As drivers across Minnesota struggled with maddening commutes this week because of snow-clogged roads, many school children looked to the skies with glee.
A gaggle of students at Pillsbury Elementary School in north Minneapolis responded to the winter weather by sliding into snow pants and cross country ski boots.
Most were delighted to hit the slopes in nearby Windom Park. Although one student said, "it's kind of...creepy how you fall down," others described their delight at "skiing down a big mountain."
"You get to be outdoors [and] you get to be with your friends," said Hassan Mohamud, a fifth-grader. "You get to have fun."
The Pillsbury students will be among hundreds of school children who will participate in Saturday's Minne-Loppet in Minneapolis — part of the weekend's slate of events at the City of Lakes Loppet.
The event is sponsored by the Minne-Loppet Foundation, which has raised about $250,000 to help teach elementary school children skiing and provide lessons on health and nutrition. Over the past decade the Minne-Loppet Foundation has helped teach more than 3,000 north Minneapolis elementary students how to ski.
At Pillsbury, 150 students ski for eight weeks as part of a gym class. On one recent outing to the slopes, after a short warm up they struggled uphill with teacher Mark Trumper, who gave them instructions and encouragement.
"Short steps," Trumper said. "Make a 'V' with your feet. Yeah, yeah, exactly like that. You got it; I didn't even help you."
After the students made it to the top, it was time to head downhill — with whoops, screams, spills and sprawls.
Volunteer and Minne-Loppet Foundation board member Leroy Leftwich cheered the skiers on.
"Kick and glide, kick and glide," he told them. "Looking good, looking good."
Leftwich, a retired 3M engineer, and a handful of other adults volunteer twice a week to work with the students.
"A lot of times they don't want to quit once they get going, they enjoy it that much," he said. "So it's always been a positive rewarding experience for us."
Pillsbury's seven-year-old cross-country ski program began when Trumper, an avid skier, lobbied the Minne-Loppet Foundation to help find grant money.
"We were able to get a whole classroom set of skis, boots and poles," said Trumper, who works with English Language Learners.
Trumper said the classes expose the students, many of whom speak a language other than English at home, to Minnesota outdoors culture. They also learn the language of skiing and are encouraged to talk about what they're experiencing.
Spills don't seem to deter the beginning skiers. They quickly learn what it feels like to fall. "You just get up and do it again," one student said.
By the second year they can ski well.
"These Pillsbury kids have grit," Trumper said. "They don't [just] make it down a hill; they blast down the hills."