Skiers for Life

Sunday River's Kids program builds skills and relationships on the snow.

On a brilliantly sunny Saturday in February 2017, the first weekend of winter break, photographer Nicole Wolf and I are navigating our way through a sea of skiers outside Sunday River’s South Ridge Lodge. We hop out of the way as a group of kids, most skiing without poles, flies down the aptly named Broadway trail, two of the younger ones flopping on their backs in the snow to rest. A short distance away, a gaggle of the tiniest skiers in colorful snowsuits is waiting to be carried up the bunny hill. Ski instructors in red Sunday River jackets lift them onto bench seats on a two-sided sled, telling the children “hands in the air” as they are belted in. “Goodbye, parents; the kids are going to be fine,” calls a smiling, bearded instructor, climbing onto the snow machine that tows the sled. The tots wave as the sled starts to move, then disappears around a bend, taking the Mini Runners off to their morning lesson.

The Mini Runners—three- to five-year- olds—are the youngest skiers in Sunday River’s four levels of seasonal programs for children. Since many are new skiers, the emphasis of their half-day sessions is safety and self-confidence. The next level, River Runners, helps already independent skiers up to age 12 improve their skills. There are a few options for experienced skiers ages 13 to 16: Junior Professionals is aimed at teaching them how to coach other kids, while the 8 Peaks program is focused on helping teens develop advanced skiing techniques such as moguls and steeps. At the Gould Academy Competition Program, they can learn to compete in alpine, freestyle, or snowboarding. The programs are for children who spend most, if not all, weekends of the season, plus winter break, at the mountain with their families, who are largely from New England. On Sundays, the program ends at noon, allowing kids to get back home in time to make sure they are prepared for school.

I meet Catherine and Vake Dhingra at River House, where they are waiting for their two boys, Nikhil—known as Nik—and Rhys, to come in for lunch. The exclusive domain of young skiers in the seasonal programs, River House is a chaotic but joyful scene as instructors shepherd their charges through the buffet lunch line. The kitchen here is famous for its mac and cheese; the hearty and simple menu also includes kielbasa, chicken noodle soup, corn chowder, a variety of kid-friendly sandwiches, fruit and green salads, and whoopie pies for dessert. Ten-year-old Nik’s group arrives first, and he’s soon tucking into a bowl of mac and cheese—his favorite River House lunch. The only boy in his group, eight-year-old Rhys tumbles into the room, cheeks rosy from the cold and dark hair tousled from his helmet. “I really liked skiing a trail called Hollywood because it was steep, and I like steep,” he says enthusiastically as his mother tries to convince him to eat some fruit. “The kids are skiing triple what we ski,” says Catherine. “When there’s people waiting we can cut them,” Nik adds: kids in the seasonal programs go to the front of lift lines. With eight interconnected peaks and 135 trails and glades spread over 870 acres, Sunday River has plenty of terrain for the young skiers to explore. “They traverse the whole area,” says Vake.

Catherine has been skiing at Sunday River since 1986, when her parents bought a condo on the mountain. She was a ski instructor in the 1990s and hopes her boys will follow in her footsteps. “When Cath and I first started dating, we came up here, but I didn’t know how to ski and had never really been to a ski mountain,” says Vake, a first-generation American whose parents are from India. He learned to ski along with his sons, who started in the Mini Runners program when Nik was five and Rhys was three. “I would say that my biggest advocate was definitely my mother-in-law, because she did everything she could to get all of these training vouchers and coupons,” Vake says. “That’s why I was able to get better, just like these guys are doing, by going to lessons.”

In a joint venture with Catherine’s parents, the Dhingras eventually bought a condo next door to theirs at North Peak, a slope-side complex with a heated outdoor swimming pool they enjoy after days on the trails. They drive up to Sunday River every winter weekend from their home outside Boston. “We’ve got a finely tuned procedure,” says Catherine. “Sandwiches in the car and minimal bathroom breaks.” While their friends at home know they won’t see much of the family during ski season, the Dhingras say it’s worth it for the experience their boys are having in the seasonal program. And the benefits extend beyond skiing prowess. “There’s a great social aspect as well,” says Vake. “They build camaraderie with their friends here, they get time with their cousins, and it’s valuable family time we can count on every winter.”

Dorothy and Kent Redding are devoted to Sunday River, having come to the ski resort since before they had their two now-teenage sons. Dorothy wears a Sunday River logo necklace that she had made, and the couple plans to spend at least part of the year at the mountain when they retire. In 2010, they bought a condo, where they head every weekend from Thanksgiving until the end of March from their home in Medfield, Massachusetts. Fourteen-year-old Aidan started skiing when he was seven and now skis in the 8 Peaks program, while Liam, 17, has been skiing since the fourth grade and is in his first season of coaching eight- and nine-year-olds. “Aidan absolutely hated skiing at the beginning; he hated being cold,” says Dorothy. “He complained every day, but we said, ‘Nope, this is what we’re doing.’ Halfway through Christmas of the second season he skied down to us and said, ‘Skiing is my new favorite sport.’ And that was it.”

Even though the Reddings were accomplished skiers, they felt that ski school was the best way for their boys to learn the sport. “When they were little, before we had a place here, we would always have a deal with them: one day lesson, one day ski with us,” says Kent. They had heard good things about the River Runners program, and as soon as they had a home at the mountain, “we were in,” he says. I’m chatting with the Reddings inside South Ridge Lodge when Aidan joins us, his face flushed from the morning on the mountain. In characteristic teenage-boy fashion, he gives polite yet unrevealing answers to my questions—Me: “How many runs have you taken so far today?” Him: “Not a clue.”—but his wary smile grows broader when I ask him about the friendships he’s made at Sunday River. “They have as good, if not better, friends here than they do at home,” says Kent. “Especially when you think about being outdoors all day—they just sort of grew up together.” Neither of the boys has any interest in ski racing, although they both like to go fast, says Dorothy. “Our philosophy is that skiing is a life skill,” her husband adds.

His coaching responsibilities over for the day, Liam finds his family in the lodge. “He used to be the one who wanted to ski more at the end of the day, but now after a whole day with the kids, he’s done,” says his mother. To learn how to be a coach, Liam skied with the Junior Professionals program, shadowing experienced ski instructors. “It’s different helping a coach and actually being a coach, because you have to get the kids to actually listen to you,” he says with a wry smile. “I had to climb 150 yards up into the woods to get a girl out of a ditch just an hour ago. That was fun-ish. She was fine.” Because the kids look to him to set an example, coaching has made him more conscious of his own skiing, he says. “Most of the coaches I had when I was a kid are still coaches here. When I don’t know what to do with a kid, or I want to get better, or just in general, I can go to them and be like, ‘Can you help me?’”

Later in the afternoon, the sun glints off the trees on its way to setting as Nicole and I catch up with the Dhingras at the pool outside their condo. Steam rises from the heated water and just beyond the fence, skiers and snowboarders glide down the Southway trail. The Dhingras are leaving the mountain at the end of the weekend to spend the boys’ winter break in Key West, and have plans to ski Big Sky in Montana in 2018. But they’ll be back at Sunday River, too. Rhys has his heart set on racing. “My coach told me I’d be good at it because I like to go around the bumps,” says the eight-year-old. As a late-to-the-game skier, I envy the fearlessness of these kids who, introduced to the sport at such young ages, develop skills that grow along with their bodies. At the same time, they are building relationships that will continue to draw them to this mountain, whose every curve, steep, and glade they know so well. In time, there’s a strong possibility that they’ll strap their own children into skis before they’re old enough for kindergarten, waving goodbye as the next generation of Sunday River skiers is towed up the bunny hill.