Craftsbury Skiing and Snowshoeing 2013
The New England Regional Ski For Light (NERSFL) Craftsbury trip which took place in Craftsbury Common Vermont was my first experience as a guide with NERSFL. It was a lot of fun, and I definitely want to do it again.
For anyone, visually-impaired or sighted, who is new to NERSFL, the Craftsbury trip is ideal.
Craftsbury has many advantages for skiing, snow shoeing and lodging. (Prior to this trip, I had skied there many times and stayed overnight a couple of times.) It is the largest cross-country ski area in Vermont, if not all of New England, and yet one of the least crowded. They have snow when no one else does (I'm looking at you, 2012 ski season), and, in a good ski season (like this year), the superb snow and immaculate grooming make it a lot easier and safer for snow shoeing, skiing and guiding. The dormitory is right on the ski trails, so different groups can come and go on their own schedule. The common room could easily accommodate this year's large turnout (about 40 of us). If I were looking for something to whine about, it's that the dining hall is in a separate building, so you have to walk outdoors for maybe 5 minutes. The food is well worth the walk. And they are perfectly happy to accommodate special dietary needs, with advance notice. The people who work at Craftsbury are consistently helpful and great to deal with.
The other big factor in my recommending this trip is the NERSFL group itself. Blind and sighted people work together in organizing the trip, training new ski & snow shoe guides.
A lot of people have been with the group for many years, but, as a first-timer, I felt really welcome. What I've been telling my friends about the trip is that it's like any ski trip, but the people are a lot friendlier.
The meals and evenings were animated by lively (loud) conversation(s). If you have ever attended an extended family gathering of Jewish or Italian folks, it's kind of like that. And people look out for each other. On the second day, I switched from skiing to snowshoeing, and someone who saw me getting ready to go out insisted on lending me her gaiters. On the last day, as I was starting to drive home (with my visually-impaired passengers), and somehow chose to drive into a ski trail, rather than the driveway, a bunch of folks (blind and sighted participants and one of the Craftsbury staff) helped me get my car out of the snowbank in short order.
I had very little contact with blind people before this trip. I knew a few things, like offering my arm as a guide when walking. And, many many years ago, I saw the movie "Butterflies are Free," and, although I couldn't tell you anything about what the movie was about or who was in it, the one thing I can remember is that the sighted person said "steps," and the blind guy asked "up or down?" On this trip, even before I got to Craftsbury, I learned from my blind passengers, at our roadside stops, to say whether a door opens from the left or the right.
For anyone who is considering becoming a ski or snow shoe guide, I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys skiing or snow shoeing and who likes people. It is not particularly difficult, but it does require a couple of hours of training. (The national Ski For Light organization has an excellent training manual, and the NERSFL folks, sighted and visually-impaired alike, have a lot of beneficial experience to share, and, even after the well-organized training, we went out in groups, which was a great way to gradually give us more responsibility. You do have to be an advanced skier to guide visually impaired skiers. The primary skills you need are more mental than physical: communication and perception.
The communication skills, which you can learn in an hour of training, are to speak consistently, clearly, accurately, and concisely. For example, one of the first things you are taught is to use standard language for turning left vs. stepping sideways to the left. Also, there is specific language for an emergency stop vs. just wait a second here while I check the map. And, of course, you ask the blind skier what's most important to them.
The perception skills, which I found myself learning gradually while serving as a guide skier, are both to observe the skier (so that you can detect and correct when s/he is going off course) and to observe the characteristics of the trail: straight or curved, flat or up or down, if on a hill how steep, how reliable are the tracks, are there bumps or obstacles or other "trail anomalies", trail-edge characteristics (e.g., tree, ditch). This may sound overwhelming, but, I should say, the great majority of the time, the trail characteristics were: flat or gentle hills, straight or gentle curves, perfect tracks, pristine snow, no obstacles, no one else on the trail. (This is typical of Craftsbury in mid-winter; your trail characteristics may vary.)
In snowshoeing, I was less concerned about steep hills (I'd still describe them, of course, but it wasn't as though the snowshoers were in danger of accelerating out of control) and more concerned with trail-edge characteristics (because the "trail" was really just two snowshoe-widths of packed-down snow). The most common trail-edge characteristics were trees, although, even there, I made a distinction for evergreen trees, which, for some reason, I chose to describe as "soft trees."
It occurs to me that, as a sighted person, well not to gloat about it, but I am constantly absorbing a tremendous amount of visual information, and, without thinking about it, organizing it. As a guide, my job is to prioritize, condense, and verbalize that information, preferably in somewhat fewer than 1000 words. To some extent, this applies to guiding even when away from the skiing environment. For example, awareness of "trail-edge characteristics" would have been useful in guiding visually-impaired participants through a crowded retail store landscape on the way to Craftsbury.
I always enjoy skiing at Craftsbury, and on this trip I enjoyed learning to be a ski and snow shoe guide and, come to think of it, this was also my first time snowshoeing at Craftsbury - but I also really enjoyed the evenings. Some people went to the sauna or to watch the NFL playoffs in the TV room, but most people hung out in the common room. I learned and forgot dozens of names. I did pretty well at the auction and raffle on Saturday night, but skipped Sunday's Scrabble and card games so I could get a good night's sleep before driving home.
All in all, a memorable and rewarding experience.
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