Annual RAM Center event a big hit with visually impaired skiers

Guide Rebecca Jurczak (right) helps Merisa Muscemic, who is visually impaired, cross-country ski.

Feb. 5, 2015

Hope Springstead said she was excited to get back on cross-country skis again.

"I tried it when I was 9," the 27-year-old Wyandotte resident said. "I hated it. I cried the whole time."

This year, however, Springstead was champing at the bit, encouraged to try skiing again by a friend who works with her as a runner.

Hope Springstead (foreground) leads the way cross-country skiing as guide Mary Joe Clark follows."I love being outdoors," she said as she maneuvered her skis into the tracks set in a small flat field near the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum at the Department of Natural Resources' Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center, in Roscommon. "I'm glad my parents aren't here – they're worrywarts."

Her parents had nothing to fear; Springstead soon mastered the technique of pushing with her poles and shuffling her feet around the oval course. After two laps, she was ready to tackle the more advanced 1.8-mile course through the woods elsewhere on the property.

Her biggest challenge was keeping her skis in the tracks. Springstead is blind.

Springstead was one of 26 visually impaired skiers at the RAM Center for a recent Michigan Ski for Light event. The annual event pairs visually impaired – and some mobility-impaired – skiers with sighted guides to help them negotiate the course.

The Michigan Ski for Light (www.msfl.org) weekend event has been in existence since the late 1970s and has been headquartered at the RAM Center since 1980.

"We host the events and groom the trails," said Mark Buchinger, manager of the RAM and North Higgins Lake State Park. "We use a special track setter that sets tracks, side by side, so the blind skiers have guides who ski next to them."

Park ranger with unique double track-setter used to groom trails for Michigan Ski for Light event.The unique track setter was built after one of the volunteers, Bill Keith, a retired teacher, challenged one his fellow students to create the device. His student enlisted the aid of the metal shop teacher at a vocational technical school in Cadillac and the device was built by the shop class and donated to the RAM Center.

The double-track setter has made a lot of difference in the program, said Keith, who has been a volunteer with Ski for Light for 15 years.

The Michigan Ski for Light program began at the now-defunct Lansing Ski Club, said John Root, a retired rehabilitation counselor who has volunteered for the event since it began.

Wendy Calr, who is mobility impaired, cross-country skis seated with Cody Elzinga helping push her."We couldn't depend on the weather in Lansing," said Root, 68. "The RAM seemed perfect."

According to Buchinger, it has been.

"We set up fire rings and firewood at a couple of off-site locations for the event," Buchinger said. "The group can meet here, they can eat here, and they can ski right from here – it's right at our doorstep.

"Bringing partners in from the community – like the Roscommon Lions Club and Cross Country Ski Headquarters (a local business) – makes this happen."

This year, Michigan Ski for Light hosted six newcomers to the program, ranging from first-timers to veteran skiers.

Debbie Barrowcliff, a 52-year-old service coordinator with a home health care company from Livonia, was one of the newbies. Barrowcliff, who lives with retinitis pigmentosa, had been an active outdoor recreationalist whose vision gradually faded. She gave up her driver's license 12 years ago and in May got her first leader dog. She found out about the Ski for Light program at the Wayne County Library for the Blind.

"I was really happy about it," said Barrowcliff, who was accompanied on the ski course by her husband Darren. "I'm finding out more and more that people with challenges don't have the opportunities that sighted people have."

Rudolph Winfrey cross-country skis with Michigan Ski for Light President Sarah Bradley.Rudy Winfrey, a visually impaired dispatcher from Chicago, came up with his son to participate in the Michigan event for the first time. He's a veteran cross-country skier who has traveled to Norway – where Ski for Light was first conceived – 10 times to participate in the international event.

"It's a tremendous workout," said Winfrey, who said he's a senior citizen. "It releases a lot of tension."

Michigan Ski for Light is loosely associated with the international organization. Cheryl Wade, a 59-year-old counselor and part-time writer, attended an international event at Traverse City in 1982 and has been coming to the RAM event almost every year since.

"It's just very freeing," Wade said. "I live in an urban environment – there's no place to play in the snow. But the friendships are two-thirds of it. I brought a new person this year and she's already part of the family."

The event is much more than skiing, said Sarah Bradley, president of Michigan Ski for Light. The 36-year-old recreational therapist, who has been volunteering since she was 13, said the group holds a talent show and dance on Saturday night, and ski race and poker run on Sunday.

Cross-country skiers and their gear in front of Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center building."It's a social, recreational, therapeutic event," she said. "Our guides range from people who got together 37 years ago when it first started to college students – many through Central Michigan's recreational program. The best thing about Ski for Light is you become advocates for people with disabilities."

The Roscommon Lions Club pitches in by transporting skiers to the courses and keeping events on track.

"It's something we look forward to every year," said club president Roger Freed.

Ski for Light isn't the only organization working with people with disabilities to use the RAM Center for events. Peckham Vocational Industries – a nonprofit corporation that develops employment opportunities to those who have impediments to joining the work force – holds its annual four-day employee picnic at the RAM.

"They've done this for a lot of years," Buchinger said. "There's also a group of young people with closed-head injuries who use this facility. The event, Discover! Summer Camp, is organized by Special Tree Rehabilitation Services, LTD."

Use of the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center is limited to government agencies, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and groups of persons with disabilities, community service organizations and corporations with a natural resources or environmental focus.

The center can lodge up to 135 people, seat 165 at its dining hall, and offers rooms that can accommodate a meeting of up to 275 people.

Situated in a forest setting on the northern shore of Higgins Lake, the conference center's location provides excellent recreation opportunities and outdoor education possibilities.

For more information on the DNR's Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center, visit www.michigan.gov/ramcenter.