Would you like a wheelchair, the ticket agent at the airline asks when I tell him Ill need assistance to the gate. I dont think so, I think sarcastically, Im going to be cross country skiing for a week. This might be the way Id start this post if I were traveling to Michigan for the annual ski for Light event, which I will not be doing this year. I always have stories of travel travails, but today, Im just imagining the unfolding of the day.
People with disabilities, from all over the world, mostly visually impaired, will be flying into a small town in Michigan, independently, for a week of experiences that will drastically affect their lives. I remember vividly my first Ski for Light, SFL.
I had been hearing about this opportunity to learn to cross country ski for several years on the radio reading service. In 1986, I felt the time was right for me to take the risk on this adventure, and from the moment I stepped off the plane, I was enchanted. An SFL volunteer met me at the gate and escorted me to baggage claim. I was then shown a seat in a waiting area where other SFL folks were waiting for the chartered bus to take us all to the hotel in Duluth, where, I discovered, they really know the meaning of winter. Immediately, a kind woman, a sighted guide it turned out, who was originally from Norway named Brit, pronounced Breet, greeted me warmly and welcomed me to SFL. I could tell already that despite my fears and doubts, I was going to like this. SFL was a place where strangers embraced one another, treated blind people as equals, and spread the excitement and joy of winter sports.
Sunday, the first official day of the SFL week is packed with activity anticipation, and surprises. During the day, before most of the participants arrive, first and second year guides are out on the trails with their guide trainers, learning and reviewing how to guide a blind person on skis. They learn such terms as track right, and step left, and Sit! which is the most important command of all, used only when its necessary to avoid injury.
Later, as the buses arrive, full of happy and eager skiers, guides are there to assist in carrying bags and finding rooms, orienting totally blind people in their hotel rooms and around the hotel. Meanwhile, guide trainers are huddling to make final recommendations for matching skiers with guides, in preparation for the announcement that evening after dinner. Skiing skills are not the only criteria considered. Size, weight, and age, along with goals for the week are part of the equation. One skier might want to ski 20 K each day, while another one might want to be able to complete a 5 k course by the end of the week. Although there is a race on the final day, goals are agreed upon by each skiing team, and if those goals arent compatible, switches can be made.
The first nights dinner is noisy with exuberant greetings of old friends from previous SFL weeks, welcoming of new blind and sighted skiers, and rowdy Norwegian toasts for a great week. The idea for SFL originated in Norway, so there is usually a group of Norwegians who come all the way from Norway to share in the fun. Others come from as far away as Japan, France, Australia, Canada, and England.
The highlight of this day is the after-dinner ceremony. Each blind skier stands up in turn, introduces himself, and the name of his guide is announced. This information is kept secret until this moment, so everybody, guides included, is in suspense. Who will I guide? Who will be my guide? Oh, wow. I get to ski with him this year? Thus begins a week-long relationship that will enrich and affirm their shared love of skiing.