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Skiing versus Snowboarding: Tough Choice for Parents and Kids

Dusting off our skis and boots in preparation for the oncoming snows, I was stopped in mid-cobweb. "I'm going to snowboard this year," my 13-year-old daughter announced. This threw me for a loop. What about family togetherness? I certainly was not going to be riding the half-pipes. And how safe was this new pastime? Flipping through a snowboarding magazine, it seemed as if the object of the sport was holding flight patterns high above the snow. Finally, did I want my kid joining the colorful, brash kids I'd seen on the hills, swooshing down in front of skiers, dressed in outlandish, sure-to-be-expensive outfits, boasting about "ollies" (airborne jumps) and "Mctwists" (a 540 degree turn). After all, which muppet did the U.S. Olympic Snowboarding team just choose to decorate its equipment and clothing at the February Games in Japan? Animal, of course- a tuft of red fur ready to fly.

But never fear. It used to be that snowboarders were banned from the slopes or relegated to their own terrain of specially-carved grooves in the snow. No longer. As more youngsters take to the boards, ski hills owners and operators are treating the sport as a respectable family activity. Resorts such as Smuggler's Notch in Vermont, Mt. Tremblant in Québec and Mount St. Louis Moonstone in Ontario are putting kids as young as eight or nine on boards with lessons geared to keep them safe. As to the right age, that depends. When your kid is physically ready to pick themselves up after a fall and mentally ready not to get so frustrated the first times out that he or she bursts into tears is a good gage.

The Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors has 3,000 members actively involved with the sport, teaching mostly to those in their teens. Some 97 percent of ski destinations now welcome snowboarders. Even Robert Redford has decided to open his venerable Sundance Resort this season to the riders because of its family affiliations-Mom and Dad will probably want to ski but you can bet that little Louis or Louisa will be keen to surf rather than parallel down the hill.

"The growth is phenomenal," says Mitch Gorski, director of Snowhawks Ski School, who buses about 500 Toronto area kids each year to Ontario hills. He has seen snowboarding interest skyrocket. Among those 13 and over, more than half opt to snowboard; overall, it's about 35 percent of his business. "In the mind of the kids, snowboarding is definitely cool," he says.

Before letting the junior shredder loose, however, there are some considerations. For the past week, I've been out researching and asking: "What are the risk factors? What kind of equipment and how expensive? How old should a kid be and does ski experience help? Which resorts cater to beginning boarders?" Here's what I've learned:

SAFETY FIRST: Most agree that snowboarding injuries are more numerous but generally not as serious as skiing injuries. It's thumbs, fingers and wrists getting hurt rather than legs or knees. When a kid's about to fall, he instinctively puts out his hand to stop himself so it's the wrist or shoulder that takes the shock. "Actually, most serious injuries happen at the bottom of the hill," says Dan Genge, executive director of Canadian Association of Snowboard Instrustors. An edge will catch and the youngster will fall. Snowhawks Ski School insists that kids wear the same kind of wrist guards as they would for rollerblading and strongly advises an approved FISI (Federation International de Ski) helmet if your junior flyer is into getting airborn.

EQUIPMENT: When I saw the price of a snowboard, I flipped. How could one piece of fiberglass and wood cost $500? Because the sport hasn't been around that long for kids, there aren't many used ones, not like the masses of used skis you see at sports retailers such as Sport Swap or garage sales. The good news is that resorts are renting junior equipment. Mount St. Louis Moonstone has added 100 boards this year to accommodate requests. Their Discover Snowboarding package offers board and boot rentals, a tow ticket and a one and a half hour lesson for $45. Know heights and weights so boarders can be outfitted with appropriate equipment. To find out if your kid is "goofy" or "regular" (whether his right or left foot should ride forward), do the "linoeleum test" designed by boarder Crispin Cowan. Have your kid run towards the kitchen and skid across the kitchen floor. Which foot goes forward automatically? That will probably determine his preferred balance stance.

Because snowboarders spend a lot of time on their butts and their knees, pants should have some padding and be waterproof. Clothes should be loose for all that bending, sitting and falling.

WHERE TO LEARN: Many Ontario resorts, such as Mount St. Louis Moonstone, Blue Mountain Resort and Talisman offer beginning lessons by CASI certified instructors. The important thing say the experts is to insist on lessons. Find out if the resort has had practise with kids and their children instructor ratio. Three kids to one instructor is maximum. Some think that skateboarding experience helps the learning curve; whether skiing experience helps or hinders is still under debate although it's clear that a kid who knows how to use the tows and how to get up out of a heap of snow may not be as intimidated the first time out. The good news is that within three or four sessions, most beginners will be able to manouvre a board, a far shorter period than with skiing. Kids seem to really enjoy the freedom and ease of turning that's just not possible with a set of skis.

Snow Sport University at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont have developed a new method for beginning snowboarders. The sessions start with dry land training on the indoors balance bar, then graduate to the outdoors Board Swing and Hip Hopper devied to practive posture and carving. Novices then experience the hill holding on to a slider bar two to three feet above the surface. To help families along, they've even instituted the Me & Mom and Me & Dad program where guides and kids teach their parents to snowboard. Call 1-800-451-8752.

As to whether my daughter will take to snowboarding: "Dont' worry , she'll love it," says Gorski. "They all do." If so, maybe I'll look into those lessons for Mom.

For further information, call Snowhawks Ski School 416-487-5271, Raven Ski & Snowboard Club 416-225-1551, and Mount St. Louis Moonstone 705-835-2112.





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