Willard Mountain in Easton was teaming with little kids Saturday morning as various lesson programs had them assembled in lines and blobs and scattered across the trails.
Some who appeared to be 6 or 7 years old were seen tackling the steeps of The Colonel, while others just beginning were on gentle learning slopes with carpets for them to ascend back up for another slow ride down.
Marina Marcou-O’Malley, of Albany, was attentively watching her 5-year-old son, Niko, descend the gentle slope of about 30 feet, and based on my observations, he’s graduating to the next level soon.
His 8-year-old sister, Maria, was on another part of the mountain, said Marcou-O’Malley, who praised Willard’s instructors.
“It’s a great family place and these instructors are really great with the kids,” she said. “They find a way to instruct them in a way that can educate them — and they make it fun.
“We’re going tubing after he’s done. It’s a beautiful day.”
She wasn’t kidding.
Temperatures on Saturday were around 45 degrees, offering up squishy, spring skiing turns symbolic of weather usually reserved for a few weeks later.
And while the skiing was great, a view from the top revealed that Willard was the only place with snow for as far as the eye could see, which troubled Willard owner Charles “Chic” Wilson and others.
But despite what he called three sub-par winters in a row, he said he’s hopeful that will change next year, and said skiing weatherman Herb Stevens is predicting a monster snowy March, not that he has a lot of faith in such predictions.
He said the winter has been one of extremes, with pristine conditions one day followed by “24-below temperatures or 70 and rain.”
Ski instructor Tommy Halusic, who has taught at Willard for 38 years and was praised by parents, said he worries that too many more winters like this will spell the end of little mountains like Willard.
“And that’ll be a sin,” he said.
Wilson said some more southern ski areas in Pennsylvania and further south have started altering their business plan, with higher prices, reduced operating days and more snowmaking whenever it can be made — even when it seems obvious it’ll melt away.
“But I don’t think anybody around here is ready to look at that yet,” he said. “I’ve worked at ski areas for 50 years, from the rental shop to owning a mountain, and we’ve been through this before with two or three not-great winters, then you have a stretch of good ones and we’ll all forget about this.
“At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
And as for the praise for his instructors, Wilson said he wishes he could take credit and he said he does encourage them to be happy and helpful. But he also said “it’s really all them.”
“It makes me proud and makes me feel good (to hear the compliments),” he said. “I wish I was such a good trainer I could take credit for all that, but I can’t. There’s a core group at Willard that comes back year after year after year and they kinda set the tone as much as I do.”
Helen Schiffer, of Saratoga, was there with her 10-year-old twins Rachel and Andrea praising Halusic and the other instructors. Almost on cue, instructor Kim Thomas skied up with Andrea.
“We went to the top and she did amazing,” Thomas told Schiffer. “One more week (of lessons), pray for snow!”
And perhaps the most colorful guy on the hill dealing with the children was lift attendant Don Pearson, a high-fiving “Dilly Dilly” screaming machine on top.
He greeted every skier and rider to dismount — even before he knew I was watching.
“Dilly Dilly! I love the shark, man,” he said to one little kid with a shark-fin helmet. “Dilly Dillaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”
Like always, my trip to Willard left me happy. I got a Twin Tips burger to eat on the ride back to Queensbury and felt nice and full by the time I returned, both food-wise and spiritually. The ski industry needs places like Willard.