by Stephanie Laporte Potts, Youth Programs Coordinator

I’m usually a go-slow-and-look-around kind of explorer. I’d rather spend a whole day going less than two miles, but getting to know a hundred different wildflowers, than race up a trail to bag another peak. And, I’m sort of afraid of heights. OK—I’m really afraid of heights.

So, when I moved from the flat Midwestern swamplands of my childhood to the mountains of western Montana, my first inclination was NOT to take up downhill skiing. Strap slippery things onto my feet and go careening down a mountainside? No, thank you. My cross-country skis would suit me just fine.

As a result, I’ve now spent nearly a decade of Montana winters on my trusty Nordic skis, exploring all the wonderful local cross-country skiing spots. I’ve glided past wingless crane flies crawling across the ski trail, spied Grey Jays perched on subalpine firs, their feathers puffed up against snowstorms, and encountered many other members of the natural community making their way through wintertime. Nothing can beat the tranquility of a snowy day, the swish of skis, and birds calling in the distance.

But, for some reason, this year I decided to challenge myself. So, I strapped on some skis and started careening down mountains. It turns out, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks: or at least, you can teach a 30-something woman with a fear of heights and little-to-no sense of balance to downhill ski!

The most surprising thing about my new winter hobby hasn’t been that it’s more fun than expected (it is), easier than expected (it’s not), or that I’m secretly a skiing prodigy (I’m most definitely not). What’s shocked me the most is that, even though I’m going faster, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on the nature sightings that I enjoy during Nordic skiing.

It turns out the ski slope is a great place to encounter nature in the winter. I’ve see snowshoe hare tracks darting between trees under a lift, and often hear Mountain Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and nuthatches in the glades. I’ve also become more familiar with the shapes of individual tree species that I don’t encounter as often at lower elevations.

My favorite downhill skiing encounter so far, though, took place on my first time off the bunny hill. I was going down the big mountain very, very slowly—nervously looking at my skis the entire time, which is not the most helpful technique. Yet nothing that the ski instructor was saying could break through to my logic and convince me to look forward and stop panicking about gravity.

white ermine standing on a snowbank

Ermine. Photo by Lionel Roux (CC 2.0).

But then, a flash of white fur darted across my path, followed by a black tail tip. It was my first time ever seeing an ermine in the wild!

From that point on, there was nothing that could STOP me from looking forward, out into the forest, for what I might be able to see. I looked for the ermine all the way down the mountain, and on my next run too, and I’ve kept my eyes peeled on each run since. I’m still not an expert by any means, but I’ve found that, as with many things, my curiosity and amazement helped me get over my fear. I remind myself that I’m not the only creature out there on the ski hill, and that there’s more to see. No matter where you are outdoors, or what you’re doing, there’s always something amazing to discover.

As the ermine taught me, keep looking forward, face your fears, try something new, and be ready for wonderful discoveries along the way.