“Cross-country ​skiing ​is ​literally ​something ​I ​hope ​to ​be ​doing ​till ​the ​day ​I ​die,” said Steve Kugath, a BYU-Idaho professor for the recreation management program.

Kugath has over 40 years of cross-country skiing experience.

In this, and many other outdoor sports, Kugath is self-taught.

Kugath recalled that the first time he ever used any kind of skis was when he found a pair of alpine skis in his neighbor’s garage as a kid. His neighbor never used them and let him take them out to the snow-covered hill behind their houses.

The class takes brakes to learn new skills from the group leaders and from Kugath.

The class takes breaks to learn new skills from the group leaders and from Kugath. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

After that, he went up to Vermont with the YMCA to ski some bigger slopes.

He quickly crashed into a pole.

“My ​friends ​all ​came ​down ​just ​laughing.” Kugath said, “They said, ‘​You ​got ​to ​make ​turns, you ​got ​to ​make ​turns!’ ​And I said, ‘​Yeah, ​I’m ​not ​sure ​I ​know ​how ​to ​do ​that ​yet.’”

His friends taught him the basics and then progressed on to more advanced slopes while Steve stayed on the bunny hill practicing his turns.

By the time Kugath got to BYU for college, he was passionate about every kind of outdoor sport he could find.

He didn’t go to school for the outdoors, though. He was studying to be a marriage and family therapist. It was his last semester of school when he found out they taught recreation classes.

Steve Kugath has over 40 years of cross country skiing experience.

Steve Kugath has over 40 years of cross country skiing experience. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

“I ​needed, ​like, ​two ​more ​credits ​to ​graduate,” Kugath said. “And ​my ​wife ​said, ‘Why ​don’t ​you ​take ​this ​class, ​it ​looks ​fun.’ ​And ​she ​hands ​over, back ​then ​it ​was ​like ​a ​paper ​catalog. And ​I ​looked ​at ​it and ​it ​was ​kayaking. ​I was ​like, ‘Kayaking? ​There’s a ​kayaking ​class? ​I ​would ​love ​to ​do ​that!’”

It was during that class that Kugath learned there was an actual profession related to outdoor recreation. By the time he finished the semester and decided he wanted to go to graduate school, it wasn’t so that he could be a marriage and family therapist.

“From that kayaking class forward, I knew I was going to be seeking a career in recreation management,” Kugath said.

After teaching in several places across the country, Kugath and his family came to Rexburg.

The class takes a snack break in a yurt.

The class takes a snack break in a yurt. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

Now, he teaches several recreation management classes, including cross-country skiing.

Kugath takes his class to a new cross-country skiing location every week. They start out at the beginner level and build up to the intermediate over 6 weeks.

“It really is something people can just pick up on,” Kugath said.

He said this as he glided gracefully next to me on his cross-country skis, 40 years of experience in his back pocket. But he was also looking at his students in front of him.

All but one of the students in this particular section of the class are not recreation management majors. Some of them had never touched skiing poles before taking this class.

Cross-country trails include a wide, flat section and two tracks for skis.

Cross-country trails include a wide, flat section and two tracks for skis. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

Jenna Hancock is one of those students. The learning curve really isn’t that steep, Hancock said, and she’s been skiing for two weeks.

To Kugath, the cross-country skiing class and others like it where the school pays to take students into nature to learn are more than just enjoyable. The main goal of the class is to teach students the skills well enough to teach.

“​That’s ​kind ​of ​our ​take,” Kugath said. “It’s ​not ​just ​skill ​acquisition, ​but ​it’s ​leadership ​training ​and ​it’s ​teaching ​training.”

Each week a different pair of students researches the trail, teaches new skills, leads the group and makes sure no one gets left behind.

“Some ​of ​them ​may ​never do this again, but ​at ​least ​they’ve ​got ​that ​framework ​and ​leadership ​that ​helps ​them ​to ​grow ​and ​learn ​and ​be ​able ​to ​apply ​in ​the ​future,” said Kugath.

Most taking the cross country-skiing class have never skied before.

Most taking the cross country-skiing class have never skied before. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

The class was very patient with each other (and also with any stray journalists who might have fallen once or twice along the way) as they learned to ski.

“(You’re) developing greater confidence in your ability to learn from day one,” Kugath said. “You might fall a number of times, but by the end of the class, students are rarely falling.”

Kugath commented on the different ways people could enjoy the scenery of Harriman State Park, where the class was that day, including snowshoeing. Sometimes, he said, the department gets requests from students to teach snowshoeing.

“I’m not really sure what you even teach with snowshoeing,” Kugath said, smiling. “‘Put these on your feet. Start walking.’ I just always question why you would snowshoe when you could glide.”

And glide they do. Most of the students were able to keep up conversations while they skied. Their eyes were looking up from their feet more and more as they took in the scenery.

Every now and then the group would stop to learn something new, receive critiques, refuel on snacks and water or enjoy the view.

Herriman State Park is one of many natural beauties that can be found in Eastern Idaho.

Herriman State Park is one of many natural beauties that can be found in Eastern Idaho. Photo credit: Briona McGregor

“It’s so essential for people to realize that there are options,” Kugath said. “You’re not just stuck in Rexburg. I get to live in Rexburg. I get to see views like this.”

Along with the leadership benefits that students get from the class, it helps them appreciate the nature surrounding Rexburg.

“For everybody, we want to introduce them to the concept of wholesome recreation,” Kugath said. “By ​getting ​people ​out ​enjoying ​these ​beautiful ​places ​while ​they’re ​students ​hopefully, ​they’ll ​want ​to ​do ​that ​again.”