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HISTORY OF SKI FOR LIGHT CANADA


Left to Right: Erling Stordahl (Norway), Ivar Reinsbakken (Castlegar) and Inge Morrisbakk (Norway), at the first Canadian Ski for Light Event at Nancy Greene Lake & Castlegar, BC,
February 1978.
Ski For Light (Canada) Inc. is an outreach program of Sons of Norway. The concept was the idea of a Norwegian named Erling Stordahl who had some sight as a child but became totally blind as an adult.

This is how the idea came to him. During an army exercise, near a place in Norway called Beitostølen, some military vehicles had passed through leaving deep, wide tracks in the snow. He jumped into one of the tracks to try to ski in it. Later, he said, "It was an experience I will never forget! I followed the tracks to the end, approximately 10 km. I could ski without fear of colliding with anything. I felt a physical and mental relief. I felt like I had regained part of my eyesight. I could stop whenever I liked to enjoy the wonderful surroundings. I felt like a part of nature. My immediate reaction was that I must share this wonderful experience with my visually impaired friends."

In 1964, using this concept, Erling Stordahl began Ridderrennet (the Knight's race) in Norway. The concept was expanded by using two sets of ski tracks side by side so that a guide could ski with a blind skier to shout commands and let the skier know what was coming up, e.g. turns or hills.

The program began in the USA in 1975 and, at that time, was called Ski For Light USA. Erling Stordahl was in attendance during the formation of both the USA and Canadian programs. In 1975, Annar Jacobsen from Vancouver, BC, took an interest in beginning such a program in Canada. By January of 1976, he and his wife, Synnøve, had started a ski club for the blind in the Vancouver area. In the summer of 1977, he contacted Nordic Lodge No. 76 in Castlegar, BC to see if they would take on the task of hosting the first SKI FOR LIGHT in Canada. Annar says, "They took up the challenge and did a great job." The first Canadian Ski For Light event was held in February, 1978, at Nancy Greene Lake, a 20-minute drive from Castlegar. Erling Stordahl and his guide, Inge Morisbak, had travelled from Norway to be there. It was a weekend event and, at that time, all participants were billeted in private homes.

Later that year (November, 1978), the inaugural meeting of Ski For Light Canada was held in Edmonton, Alberta. Einar Berg, at that time the Secretary of the US Ski For Light, attended that meeting and was influential in the formation of the Canadian program. Although the Canadian Ski for Light actually began in 1978, the official incorporation took place in Edmonton on February 4, 1981. Kaare Askildt was elected President and Annar became the Vice-President.

In 1978, before Ski for Light Canada was officially formed, the first Canadian Ski for Light event was held in Castlegar, BC.  Although credit for the event must go to many people, Ivar Reinsbakken was a key man.  He began as Chairman but dropped back to Co-Chairman because of a planned trip to Norway.  He was also in charge of the track and, on his return from Norway, had only six days to "get it together".  At that point, no standards had been set in Canada and, when Erling Stordahl told him on the day before the race that the trail was "too hilly and crooked", Ivar did the impossible and created a new route and had the double track set the night before the race.

Ski for Light was always a pet project of Ivar's.  He worked diligently and quietly behind the scenes for many years, never wanting any glory.  Ivar died of a heart attack on March 21, 1995, at the age of 77. The following year, Curt Jensen, who was Ski for Light President at that time, suggested that the relay race should be named in honour of him.  "Ivar Reinsbakken" relay race medals were struck in 1996 and the first one was presented to his wife, Gunvor, by Curt Jensen.
Many changes have taken place since that time. Ski For Light Canada now has a six-day event which incorporates lots of skiing, fun skiing, training sessions, social evenings (e.g. relay races, waxing clinics, guiding clinics, talent night, entertainment night) and culminates with the race itself on the Saturday followed by the awards banquet and dance that evening. Local and other dignitaries are invited to the banquet. Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals are presented to the race winners in various categories. The basic categories for the visually impaired are B1 (no vision), B2 (0 - 5% vision), and B3 (5 - 10% vision). There are other categories that depend on the degree of disability -- and there are shorter and longer races, male and female categories, and different age categories. Beginning in 1997, four gold "Relay Race" medals are presented to the winning team in the relay race. Teams usually consist of a four-member team from different areas, e.g. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the United States, and Norway. Team members may be "borrowed" to make up the right number and each team must contain at least one B1 person. In addition to the medals, awards or trophies are presented to the most improved skier and to the winner of the "Guesstimation" (the person who comes closest to guessing their actual time on race day).
The event is held in January or February of each year. The site is chosen by the Ski for Light Board and all arrangements are made by them in co-operation with a Sons of Norway Lodge and/or local ski club. We endeavour to hold it at a different site each year in order to make more people aware of this unique program.

The average attendance is 50 skiers and 50 guides, as well as the Ski For Light Board and others who assist with the event. There can be a few less or a lot more, depending on various factors such as where the event is held. Skiers and guides are encouraged to join and participate in the program throughout the year, and especially during ski season, with the main focus being on the annual event. Although participation is growing immensely, Some of the faces at that first Canadian Ski For Light in 1978 are still seen at events today.

Although our Canadian program is aimed at both the visually impaired and physically disabled, our primary focus had been on the visually impaired. More recently, we have also included more physically disabled people such as those who need to use sitskis. A sitski is basically a type of stool or chair that is clamped to a pair of skis. The person is usually strapped in by some means and they use appropriate ski poles to manoeuvre. Sitskis come in various shapes and styles, depending on the disability of the person using them.

Ski For Light Canada was originally formed by a small group of Sons of Norway members and other interested people representing various ski clubs for visually impaired people. It should be pointed out that (with the exception of minimum expenses) Board members, including the Secretary and Treasurer, receive no remuneration for their services. Board members make every effort to share rooms and otherwise keep expenses to a minimum so that donations received are used for the good of the participants. The computer, laser printer, and other equipment used to produce manuals, Ski for Light newsletters, forms, etc. are all personally owned and not paid for by the organization. The organization receives no Federal or Provincial assistance and is entirely dependent on memberships and donations for its funding.

As there are presently no Sons of Norway lodges east of Saskatchewan, our efforts are concentrated on the three western provinces -- British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, but we are getting more participants each year from other areas as well. These areas include our more eastern provinces such as Ontario, the USA from California to New York, and we are now getting more people from Norway. In 1996 we had only one participant from Norway but in 1997 we had nine from Norway, including Diane Hanisch, the Secretary General of Ridderrennet's Venner in Norway.

Previously, a different Ski for Light pin was provided each year for the participants at the events. Ski For Light trade dollars were minted for six of the events: Saskatoon, SK - 1986; Prince George, BC - 1987; Vernon, BC - 1988; Castlegar, BC. - 1989; North Battleford, SK - 1990; and Calgary, AB - 1991. They are now becoming collectors' items but some are still available through members of the Ski for Light Board.

Erling Stordahl and his wife, Anna, also developed the Beitostølen Health Sports Centre near the site where his idea had first come to him. Erling died in Norway on October 30, 1994, at the age of seventy-one. He was given a state funeral in honour of his renowned accomplishments for the visually impaired and disabled.