Ski for Light celebrates 45th anniversary
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
Airfare, $529; meals and lodging for a week, $890; bus ride from Denver to Casper, $50; miscellaneous spending, $200. One magical week at Ski for Light: priceless.
Skiers and guides would agree that this paraphrasing of a common commercial succinctly describes why, as it celebrates a 45th anniversary, Ski for Light (SFL), a program designed to teach cross-country skiing to visually and mobility impaired individuals, retains its ability to create magic in the lives of attendees.
Why else would Judy Dixon, 2020 event chair, have attended 43 of those 45 years, filling every available position on the SFL over that period, including event chair for at least 10 ski weeks and skiing with a guide for more than three decades?
Or Leif Andol, now nearly 90, who showed up to be a guide 37 out of the first 40 years and will be on hand for the celebration Feb. 9-16, 2020, at the Casper Mountain Outdoor Center in McMurry Mountain Park near Casper, Wyo.?
And everyone is looking forward to this year’s 45th Ski for Light week to be held at a new venue. It is a joint venture of Natrona County and the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club, with plans for a Ski for Light biathlon Feb. 13 with plenty of time to practice both skiing and shooting.
Key features of Ski for Light
At the heart of the SFL program is the skier-guide relationship. Like the twin parallel tracks on which they travel, a skier-guide pair works side by side. Each pair has a chance to develop mutual trust and understanding, aided by the fundamental SFL philosophy that the goal is to work with, not for persons with disabilities.
As first explained by blind musician Erling Stordahl, who founded the Ridderrenn or Knight’s Race in Norway in 1964: “We are all disabled in a way, stumbling around in the darkness, some of us because we cannot see with our eyes, others because they have not learned to see with their thoughts, most of us because we do not ‘see’ each other.”
The skier-guide bond is strengthened over the week as the pair shares meals and evening entertainment, new avenues through which to further “see” one another.
A variety of other activities are incorporated into the SFL program. Some are more physical activities like the exercise routine before breakfast or yoga classes or time in the pool. Others are more social in nature, such as dance classes, the talent show, Norway Night and more. As years passed, many options were offered, especially on occasions when snow was scarce or weather fierce.
Another major feature of SFL is its complete reliance on volunteers. No one is paid for the time and effort devoted to SFL. SFL Board President Marion Elmquist points out, “Ski for Light is not just a one-week event. It’s a year-long enterprise in which many dedicated volunteers are deeply engaged.”
Volunteer activities include: recruiting skiers and guides; finding and evaluating potential venues; seeking corporate sponsors; preparing an annual journal with reports on the year’s SFL Week, financial standing, and donations received. A news bulletin is published three times a year. A planning manual for SFL Week has been developed and revised over the years. There’s also an extensive training manual for the guides.
Ski for Light, like the Nordic skis themselves, has its roots in Norway.
Stordahl wanted to share with other visually impaired persons the pleasure he derived from cross-country skiing. The Ridderenn, which is now the largest successful annual winter sports for persons with visual and mobility impairments, turns 56 this year. The 2020 event is set for March 22-29 at Beitostølen, Norway.
Norwegian-born Olav Pedersen, who at midlife immigrated to the United States, wanted to bring such a program to his new country. With Stordahl’s help, plus aid from Lions Clubs and Sons of Norway, the first SFL took place in Summit County, Colo. in 1975. Since then, Colorado has been a favored location for 11 of the 44 previous SFL events, and have ranged from California, Montana and Oregon in the west, to New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont in the east. Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and South Dakota in the middle part of the nation have been visited, plus Alaska to the north, and Utah to the south.
This national program has spawned several annual regional events, the largest one being in Black Hills, S.D. It’s also been emulated elsewhere, including SFL Canada and SFL Japan.
Throughout its history, SFL has always had skiers and guides in attendance from other countries, most notably Norway. In 2020, the United States and Norway will be joined by Australia, Barbados, Canada, Denmark, England, and Scotland.
A limited number of scholarships are available to assist skiers and guides. Fundraising efforts in the early years included skiathons. These days there are also corporate sponsors, plus endowments and donations. A silent auction at each SFL week typically raises $6,000 to $7,000.
Why Ski for Light succeeds
At the heart of SFL’s ongoing success is the skier-guide relationship.
Shared activities both on and off the trail cement relationships and meet not only physical needs, but social and emotional ones, too. Peter Slatin recalls crossing the finish line last year out of breath.
“The sense of achievement and pride I feel on being welcomed by cowbells, shouts and hugs inevitably brings me to tears. Of course, these are tears of joy, but also wonder at my great fortune at being part of this group.”
Insight into one’s own greater potential is often experienced by attendees. It is this process that engendered the SFL motto, “If I can do this, I can do anything.” The SFL experience is often the start of significant lifestyle changes—and it can be a magical experience.
In “Magic to Last a Lifetime,” an article written for the 10th Anniversary book, frequent guide and past secretary of the SFL board Leslee Lane Hoyum, notes, “Ski for Light has a snowball effect: the more involved you become, the more friends and experiences envelop you as you move through the magic.”
Andrea Goddard, current editor of the SFL Bulletin, remembers an evening in the lobby at Snow Mountain Ranch, near Winter Park, Colo: “Two women brought their guitars, and we all brought our voices, creating some of the most magical moments of the week.”
Bud Keith, who attended the first 33 SFLs, served as the first blind president of SFL for nine years, boiled the element of magic down to one word: love.
In five more years, SFL will celebrate its golden anniversary, 50 years of bringing people together, people who, according to Keith, were neither able nor disabled, but just people.
SFL is already golden. It gives golden opportunities to its participants, guides, and other volunteers all year long. The weeks of magical winter wonder aren’t limited to one per year— and the people experiencing such wonder discover they aren’t as limited as they thought.
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.