Craftsbury Skiing and Snowshoeing Trip
January 11-14, 2019 

Trip Report
By Martha Steele

It had been about twenty years since I last cross-country skied, and then, as a sighted person. Today, I see only shadows and shapes, assuming sufficient contrast. I was intrigued by the possibility of skiing again, so I signed up for the January 2019 NERSFL ski weekend at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center nestled in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. By early Saturday morning, all participants and guides (approximately 40 in total) had arrived from as near as Craftsbury itself to as far away as Maryland. Craftsbury had a foot of fresh, powdery snow, clear skies and temperatures were forecast to be mostly below zero or in the single digits during the three day event. We were about to experience ideal conditions.

Saturday morning straight from breakfast everyone gathered to go over weather conditions, stress the importance of dressing in layers during cold weather exercise, and learn of the guide pairings for the day. These pairings included several participants who were snowshoeing through the woods and fields of the property. It was time for me to get outside and rediscover the sport of cross-country skiing. Because of my hearing impairment, I brought radios and headsets with microphones for communication between me and my guide. We got the radios set up, found pockets for the radios in our jackets, put our headsets on, tested the system to ensure I was hearing the guide directly through my headset to my cochlear implants, and headed out. That first morning was one of trying to get my ski legs back under me. We stayed on the easier trails, with me learning the commands used by the guides and my guide learning what my skill level was. The commands came clearly through my headset, enabling me to fully concentrate on my skiing. Guides tend to use relatively few commands and thus, the learning curve for commands was a gentle one. For instance, common commands include “track left,“ “follow left track,” or “tips right.” Most important perhaps is the clarity of the guide’s description of what lies ahead as you ski along.

But best of all were the moments of silence from the guide. That meant that there was nothing that I needed to worry about if I just continued skiing as I was skiing, even if there was gentle rolling terrain, perhaps slightly bending one way then the other. I was moving quickly but confidently, independent of my cane, guide dog, or someone’s arm, even if for just a few moments of absolute bliss. The deep tracks keep your skis on a safe course and the gentle terrain enabled you to let loose, alone, independent, and free. As I skied that first morning, I was just so overjoyed by the wintry outdoors, the physical exertion, and the grace that I felt returning to my movements. I focused on what I was feeling through the skis, taking shorter and quicker strides on gradually steepening uphills, using my poles to speed up on gentle downhills, and occasionally pushing off with one ski and double poling on level ground. I was just so happy.

None of this can happen, however, without our guides. They carry the responsibility of keeping us safe while we carry the responsibility of following their commands as closely as we can. In addition, it is important that we help our guides by asking for more detail on what is coming up if we need that detail or working together to better describe the action they want us to take. The guides were terrific, cheerful and committed. It may take a bit of courage for someone who cannot see to take to skis but it also takes courage for a sighted person to take on the guide responsibilities. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the entire group, those blind or visually impaired as well as those sighted, were a highly motivated and positive lot, determined to brush aside any perceptions of physical limitations in favor of embracing the challenge of this wonderful sport. I had rediscovered something that I had loved to do as a sighted person. I had found anew technical aspects of skiing. I had learned that I did not need to see to love gliding along on cold, crisp snow, feeling as graceful as I have felt in a very, very long time.

There were, of course, other aspects of the trip that were memorable, including the fabulous food, Saturday evening was a fun silent auction.  The common room was a popular gathering place in late afternoons and evenings and full of conversation and laughter. Sunday evening was one for games, including the ever popular scrabble or card games. Lew, one of the guides, produced a tactile map of the ski trails that he had made and we all ran our fingers along the trails that we had been traversing throughout the weekend. We had a chance to meet nearly everyone there, share stories and life experiences.

But this was at its core a weekend to savor our athletic progress as cross-country skiers and to open eyes of other sighted skiers at just how well we could navigate the trails. It was a weekend to savor the outdoors, to enjoy our zest for life, to be grateful for our opportunities made possible by our volunteer guides and our achievements as we continue to expand our horizons even if our visual world diminishes or disappears. A huge thank you goes to all the hard work of NERSFL officers and volunteers that helped make this weekend and other year-round events possible.

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