By Marcy Stamper
The skinny parallel tracks that take skiers along the Nordic trails throughout the valley are a natural guide to the contours of the terrain.
For the eight skiers — six blind or visually impaired and two wheelchair users – who arrived in the Methow on Sunday (March 1), those tracks provide essential information, allowing them to navigate sharp curves and gentle undulations.
The skiers are members of Ski for Light, a group that gets people out on Nordic ski trails by pairing them with guides.
“Skiing gives me the freedom that I’d never find elsewhere,” said Ann Fagan, a blind skier from Seattle, who was skiing the Mazama trails with her guide, Cecelia Walsh. “The tracks give you a freedom you just can’t believe.”
Many in the group say skiing is one of the most freeing things they’ve ever done. “They’re not tethered to anything or one,” said Rich Milsteadt, a local skier who, with his wife, Nancy McKinney, helped bring some members of Ski for Light’s Puget Sound chapter to the Methow for the first time this week.
Most skiers in the group have skied for at least 20 years, but they did not necessarily grow up skiing. Deng Kong, who will represent the U.S. Ski for Light organization in Norway next week, is originally from Laos.
And Larry Ngayan, who uses a sit-ski — a chair mounted on a pair of skate skis — and propels himself along the trail by double-poling, moved to the Seattle area from Hawaii 24 years ago. While he also swims and goes fishing, Ngayan said he particularly enjoys the fact that skiing enables him to climb mountains to take in the view.
Bob Miller had always loved the outdoors but hadn’t tried cross country skiing until he lost his vision more than two decades ago. “This group gave me a new outlook on life,” said Miller. He had only one disappointment, given the slushy conditions on the Mazama trails. “I was just so hoping I was going to be able to use my waxable skis,” he said.
Tim McCorkle did grow up around snow. He spent his childhood downhill skiing in Alaska, where cross country skiing was essentially a way to fill the time while waiting to go to the slopes. But, as he has lost his sight over the past 10 years, McCorkle has taken up Nordic skiing and finds that zipping along the trails provides the same sense of exhilaration as alpine skiing. McCorkle has applied his penchant for speed in Ski for Light races in Norway.
“Cross country skiing is the most fun I’ve had as a blind person. It keeps me going,” said McCorkle.
While McCorkle enjoys the teamwork from skiing with a guide, he also tries to ski as independently as possible. “It’s always a puzzle — that’s the other thing I like about it. By understanding the terrain, I lessen the job for the guide,” he said.
Fagan also started as a downhill skier and hadn’t tried cross country skiing until she became blind from a degenerative disease of the retina in her 50s. “Ski for Light has been a lifesaver,” she said. “’Cause what else can you do to get outside when you’re blind? I’m really eternally grateful to them.”
Ski for Light originated in Norway in the 1950s and was started in the United States in 1975. It is an all-volunteer organization with regional chapters in snowy areas throughout the country. The group started with visually impaired skiers but expanded to include people who are mobility impaired, said McKinney.
McKinney has been a Ski for Light guide for most of her life. She was just 18 — and completely new to skiing — when her aunt asked her to join a group of blind skiers near Snoqualmie Pass. McKinney has been with the group ever since, leading recreational skiers and racers in Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado, Alaska, Norway and Japan. She helped a skier train for the Paralympics and served as Ski for Light president for six years.
“For me, it’s really fun to watch the skier get comfortable with their body,” said McKinney. “You see them get the magical motion of transferring their weight.”
The key to guiding skiers is communication. Some skiers just want to know if the trail is turning, if the tracks disappear, or if they are approaching a hill, while others want the reassurance of more constant chatter, said McKinney.
Skiers need to know when they’re nearing the bottom of a hill so they can bring their body position back up. Herringboning up a hill — where there are no tracks — can be challenging because the skier has less of a sense of direction, said McKinney.
Most of the time the pairs ski side by side, generally using two sets of tracks. (Methow Trails groomed a second set of tracks on some of the trails in Mazama for the group.) Some skiers prefer to have the guide ski in front and click his or her poles so the skier can follow the sound, said McKinney.
Learning to guide is not difficult, said Milsteadt, who started guiding about six years ago, after participating in the two-day training offered at each Ski for Light annual event. Part of the training includes being blindfolded — not to simulate blindness, but to help guides appreciate how that affects their sense of balance and orientation, said McKinney.
Most of the skiers who came to the Methow with the Puget Sound chapter also do other athletic activities. Miller rides a tandem bicycle and plans to try beep baseball this summer. Sheri Richardson walks a lot near her home in Seattle, in part to exercise her energetic guide dog. Fagan works out at the gym, goes kayaking, and has tried hiking, but has trouble finding people who walk fast enough for her tastes. Still, they all say it is Nordic skiing that gives them a pronounced sense of independence.
Plus, Ski for Light is a particularly cohesive and compatible group, said Fagan. Walsh, Fagan’s guide, agreed. “Ski for Light is a really tolerant and fun-loving group. People don’t create obstacles for each other.”
“I couldn’t have this much fun if people weren’t here to lend their time, their sight and their patience,” said McCorkle.