On the last day of school in December before holiday break, a boy named Yoni and his buddies are zipping downhill on cross-country skis at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis. Their sweatpants are caked in snow. After a run, they walk up the hill like the instructors showed them, their ski tips splayed out to form a v. They egg each other on in Spanish and glide down grinning. Yoni arrived in Minnesota just six months ago after a brutal journey from Guatemala. Until winter started, he'd never seen snow. He is among 175 eighth graders from Justice Page Middle School, in South Minneapolis, visiting the park today for skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, and orienteering, led by staff from the Loppet Foundation.

Loppet's biggest event is the ski-centric City of Lakes Loppet Winter Festival, but the nonprofit works year-round with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to expose Minnesotans from racially and economically diverse backgrounds to outdoor endurance sports from skiing to biking and running. Two programs to this end are Minne-Loppet, in which students at 11 elementary schools cross-country ski as part of the school day, and Junior Loppet, an extracurricular endurance sports team at three North Minneapolis middle schools. Field trips are new ground for Loppet.

 

James Lilja is one of the few students on the field trip who already skis. Lilja is on the Nordic ski team at Washburn High School, which the students will attend next year. Wearing his team jacket, he's tall and soft-spoken with a wispy moustache.

 

"My dad signed me up without me knowing," Lilja says. His father and mother are not skiers. When asked his initial reaction to being placed on the team, Lilja sarcastically replies, "great," before adding, "I'm glad I got into it, though."

 

After lunch at the Trailhead lodge, a gleaming new Loppet-managed facility where a person can rent skis or a bike, the kids put on snowshoes and head west through the woods. Their destination is 21-acre Twin Lake, where, on the shore, they find a campfire, an urn of hot cocoa, ice fishing poles, and a tub of wax worms. Holes have been augured in the ice.

 

Katya Pett balks at hooking a worm but suddenly jabs it on. "Might as well feed a fish," she says. She enjoyed skiing earlier and mentions she might join the Washburn team, saying, "I need a winter sport."

 

Ray Aponte started skiing 20 years ago for the same reason. The director of adventures for Loppet, Aponte is running today's field trip. He came to the Midwest from Puerto Rico as an 8-year-old who didn't speak English. He's embarking on a new career after working 29 years as a school principal.

 

"We hope if we expose one or two thousand kids a year to winter sports," Aponte says, "eventually they'll want to do that later in life. Research shows if you spend time outdoors it's healthier—it's a richer life."

 

Ryan Rodgers , freelance writer