BEMIDJI (AP) -- Crisp air, clean snow, a pair of skis and a friendly companion -- the combination spells the perfect winter day for ski enthusiasts like the family of Bruce and Buni Slinkman and Jesse and Tracy Story.
The four spent their winter vacation last month serving as guides during the Ski for Light international gathering in Green Bay, Wis. Ski for Light is a program that partners skiers who can see with blind and visually impaired people.
"The really neat thing with cross country skiing with visually impaired people is, because of the tracks, it gives them a great deal of physical independence. They can feel where they are going," Bruce said. "It's probably why the program is so popular."
The Ski for Light program originated in the 1950s in Norway. The idea was exported to the United States in 1975 and took root. The program now includes activities with special sleds for people who have limited mobility. Ski for Light encourages people with disabilities to become physically fit.
"They strive every year at this international event to introduce new skiers: 20 to 40 percent are probably new," Bruce said. "Some of the veteran skiers serve as role models and mentors and help in the training process. This year there were skiers or guides from Japan, Australia, England and Norway."
Each guide is matched with a skier according to personality, age and skill levels. Tracy and Jesse were the youngest guides and were assigned young skiers.
Jesse, 19, worked with Michelle Lauer, 24. "She had downhill skied before, so she had pretty good balance," he said. "But she had no idea (how to cross country ski) before she got there."
Tracy, 16, was assigned to Dan Wilcox, a young man about 30 years old. "He was just a little guy," she said. "He was really funny, fun to ski with. He had been skiing about 10 years."
"He could talk to anybody, very personable," said Jesse.
The family said skiers and guides develop close relationships during the week they are together and usually keep in touch with each other after the ski week is over.
"As sighted guides, you get as much out of it as the visually impaired people do," said Bruce. "You're sometimes humbled by how well the visually impaired function in our sighted society."
"My skier is a former para-Olympic skier," Buni said of Barbara Lewis. "She's skied a lot, skied all over the world."
Although most blind skiers adopt the classical Nordic style because the tracks help them orient themselves, Buni said Lewis wanted to learn to skate ski. During the race scheduled for the end of the week, Buni said her skier also performed well, surprising Buni with her age: 64.
The philosophy of Ski for Light is to replace the feeling of "we can't" with "we can."
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