Welcome to the Club
Since the very beginning in 1956, the ski trails at Buck Hills, now known as Crystal Mountain, have been a place for the community to gather and embrace a shared passion for snow and all its possibilities. This sentiment is at the very heart of the Crystal Community Ski Club (CCSC), a non-profit that is now entering its second year.
"This goes way back to our roots, when Crystal started as Buck Hills Ski Club in the mid-1950's," said Steve Kermode, who volunteers as CCSC board president. "The club should be very inclusive to everybody interested in winter activities."
"The big part of the mission with the CCSC is the emphasis on fun and developing a lifelong passion for snowsports," agreed Chris Fisher, the club's head alpine race coach. "Give them a place and a way to enjoy it as much as possible. That is the heart and soul of the club."
Both cost and the absence of a skiing culture can be barriers to kids from small towns in Benzie, Manistee, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Wexford counties. Meanwhile, the mountain had long been home to two ski clubs, but membership in both had dwindled and challenged their resources capacity, particularly in racing.
The solution: The Crystal Community Ski Club, launched with the 2018-19 ski season. It offers both Alpine and Nordic programs that leverage Crystal Mountain's certified instructors and coaches, including race programs designed for every level of competitive skier who want to develop their skills.
For example, Leland native, Chris Fisher skied for a Division I school in college and has been a certified USSA coach since 2003. Now he's also director of training and development for Crystal Mountain.
Appealing to the entire family is another important aspect of the club.
"In some other youth sports, parents only ski on the sidelines. Skiing is a very social sport. It's a great family sport that all members can enjoy throughout their lifetime," Kermode said.
More than 250 kids participated in the club activities last winter. It offers an alpine racing program for ages 7-17, a "Master of the Mountain" program designed for skiers ages 7-17 and a Nordic "Master of the Trails" program that focus on cross-country fundamentals.
Adding in the Nordic programming is key to broadening ski participation. In addition to building middle school and high school cross-country skiing teams, Nordic program director and club board member, Tim Furbacher went so far as to take the skis to kids, in the form of Nordic Rocks, a learn-to-ski partnership with area elementary schools that operates under the auspices of the CCSC. In its first year, Furbacher and his wife Beth Major piloted the program at two local elementary schools. Free to the schools, Nordic Rocks provides cross-country skis in a range of sizes with universal bindings that work with shoes as well as boots. It its inaugural year, 125 second through fifth-graders experienced Nordic skiing.
"I love to ski, and at a certain point, you want to share that passion," Furbacher said. "At that age, the vast majority are like puppy dogs playing in the snow."
"Most of them had never been on cross-country skis. They had an absolute blast," said Sarah Slade, a fifth-grade teacher at Crystal Lake Elementary in Benzonia, one of the partner schools. "It was especially fun after a good dump of snow."
Simultaneously, students participating in Nordic Rocks got the bonus of learning healthy lifestyle habits.
"There's an epidemic with childhood obesity, and parents are so busy working, sometimes with two jobs or more, sometimes its hard to make something like that happen," Slade said.
This year, Furbacher plans to expand to two more local elementary schools, and add a graduation party at Crystal Mountain that gets kids on actual trails. The club is also seeking grand funding that would allow expansion further afield, as well as provide equipment and transportation to and from Crystal.
"Unless you provide a structure for kids, it's not going to happen. I'm very grateful to have this structure in place," Furbacher said.
As a teacher, Slade was already aware of how important movement is for children - she has an exercise bike and trampoline in her classroom. She'd even picked up a half-dozen pair of skis at thrift stores and garage sales, but having enough equipment for an entire class made a world of difference, she said.
"This is another outstanding way that the club and Crystal is connecting with the local community," Slade said.
The CCSC also facilitates additional activities like a holiday race camp. Set to repeat again this ear December 21-24, it's open to non-members.
"It was really exciting to see the kids having such a good time learning new skills and all of a sudden there's a whole influx of new members," Fisher said.
Potential future opportunities for growth include adding freestyle skiing to the Alpine and Nordic offerings, making the club truly equal opportunity for all who love snow.
"Whether you're on a snowboard, downhill skis, cross-country skis or freestyle skis, you're skiing," said Furbacher.