Volunteers and community create accessible experiences during Ski for Light event
“Each single ski is 12ft long,” Nancy Benkoske explains to Brenda Henige. Benkoske is describing the competition before them. “There’s a skier in front, middle, and back and you have to coordinate your left, right, left,”
Henige is visually impaired. Benkoske is a sighted and a guide that came to Rhinelander from Oshkosh for the Ski for Light Event.
Benkoske is describing the giant ski race, one of the skiing events that took place at Northwood Golf Course.
The three skiers on a single set of large skis race against another team for the finish line.
There’re a few falls along the way, but people running alongside them get the skiers back up right and on their way.
Henige enjoyed this race from the sidelines, but Karen Burke was one of the first to race in the event.
“Well, at first it was terrifying because I fell. I didn't quite get the rhythm, but then I actually set the pace and it went a lot smoother,” said Burke.
Burke, like Henige and 100-plus other participants at the Ski for Light event, is visually-impaired. More than 240 people total attended the week long event.
Burke and Henige travelled from different parts of Michigan for the event, one that’s become a favorite of theirs.
“Even though we were all hoping to get a lot more skiing in. Ski for Light came up with all sorts of other alternative activities that made up for the time that we didn't get to ski,” said Burke. “It's been a lot of fun this week. Just being with all my friends.”
“It's been a fun week.” Henige added. “It just makes you remember why you've come before and why you want to return.”
Those alternate activities ranged from hiking through the woods to basketball and golfing at the Hodag Dome.
The golfing simulator was a highlight for Henige.
“I never had done that in my life. That was fun. I'm not going to be a pro or anything. But it was fun to learn how,” she said.
For Burke, the favorite was shooting hoops.
“The basketball net had a beeper on it so we could aim ourselves and aim the ball,” said Burke. “That was the coolest part being able to do that independently without somebody having to physically move me. I was in a spot, and I was able to shoot like five or six baskets in a row. It was awesome.”
This was the first time in years that the Ski for Light event has been held in Wisconsin.
The organization rotates locations and draws people in from all over the world.
“We had such a great support from the people of Rhinelander, but also just the state of Wisconsin,” said Tim McCorcle, the treasurer for Ski for Light. “Just a phenomenal number of guides and participants, skiers, from Wisconsin.”
The volunteer-run organization pairs sighted, able-bodied cross-country skiers with visually-impaired or mobility-impaired skiers for a week.
This is Benkoske’s second year being a guide.
“Everyone's been generous and helpful to give us hints on how to make life easy for all of us when we're hiking or skiing,” she said. “We get to be outside for a week in the winter and just have fun. So yeah, I think we're lifers.”
McCorcle knows the experiences during this event will stick with everyone, they have for him since his first time attending in 2012.
“As a blind person, I find that cross country skiing is probably the sport that gives me the most freedom to experience it as I did when I was sighted. Then the best part of it, I get to share that whole experience of being on snow with a sighted guide,” he said. “You're doing it with another person who has a shared enthusiasm for being outside and being on snow and feeling that magic together.”
He and other participants were amazed by the Rhinelander community supporting this event.
“People in Rhinelander, enjoy your town and your local ski trials when you can, but you have a wonderful town and I'm glad we were able to experience it and the generosity of the community. It was fun,” said McCorcle.
“They're just so welcoming and hospitable,” said Henige. “Wisconsinites know how to throw a good get together.”
A good get together, despite the not-so-good for skiing weather, made possible by a community and volunteers aiming to make the Northwoods more accessible for everyone.