(Teaching the Blind To Ski by Paul H. Taub)
“If I can do this, I can do anything.”
This is the motto of Ski For Light, an organization that promotes cross-country skiing for the blind. When I first heard about this organization, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for the notion that “service is the rent you pay for your place on earth.” As a cross-country skier and instructor with 50 years experience, I got hooked on the idea of teaching blind people to ski. I tracked down Ski For Light, and expressed my interest in becoming a guide and an instructor. Ski For Light sent me a questionnaire to fill out about my skiing and instructing experience. I wasn’t sure they would be interested in a guide who is over 70, but last year I was accepted as an instructor.
Along with my acceptance letter, I received an extensive teaching guide to study, as well as an invitation to the groups’ 50th anniversary celebration week at Cragun’s Lodge in Brainard, Minnesota. Cragun’s is a hotel/conference center with more than a half-mile of “beachfront property” on the beautiful Gull Lake. It was a lovely setting for the week of skiing.
The program started Saturday evening after dinner, when we met with our guide-trainers. The first thing we learned was hot to guide a blind person in all situations; our sighted trainer demonstrated what we were to do, and we practiced with our blind trainer. Then we were blindfolded and we guided each other.
On Sunday, we worked out on ski trails, further refining our skills for teaching and guiding the blind. This also sharpened up my skiing skills quite a bit! The blind skiers arrived later that afternoon, and after dinner we were all introduced.
When the name of a blind person was announced, that person would stand up at his or her table. Then the name of his or her guide was announced. That’s how I met Joan Phelps from Warren, Pennsylvania. Joan is 51-years-old and married. She uses a seeing-eye dog to get around.
Joanie, as she likes to be called, is a very pleasant woman who refuses to let the fact that she is blind interfere with her way of life. Besides skiing in the winter, Joanie is also an avid summertime canoeist.
On Monday morning, ski training began in earnest. We spent about 5 hours a day for the next 5 days out on the slopes. Joanie had already attended 1 Ski For Light program the previous year, but her skiing still needed some work. We didn’t waste any time.
To teach a blind person to ski, the trail has to be custom-groomed. Two sets of tracks are made deep in the snow, about two feet apart. The guide skis in the left pair of tracks and the student skis in the right pair. The student can feel the track with his skis, but it is the job of the instructor to keep the student in the track and to keep up a running commentary on the trail and landscape.
Simple one word commands are used to instruct and warn the student. The important of these is “SIT!” This is used only in emergencies, and upon hearing it the student immediately falls down to the right of the trail. Other commands include, “tips left,” “tips right,” “snowplow,” and “step turn.”
By the end of the week, I had Joanie doing about 5 kilometers a day over a pretty difficult course. The final day, Saturday, was race day. I talked Joanie into entering the 6 K race, something she had not planned on doing.
A skier and guide make up a team and each team departs at 30-second intervals. It’s quite a challenging and grueling race, even for an old hand like me. Best of all, the skiers feel an immense sense of achievement at the end of the race. The smile on Joanie’s face as she crossed the finish line was all the payment I received for my week of work, but it was more than enough.
The week I spent at Ski For Light was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I plan to go back every year for as long as I can. This is a wonderful organization and it deserves all the help it can get.