Guiding lights changing lives
Trail tales & reflections of longtime guides
“You just have to be there!”
When most of us try to articulate the magic that often happens during a week at Ski for Light, those are the usual words, saying nothing and everything about a group of people and an experience that tends to sprinkle a snowy bit of fairy dust on everyone there.
Ski for Light (SFL) is a non-profit organization that teaches visually impaired (VIP) and mobility impaired (MIP) adults cross-country skiing by pairing them with more experienced, able-bodied skiers, who volunteer as their guides. It is based on a sister program begun in Norway in 1964.
The 45th annual ski week in the United States is Feb. 9-16 in Casper, Wyo. The magic has a lot to do with choices: choices to go beyond one’s comfort zone, to throw oneself into an adventure with strangers, who become friends in an unbelievably short time, and to make as much fun as possible out of the unexpected.
Veteran guide Scott Betrand of Deadwood, S.D., reflects on his first time as a guide, when he was only 17: “We skied on trails that were set with a weighted track setter. The trails started at the Deer Mountain ski area. During the first few years of the program, the guides stayed with host families and the skiers stayed at a hotel in town. That year, I believe there were about 50 total guides and skiers.”
Betrand even remembers his first skier’s name: Evelyn Friskie, “She was a novice skier, and I a first-time guide,” he recalls. “Evelyn and I went out on our first day and had a great time, but on day two, nothing went right. I was struggling to guide, and Evelyn was having a hard time with her balance. I felt frustrated and was not sure what to do. I sat down with a group of guides from Breckenridge. They said to just sit down with her in the morning to see what might be going on. I did and found out that she was not feeling well that day.”
From then on, the two had a wonderful week. Betrand remembers: “On the final day, during the race rally, we were both nervous. Right out of the start, Evelyn fell. She got back up and we finished the course. Coming across the finish line, we were greeted with the finishers medal and a pair of hand-knit Norwegian mittens! I still have those. I saw
the mobility program in its very early years. An MIP person sat in a pull sled with no skis on it and used very short poles to get around.”
Betrand is now the head of the Colorado Regional SFL.
Norwegian immigrant Leif Andol found himself in a similar position as that same Deadwood ski week approached: “I first guided in 1978 at the Black Hills International Ski for Light. I love to ski, so when it was that close to home, I decided to see what was going on. They were short of guides, so I became a guide without any training!”
Andol’s skier was from Oregon and President of the state’s Association for the Blind. “I’d never been in close contact with blind people,” said Andol. “When I started to push her ahead of me to get her where we wanted to go, she informed me in no uncertain terms that this was NOT the way it was supposed to be done! The highlight for me that year was the large number of fellow Norwegian immigrants attending as guides. We had a wonderful time, even sampling aquavit!”
Forty-two years later, Andol has not missed a single ski week and will be with SFL in Casper.
Marie Huston, who first joined the group while working at hotel in Granby, Colo., captures the spirit of an SFL experience: “Just like a family, SFL offers laughter and tears, successes and challenges, unconditional love, and always a hug…. Ski for Light has filled my life with friendships that have led to crazy memories and adventures like creative hotel room decorating, skiing the amazing miles of trails each year with my skier, and travels to Norway, up mountains and down rivers.
“But most of all, SFL has taught me that each of us want to be valued as a person. Not for our differences, but for our contributions. I remember the first time one of my MIPs rolled their eyes when someone told them they were an inspiration. I didn’t get it. Now I do. We all have challenges, each one unique to each one of us.”
Longtime guide David Fisichella sums up the joy of volunteering as a guide for SFL:
“I was a sighted guide for a blind sailing team and a member of a competing team suggested that I would make a good SFL guide. I told her I never cross-country skied before, and she told me to lie on my application! I was amazed at how quickly such a large group of people felt like a family. Twenty-five years later, nothing has changed. At worst, it will be an enjoyable ski vacation. At best, it will be a life changing experience!”
This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.