“This was my week, these were my people, and I’d come home again”
Ski for Light
Ski for Light
Snow was little more than a question mark as I strapped myself into my sit ski at the start of what would again be the best week of my year.
“Pole forward, Andrea. Keep going. The trail’s a little canted downward to the left, so, if you feel like you’re tipping over, just keep leaning right and it’ll even out after a few pole strokes.”
David’s voice behind me was steady, his descriptions and instructions delivered with his trademark sang froid; a perfect combination of alertness and a cool ease that kept me focused on skiing forward and on my full enjoyment of the present moment. The rest of my life stressors had finally attained a respectful distance, here at Ski for Light International’s 43rd Annual Ski Week on the beautiful trails of Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area in Truckee, Calif. Even though falling over was a real possibility, a smile formed under my balaclava: This was my week, these were my people, and I’d come home again.
More than 40 years ago, a Norwegian immigrant named Olav Pedersen must’ve felt the same. A Colorado ski instructor, he was a friend of the organizer of Norway’s Ridderrenn, blind Norwegian musician Erling Stordahl. The Ridderrenn, begun in 1964, is a week-long event currently drawing nearly 1,000 skiers and guides to Beitostølen in Norway. Pedersen decided to bring the joy of skiing to blind and mobility-impaired skiers in the U.S. With the generous help of the Sons of Norway, he started Ski for Light in 1975, and the organization’s longevity is due in part to the generosity of Sons of Norway individuals, groups, and lodges, through financial support and the numerous guides and other volunteers that help to make every Ski Week a smoothly run, rousing success.
The 2018 SFL week, which ran from Jan. 21 to 28, boasted at least 230 attendees hailing from many U.S. states and eight other countries: skiers (the vast bulk of whom had visual impairments and a small handful of whom were mobility-impaired or both blind and mobility-impaired, like yours truly), fabulous guides, and critical non-skiing volunteers. Among them was blind skier, Charles Wirth, who will be 98 on March 23, finished the 5K race/rally, and who will be going to Ridderrenn.
Snow conditions improved greatly as the week progressed, culminating in the excitement of our annual race/rally plus one more day of skiing. Hearing the voices of people who now felt like old friends as we called out to each other on the trails, I marveled again at the bonds and the warmth characterizing every interaction I have at Ski Week.
SFL’s outgoing president, Scott McCall, a blind skier, agrees: “Many visually and mobility-impaired individuals and volunteer guides return year after year. There’s just something about SFL’s spirit and philosophy that brings folks back, many for 15 or even 30 plus years. Individuals with disabilities have an active voice in every aspect of the organization’s management and in planning for the international week. Guides have said ‘SFL provides an opportunity to do something with (not for) a blind or mobility-impaired individual.’”
Leif Andol was recognized for being a guide for 40 years, as were those who have volunteered for 30, 25, 20, 15, 10, and five years.
When I asked a guide friend, Lauren Heine, what brings her and her husband back to us every year, she wrote:
“I love to cross-country ski, and so the opportunity to spend an entire week being mostly outdoors is wonderful. But that is not really why I guide. It would be possible for my husband and me to do that on our own. Guiding gives me an opportunity to engage with adventurous, kind, and fun people from around the world and to be of some service, too. Blindness challenges people to be in the world differently from sighted people. One of my blind friends said that he thinks that blindness makes him a more patient person.
“It requires that he sometimes asks for, and accepts, help from others. I am not always patient. Sometimes I am too proud. This gives me an opportunity to learn another way of being. One of the biggest indicators of health, happiness, and longevity is how well people are integrated into a community. SFL is a community where everyone is a friend. Even if they are a friend you have not yet met. SFL fosters a ‘can do’ attitude that challenges everyone to push their own limits—including guides. Knowing that we face challenges together brings out the best in people. Every year, there are personal and shared challenges: too cold or too warm, long bus ride or no bus, health issues.
“People at SFL seem to lead with their hearts and not with their egos. It is both refreshing and exhausting. Refreshing due to the fresh air, snow, and wonderful people. Exhausting because with just a week, it is hard to resist overdoing it by attending every activity and staying up too late. But I quickly recover and then mark my calendar for the next year.”
At one point, I sat with David and a few more of our group on a comfortable couch positioned before a large, blazing fire out in front of the Alder Creek Adventure Center. I’d eaten my boxed lunch and was holding a cup of hot chocolate to my lips. It’s this, I think, knowing the memory of this week will grow as warm as the cup between my palms. It’s these people around whom my limitations are just another “oh, well” moment taken in stride. It’s remembering the picnic my fellow Ridderrenn team members and I shared in the hills around Beito Stolen when SFL sent me to Norway in 2013. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a lived experience is worth a million!
SFL constantly seeks fit, active, intermediate/advanced cross-country skiers to join our family as guides. If that’s you or someone you know, please find us on the web at www.sfl.org. There are also some helpful and fun videos and other materials you can find by clicking the link to our Media Center. If you’re up for a challenge, and for having more fun than you’d think possible, please think about joining us for our 2019 ski week in Granby, Colorado!
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.