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North Branch students combine science and skiing in two-day trek

RIPTON — Students at many area schools go on field trips, but one recent excursion could be categorized as epic.
With temperatures well below freezing and over a foot of freshly fallen mid-winter snow, the entire student body of the North Branch School in Ripton last month made a two-day, 20-mile journey following trail networks through scenic and challenging terrain in Addison County.
“It’s a big deal to go with your entire school through the wilderness here in their backyard in Ripton,” said Tal Birdsey, headmaster for the North Branch School, who accompanied the group of 25 students. “They got to touch a wide swath of what’s available right here in the heart of Addison County and it’s mesmerizingly beautiful.”
The seventh- through ninth-graders possessed a range of skiing abilities. While a handful of students had experience racing for the local Frost Mountain Nordic Ski Team, others had never been on skis before.
“For the kids that had never skied before, this is probably the most daunting physical challenge they’ve ever faced,” said Birdsey. “We spent a lot of time preparing physically and mentally for it.”
To account for the variety of skill levels, students spent a month leading up to the annual trek getting familiar with their Nordic skis on the trails surrounding the school. They also learned about backcountry travel techniques and how to dress for sustained activity in the cold. By the time they started their trek, Birdsey said, students were well prepared.
“There was a lot of preparation that went in to it,” he said. “By the time they got out there, they were pretty amped up. They were a little nervous, but very excited.”
The trek started on the morning of Feb. 10 from the school in Ripton. They set out on local trails crossing the Sparks Brook and traveled north, stopping at the Robert Frost Cabin for lunch. In the afternoon, they crossed Route 125 to access the trails of the Rikert Nordic Center.
“The snow was great,” said school administrator Mia Allen, who has accompanied the trips in the past. “It was challenging to break the trail and this was one of the harder years simply because there was so much of it. You would plant a pole and not feel much resistance at the end of it.”
They took Brooks Road to the Goshen Dam and picked up the Blueberry Hill trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area and traveled south on the trail network to Goshen, where parents at met them at the Blueberry Hill Inn with food for dinner and sleeping bags.
By the end of the first day, they had skied 13 miles through unbroken powder in temperatures that never rose above 12 degrees Fahrenheit, a long day for even the veteran skiers in the group. They dried their clothes by the woodstove and slept in sleeping bags on the floor of a Brandon Inn building.
The next day, using the Catamount Trail, the students made the eight-mile return journey to Ripton and ended the trip back at the Rikert Nordic Center.
Aside from some prime Vermont backcountry skiing, the trip held an educational opportunity as well. As part of a yearlong focus on physics, the entire school has been divided into four teams, each named for a different concept in the field of physics; force, momentum, potential and kinetic. This winter, students have been exploring the field of physics through the lens of winter sports. Other hands-on physics learning experiences have included hockey, curling and downhill skiing.
The students were planning to wrap up their “winter Olympics” with snowball launching, an ice shelter building competition, a poetry writing competition (held inside their constructed shelters) and a contest to build a fire using just one match.
“It’s a way of trying to blend as many disciplines and experiences into one big experience,” Birdsey said. “You’re learning science and physics while being outside, learning how to ski and being in nature. We want all of those things happening together.”
Mia Allen said the trip fulfilled one goal: to provide a team-building experience for the students.
“I’m always struck by how good it feels to get out of your comfort level and do something you might not be inclined to do in the first place or think you can do, and I think that’s true for every one of us that does this trip,” she said.
“It’s not an easy trip, especially when it’s cold and snowy,” she continued. “This isn’t an independent ski outing, so you’re only as successful as your slowest or coldest skier. Everyone needs to be rallying to help each other. When you finish it you feel great and that’s the message that we need.” 

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