The beginning skiers strode across the snowy ground like oversized toddlers getting used to their unsteady legs.
“There we go! We’re ready to hit the slopes,” coached Lonnie Johnson, Farragut park ranger.
Before noon, Johnson had given about 20 novice skiers a few tips on skinny skiing during the state’s free ski day Saturday.
“Cross-country skiing is a lot like walking with big feet,” he told his students.
The point of free ski day is to encourage people to try the sport by waiving the usual state park and Park-N-Ski fees. This year, parks employees and others participating in the annual event were worried there wouldn’t be enough snow for Nordic skiing.
“The snow is quite a ways down,” said Glen Truscott, a member of a ski club that maintains trails at Fourth of July Pass Park-N-Ski area. There was a dearth of snow before Christmas, but the groomed trails are now covered with 8 inches.
“It’s just the opposite of last year,” said Larry Townsend, manager of Indian Creek State Park at Priest Lake. “Last year, we had more snow than we knew what to do with. This year, we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs in terms of our winter programs.”
Worried about lack of snow, Indian Creek postponed its ski lessons until Jan. 31.
But Farragut schussed ahead with only 6 inches of snow on its 6-1/2 miles of trails. Park employees groomed the trails for the first time Friday.
The number of participants was down from last year, when nearly 500 people turned out to ski for free. Johnson speculated that this year’s low turnout was partly due to the frigid temperatures. A pesky breeze Saturday made it much colder than the official 14 degrees.
That didn’t discourage Jo Lynne Seufer of Liberty Lake, who borrowed oversized boots and skis from a park employee because she didn’t know she had to rent them elsewhere.
“These trails are awesome,” she said, after trying the half-mile warm-up trail. “It’s fun. I love it. I want to check out the next ski swap and get someone else’s used equipment.”
Jean Harrison was also sold on the sport. She brought her husband and daughter out to give it a try.
“It’s something I can do anywhere - burn a lot of calories. And it looked like fun,” she said. “I can do this without mountains.”
The free ski day provided a small boost to local businesses that rent out ski gear.
“We rented a ton of it,” said Caroline Lyden of the Ski Shack in Hayden. “We had a lot of people come in. Some have already come back, and they said it was great out there.”
Vertical Earth owner Mark Beattie said he rented out every pair of skis he carries, but that might not make up for slow winter sales.
The lack of snow earlier this season “affected us quite negatively,” Beattie said. “A lot of people who had been speculating on buying skis decided not to.”
Snowmobile stores were hurt by the late snowfall, too.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” said Specialty Sales owner Skip Bonasera. “Our sales will probably be off 60 percent from last year.”
Very few machines have sold, but customers are starting to come in to buy accessories and repair parts, he said. Snowmobile manufacturers will have a surplus of 1997 models this year, Bonasera said.
But the season’s not over yet.
“Actually the snowmobiling is really great right now,” he said. “There’s 3 feet up in the hills.”
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