(Spencer Van Dyk/CBC )
A lot has changed this year for the elementary school students at Knowlton Academy, but one thing remains the same: they'll find a way to get outside and embrace the winter weather.
A group of volunteers, led by the school's garden project coordinator, spent weeks clearing the hill behind the school to build five huge toboggan runs for the kids.
And the students are thrilled, heading out multiple times a week to hit the slopes on bright blue sleds.
Nine-year-old Skyler Shaw's preferred run is called 'The Glen,' which she said she likes because she can go "medium fast" without too many bumps and jumps.
The school's librarian, Amanda Parkinson, said with COVID-19 restrictions in place, it's great to see something the students can get excited about.
"It's absolutely amazing," she said. "My son is in this class and he comes home and he's just over the moon excited — a bit tired, but it's a lot of fun."
Students at Knowlton Academy typically spend their winter months enjoying the school's ski program; each student gets to ski at Mont Sutton once a week.
This year would have been the 51st iteration of the program, but COVID-19 restrictions have made it impossible this winter.
"It's especially important that all the kids get outside as much as possible to do other outdoor activities," said Knowlton Academy principal Renalee Gore.
Not only did the school raise enough money for 133 sleds — one for every two students — it's also outfitted the children with snowshoes and shovels.
Whether through the municipality or private donations, the school has been able to take on new and exciting projects because it's always backed by the tight-knit community, Gore said.
"Sliding has been a huge hit this year," she said. "We're really lucky at Knowlton Academy to be in the middle of nature, to really enjoy everything and to get outside as much as possible."
Preparing the hill took weeks
Garden project coordinator Jennifer Ruggins Muir spearheaded the toboggan hill project.
Five decades ago, the Knowlton Academy ski program started on that same hill behind the school. But after that program was moved to Mont Sutton, the school's hugely popular garden was expanded, leaving no room left for the sled runs.
Bushes and shrubs that had been growing for decades, now as high as Ruggins Muir's shoulders, were another obstacle.
On top of that, there was water eroding the parking lot after a renovation, which had to be diverted, and that also cut into potential sledding space.
So, a team of volunteers had to get the hill ready for toboggans.
The group — with people ranging in age from 15 to 80 — spent weeks clearing brush, big logs and branches, including a particularly pesky stump.
"It was like my husband's Moby Dick, he came with four different chainsaws and everything kept going wrong, but we finally got the tree stump out," Ruggins Muir said.
They also lined the garden's fence with hay bales to make sure no one gets hurt or plows into the garden.
"When we go sledding, we have to not hit the hay bale place, and Miss Shelley [Judge] sits somewhere and she catches us and then she pushes us," explained five-year-old Hunter Highfield.
In the spring, Ruggins Muir and the students will use the hay bales and the piles of bush, sticks, and logs, to create hugelkultur gardens: raised beds with branches, shrubs, and trees, covered in organic material and dirt, which decompose slowly and are ideal for planting.
"We're going to basically use everything we cleared off the hill and the hay bales to build these new garden beds in the spring so the kids can see how you can reuse materials," she said.
Ruggins Muir said being cooped up with the same students, in the same classroom, as part of the COVID-19 bubbles, has been hard on the children, and it's taking its toll: "It's not just in schools, I think it's the same for people everywhere, and it's been really challenging."
She said they need "something that really burns a lot of energy, and is fun, and they can spread out, and is good for them."
Principal Gore said the same: the school has been lucky to stay COVID-19-free, but the pandemic has been hard on the Knowlton Academy community, from staff, to students, to parents, and she's grateful everyone has the toboggan hill to be excited about.
"We're faring pretty well, all things considered," she said. "The teachers are exhausted, emotionally and physically, as are all the staff, but they've been amazing, and continue to be amazing supporting the kids and the families."
"Everybody is very fragile," she said.
Knowlton residents have also been able to take advantage of the hill on the weekends.