to cover bus transportation for the fourth grader field trips. The EKIP program provides the opportunity for every fourth grader and their family to obtain a park pass to access America's National Parks free during their fourth grade year. Additional funding from the Forest Service and The Nature Connection was used to acquire additional ski gear to expand outreach and programming to youth from second grade through high school.

For more than 13 years, the Skis for Kids Program has provided outdoor experiences with cross-country ski gear for youth on the Western Slope of Colorado. The Nature Connection itself is a newly formed nonprofit organization that runs the ski program and will be expanding its programming to year-round youth engagement through outdoor recreation opportunities. Of the 1,700 youth who visited the forest this winter season, The Nature Connection supplied all of the gear to outfit students, youth groups and underserved populations in the area. This winter (2016-2017) marked a record year for youth reached.

Ongoing partnerships produced an incredibly successful outreach and education program for youth in the greater Delta County. "Not only are outdoor activities safe and accessible, spending time in nature helps empower, teach and even heal individuals," explains Anita Evans, director of The Nature Connection.

There is no substitute for firsthand experiences in the outdoors. Skiing provides an opportunity to build up some of that grit necessary to succeed in life. With a persistent attitude, students quickly learned to balance and glide on skis. I was continually impressed by every kid's ability to bounce back up after a few falls on the snow with resilience, committed to the next hill or turn on the track.

One of the most important things to remember is to pick yourself up after you fall. A little grit is all you need. It's a small life lesson many learned through cross-country skiing.

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