Teaching your child any new sport is a labor of love. That's especially true when it comes to cross-country skiing. But a little patience and beginner-friendly terrain can go a long way.

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If you’ve ever seen one of those nature documentaries where a baby giraffe learns to walk for the first time, you’ll understand what my 3-year-old looked like when he learned to cross-country ski.

It was not graceful. His arms and legs flailed in all directions, and about every 10 seconds he crashed to the snow. To fend off the cold and his emotional downward spiral, I kept pumping him full of trail mix, promising M&M rewards for every bump and curve he navigated.

Teaching your child any new sport is a labor of love, I kept reminding myself. There’s also a fine line between getting your kid to try new things and creating a bad experience that they’ll remember (and hate) for a lifetime. But we are a ski family living in a ski town, and by putting in the hard work early, I was hoping to make deposits of fun that we could draw against when he was older. After an hour we were less than 100 yards from our starting point, but I was already imagining my future teenager ripping around groomed bends like a racehorse in full-body spandex.

Plain, Washington: An up-and-comer on the Nordic scene

Cross-country skiing is one of the best forms of exercise known to humans — ask anyone who’s ever owned a NordicTrack. But unlike the NordicTrack in your living room, skiing on real snow has the upside of astounding winter beauty. When the snow flies, touring across rural landscapes can be one of the most enjoyable ways to experience the outdoors during the cold season.

There are only a handful of places with good cross-country skiing near Seattle. The community of Plain — about halfway between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth — is near enough to Seattle to make a day trip, and the valley is an up-and-comer on the Nordic scene, with consistent snow, quality grooming and room to roam.

The 24-kilometer trail system managed through Plain Hardware launched nine years ago, back when the region was better known as snowmobile country. (Technically the ski trails and Plain Valley Nordic Team, or PVNT, are managed by a separate, recently formed nonprofit, but for all practical purposes, the hardware store and ski trails are one and the same.) In just a few years, it’s become one of the best places in the state to enjoy the sport — even if the trails aren’t yet widely known.

Why? It’s all about location, explains store owner Rob Whitten. Plain is just east of the Cascade crest, so it sees epic snow dumps, but it’s drier than the west side, with plenty of bluebird days. Plain’s ski trails traverse lolling mountain landscapes past grand lodges and sleigh rides at Mountain Springs Lodge, and tour old homesteads with picturesque meadows and half-frozen streams that lead through the woodsy Thousand Trails property.

The 8.6-kilometer Beaver Creek Trail (groomed daily for both classic and skate skiing) is the backbone of the network with the vast majority of the distance flat and easy to navigate for beginners. The system also includes 2.6 miles of dedicated snowshoe trails.

While it’s rare for someone to ski all the trails in a single day, if you need more territory, you can find more than 100 kilometers of groomed routes within a few minutes that explore Lake Wenatchee, Nason Ridge, the Wenatchee River and connections to endless multiuse snowmobile trails.

For those without gear, Plain Hardware transforms into a ski shop during the winter season. It’s conveniently located across the street from a trailhead and sells trail passes, and has ski rentals and private lessons for newcomers.

A training ground (and ski playground) for kids

Kids and adults go through the same stages when learning a new activity: a nervous thrill followed by frustration, then a steep learning curve and finally joy when everything starts to click. Whitten spearheaded the PVNT for the kids in the community, and coaching has taught him a few things about teaching youngsters how to ski.

His advice: Make it fun. “The challenge to get kids to cross-country ski is that it’s daunting,” he says. “We take kids to an area where they can ski and play. They’ll play for hours, but if you put them on the trail and say ‘Go five miles that direction,’ they’re probably not going to want to do it. But they become really good skiers if it’s part of play.”

In a field near the trailhead, the Plain Valley Ski Trails offers kids a “snow playground” with ramps and bumps where they can practice. “The kids love it. They’ll jump and goof around on it. They go up and down, up and down until they’re exhausted,” says Whitten. “They are learning about balance and what it means to slide on snow, and the different angles on the hills and terrain features.”

The kids of PVNT also utilize creative games on skis to improve their skills like dodgeball and after-dark capture the flag with glow sticks. “When you’re young you soak up skills without even thinking about it. There’s a lot of subtlety to skiing,” says Whitten. “They almost learn by feel.”

As I spent last winter teaching my own son, I learned a few important lessons myself. The biggest might be that the promise of hot cocoa afterward at Plain Hardware is always a good incentive.

Another one was that I needed to adjust my expectations. This wasn’t about my day of skiing — it was about teaching Ian. When he weighed less, my wife and I could ski with Ian in one of our backpacks. Other parents invest in chariots, which look like old-fashioned rickshaws pulled by skiers.

Now that he’s on skis, I spend most of the time waiting around in the cold. My wife and I work by turns, trading off so we can stay warm and also enjoy the outing.

“In the parents’ minds, they think they’re going to be skiing down the valley,” says Whitten. “In reality if they want their kids to have a great time, they should just go out there and find a little bump and play in a small area.”

Toward the end of last season, Ian surprised us with a sudden burst of inspiration. He wanted to ski to a house in the distance — almost three-quarters of a mile away. He dug deep and found the motivation to ski the entire way, then dropped into a snowbank after reaching his goal.

He was so tired that he refused to budge any further and I had to ski back to get the car. But for a little tyke on tiny legs it was an epic feat, and as a dad-turned-ski-coach I couldn’t have been more proud.

In just a few months he’d gone from a floppy baby giraffe to a skier, and hopefully that investment will pay dividends in the decades to come.

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If you go

Plain is located about two-and-a-half hours east of Seattle off Highway 2 near Lake Wenatchee. Trail passes, rentals and lessons are available at Plain Hardware. The trail system extends several miles up the valley and begins across the road.

Adult passes are $18/day, $180/season. Kids under 17 ski free. Private lessons with advance notice are $40/hour plus $25/hour for additional skiers.

This winter, Plain Valley Nordic Trails is hosting a full moon ski and snowshoe party on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m.

Two all-women learn-to-ski clinics are open to the public. The classic ski clinic is Saturday, Jan. 12, from 10 a.m. to noon. The skate ski clinic is Saturday, Jan. 26, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, see skiplain.com/activities-and-events/events/.

For current conditions, grooming reports and trail maps, visit skiplain.com.