Albuquerque seniors forego travel to warmer climes, choosing instead a local winter sports program.
Six years ago, when she started the city of Albuquerque's Winter Senior Sports program, Karen Baker, an avid downhill skier, thought the program would afford her more time to participate in her favorite winter recreational activity. "But I ended up doing more administrative work than anything," she admits.
Baker's sacrifices, however, have opened doors for hundreds of Albuquerque's senior citizens, providing them opportunities to snowshoe, downhill and cross-country ski, and socialize. "We get lots of repeat participants, but there are just as many new participants," says Baker, coordinator of the city's Senior Sports & Fitness program, of which the Winter Senior Sports program is a component. "Our most popular activity is snowshoeing, for which we have a waiting list."
Each ski season, the Winter Senior Sports program sponsors day trips to local ski areas, as well as one or two overnight trips to popular Colorado winter sports destinations such as Wolf Creek and Durango. Usually about 40 participants travel on the overnight trips, while day trips -- 10 are scheduled for each of the three sports from January through March -- often fill two 15-passenger vans with seniors making a short trek to the nearby Sandia Mountains or other local ski areas. "The drives are anywhere from a half-hour to the Sandias just east of here, to one-and-a-half hours. They pack their lunches and bring backpacks," says winter sports leader Alex Kiska. "At the end of the day, you'd think they would be knocked out and quiet on the way home. But they're just as chatty as they were on the way up. They're full of energy and buzzing because they just had this great outdoor experience."
Some senior recreation professionals may assume that such winter outdoor experiences are to be had only in areas like Albuquerque. The city, by virtue of its geographic location (Albuquerque is also a mile-high city) and climate, boasts an average winter snowfall of about 10 inches in the urban core and 100 inches in the adjacent mountains, and is within a day's drive to a variety of winter recreation areas. But Kiska says that senior recreation professionals shouldn't let the absence of ski mountains in their backyard preclude them from offering winter recreation programs. "In flatland areas, like Chicago, you can do snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in a park," she says. "Up north, cities get a lot more precipitation than we do."
Concerns over programming costs also shouldn't be a deterrent. While the Winter Sports Program certainly isn't a cash cow, according to Kiska the day trips and overnight trips (this month's venture to Wolf Creek costs $180 per person, if sharing a hotel room) are priced to recover the program's costs. Day trips cost participants $9 each and are held on Tuesday (cross-country skiing), Wednesday (snowshoeing) and Thursday (downhill skiing). Skiers are responsible for bringing their own equipment and for the purchase of their own lift tickets, although the two alpine ski areas frequented by Albuquerque's Winter Senior Sports program give free tickets to skiers 75 and older. "The only expense to the city is the upkeep on our vans, and gas," says Kiska.
The city of Albuquerque did purchase snowshoes for the program a few years ago, although Baker notes that she got a great deal from an outdoor equipment retailer. Ingenuity has also helped keep program costs to a minimum, as well as provide participants with an added level of convenience. Prior to last ski season, individuals traveling on day trips had to pile into the vans and stuff their ski equipment into the narrow access space adjacent to the van's side-mounted double doors, making for a cramped ride. "Then we came up with this ski carrier," says John Burke, one of the program's regulars. "Alex saw this thing on the back of a van up in Colorado that was custom-made and strapped to the back of the van. We took up a collection to pay for it, so the city didn't have to pay for anything, and a company agreed to manufacture it for us. We can fit all of our skis in the carrier and usually put the poles in the back of the van. It has made life much more pleasant."
The culmination of the ski season is a four-day Senior Winter Sports Competition, Albuquerque's own senior version of the Winter Olympics. The March event, now in its eighth year, gives area residents 50 and older the opportunity to compete in downhill ski, cross-country ski and snowshoe races, as well as in snowball throwing (for accuracy and distance) and ice hockey contests. (Entry fees ranged from $6 for ski, snowshoe and snowball-throwing events to $12 for hockey.) Baker says that last March, about 60 people participated in the ski, snowshoe and snowball-throwing events, while another 30 seniors played in the hockey tournament. "We had two men's teams, with one woman skating on one of those teams," she says. "This year, we'll have three teams."
Although New Mexico doesn't currently hold a winter Senior Olympics (its summer Senior State Games are held each August), Baker hopes that in years to come, winners of Albuquerque's Winter Senior Sports Competitions will have an opportunity to compete at the state level, and then possibly move on to the National Winter Senior Olympics, which were last held in 2000. (The biennial games were canceled in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 and again in 2004 for other reasons, but are expected to return in 2006.)
Then again, not all Winter Senior Sports Program participants have dreams of Olympic gold. Most are satisfied with being provided the opportunity to get outdoors in the wintertime and socialize with their peers. Take Burke, for example, who at 86 is the program's oldest -- and perhaps, most loyal -- participant. "He just had two knees replaced, and he couldn't wait to get out there this season," says Baker.
In Burke's own words, he's proud to be the oldest member of the Winter Senior Sports crew. "We have a wide range of ages, but most of the other guys are only in their 70s," he says. But what Burke enjoys most is being given the chance to pick up a sport he was forced to put aside for roughly 20 years, due to his former busy schedule as an Air Force colonel. "I went for a long period of time without skiing, and I always wanted to do backcountry skiing," says Burke, acknowledging that even in retirement, it can be difficult for seniors to make time to participate in such recreational activities. "Older people get involved with other things -- grandchildren, intermittent health problems. Among our group, there have been people I haven't seen in three years who pop up out of nowhere."
According to Baker, some of the challenge in getting Albuquerque seniors motivated to participate in winter sports stems from the fact that many of them haven't snowshoed or skied in decades. "Usually you find that cross-country skiers haven't done it in 10 or 15 years," she says. "And unless you've been a downhill skier in your younger years, you're not going to take it up later on."
For that reason, the Winter Senior Sports staff offers preliminary classes at the beginning of each ski season to help refresh the memories and muscles of program participants. (Although classes aren't mandatory, all program participants are required to sign liability waivers.) "We hold a month of classes, telling people how to dress properly for the elements," says Kiska. "We also bring in instructors to go over basic conditioning and use of equipment."
These efforts all fall in line with the mission of Albuquerque's Department of Senior Affairs -- to which both the Senior Sports & Fitness and Winter Senior Sports programs belong -- which is "to keep seniors mentally and physically active."
But since all of the city's "senior" programs have recently been opened to residents age 50 and older (instead of only to those age 55 and up), Baker and her staff must now figure out how to successfully market programs such as winter sports to baby boomers, the overwhelming majority of whom bristle at being referred to as seniors. "I think a lot of that involves dropping the word 'senior' from our centers. One of our centers is now called a 'multigenerational center,' " she says of the city's Manzano Mesa facility, one of seven designed especially for older adults. "Our director is totally on us to get boomers in here for exercise programs -- yoga, Pilates, whatever. We can hook them that way and then expose them to everything else we have going on."