By noon most winter Wednesdays, 13-year-old Jake Harter starts looking out his classroom window at Kenmore Middle School. In four hours, he knows he'll be staring out a bus window at hills covered with snow, and all he'll be able to think about is getting on the slopes.
"We are stuck inside school with teachers for half of the day," says Harter. "Going out to Kissing Bridge is a great way to just get out with friends."
The favorite part for fellow 13-year-old Kenmore Middle School ski club member Maggie Matteliano is the bus ride. Sometimes she fills the hour by trying to get her math homework out of the way; most of the time she just kicks back, relaxes and watches a movie with classmates on the bus DVD player.
The longstanding parent directive to go play outside has gotten a winter upgrade. High school and junior high ski clubs, both at the easily accessible Kissing Bridge in Glenwood and the more exotic Ellicottville, are booming. More than 175 American and Canadian schools are getting kids to the ultimate outside playground, the ski slopes, according to Rachel Fanelli, assistant marketing director for Kissing Bridge.
Starting as early as middle school, area ski clubs are loading up buses full of kids craving colder temperatures and a lot more snow. Fanelli says Kissing Bridge's kid population is at record levels this season, a trend she expects to continue as kids spread the word.
"A learning curve is definitely happening," says Fanelli. "As more teens and kids learn to ski and snowboard, they are quickly telling friends." As a result, skiing and snowboarding are not only snow sports, but becoming social sports.
"Many kids love the sport, but they also love the idea of 'Let's go spend a couple of hours on the hills with my friends,' " Fanelli says.
Tom Harter, the parent adviser for Kenmore Middle School's ski club, sees this attitude in many of the 53 students he takes to Kissing Bridge every Wednesday starting the first week in January. The club's ski season lasts eight weeks, although unseasonable weather like this year's recent January thaw sometimes postpones the outings.
Arriving around 4 p.m., the students have five hours on the slopes before leaving at 9. Aside from a 5 p.m. lesson, what they do with that time is essentially left up to them
"Because there are only two supervisors in the club," says Harter, "the kids are left to ski, snowboard, and eat with their friends."
And even the warm afternoons and nights in January attracted enough students to provide the right atmosphere.
"It's in the 70s out there, and we've got six buses in the parking lot and six more on the way," Andrew Minier, group sales associate and racing coach at Kissing Bridge, said one Friday night in the middle of January. "On a good day, we'll have 30 buses out there."
The desire for winter sports doesn't stop at middle school.
Alex Gordon, 14, joined Kenmore Middle School's ski club last year as an eighth-grader and left with a thirst for more snow. Now a freshman at Kenmore West High School, Gordon says he looked for a ski club after entering West.
With a new school came a new level of difficulty. Kenmore West takes its students to Holiday Valley. The difference? "Compared to Kissing Bridge last year, Holiday has a more challenging level of mountains, and higher difficulty level on the runs," Gordon said.
Gordon confirmed what the numbers from local ski resorts indicate: Snowboarding and skiing trips are becoming more popular with his peers, and the chance to spend time with friends in a different atmosphere is a big part of the appeal.
"We have a group of our friends that look forward to going to Holiday, meeting up with people there, and snowboarding and having a good time," he says.
Every ski club night is eventful, according to Fanelli. "The buses roll in, and the kids take over," she says. Fanelli has been there long enough to know it's not just the snow that brings the crowds.
"I think the kids like that it's a safe, fun environment when they have nothing to do," she says. "They aren't coming here just for the exercise, they're coming for the social scene."
Molly Hirschbeck is the features editor for the St. Bonaventure University student newspaper, the Bona Venture.