Volunteer Olivia Sinaiko catches up with ORCA participant, Andrea Short on the Porcupine lift.
ORCA Staff Tristan Knutson-Lombardo uses tethers assist Sitka ORCA Bi-Skier, Misty Warren cruise down the Porcupine beginner area.
Eaglecrest Snowsports School Director, Jeffra Clough takes a moment to congratulate ORCA Participant, David Timothy on his achievements.
Story last updated at 12/12/2012 - 3:22 pm
Many stories of Southeast Alaska residents begin with a short term job or vacation. They moved up for the summer or for a year, to visit a friend or family member, fell in love with the scenery and stayed. Lindsay Hallvik's story begins much the same way, but the local attraction ran deeper than the geographic stimulation.
Hallvik, who is 26 and originally from Portland, Ore., came to Juneau for one year as a Jesuit Volunteer. She was assigned to work with the Outdoor Recreation and Community Access program of Southeast Alaska Independent Living. The ORCA program assists those who experience disabilities in outdoor recreational opportunities. In the winter, ORCA's most popular program is adaptive skiing and snowboarding.
Hallvik grew up skiing, and raced through high school. She was also interested in working with people experiencing disabilities. The program was a perfect fit for her, and after her one-year commitment ended in August of 2009, she stayed on to work in the newly created position as a school group ski and snowboard coordinator, a joint position working with both Eaglecrest Ski Area and ORCA.
"The partnership was developed to both strengthen the relationship between Eaglecrest and SAIL, as well as provide a new prospective on adaptive skiing and snowboarding in Southeast Alaska," she said.
The ORCA adaptive ski and snowboard program provides assistance to those who might be visually impaired, have limited mobility or a cognitive impairment, and gets them the appropriate gear and instructors to ski or snowboard.
The adaptive gear is currently stored in a small hut above the Eaglecrest lodge. In the hut are two different styles of sit skis: the bi-ski and the mono-ski. They are both essentially plastic chairs mounted onto one or two skis. The chair has the capability to tip forward, which allows it to be loaded onto a chair lift.
"The bi-ski is designed for individuals that either use a wheel chair or have limited mobility of their lower extremities," Hallvik said. "It has a bit more stability than the mono-ski. It can also be tethered from behind."
This means that an instructor can help guide the speed and direction of the participant and contraption down the slopes.
The mono-ski requires a bit more balance. Participants, if they are comfortable, may choose to begin in the mono-ski, or they may advance from the bi-ski.
"It's basically a chair mounted on one ski," Hallvik said. "It's for someone who has limited lower body abilities but has a strong upper body and can support themselves and keep their balance on one ski. It's much more versatile on different types of terrain. I would say that's the main advantage. It doesn't need as much support. It's higher off the ground; it's easier to independently load from the chairlift."
Outriggers, small pieces of poles with mini skis mounted to their bases, are used in conjunction with the sit-skis, fitting onto participants' arms. They can also be attached to the back of the bi-ski.
"They act as training wheels that prevent it from tipping it over," Hallvik said. "They could be for someone who has limited upper body strength and/or cognitive ability or as a stepping stone; you could use the two together, have fixed and build up to handheld."
Participants who can stand on their own also have the option of using outriggers for extra stability.
"Good candidates for this are people experiencing cerebral palsy, an amputation, a prosthetic, or just have use of one leg, or limited use of either," Hallvik said.
Another piece of gear the ORCA program employs is a snow slider, which is like a walker on skis. It can be used independently by the participant, but also has long arms on either side if the participant would like extra support from instructors.
There's also adaptive snowboard equipment, like the snow wing. It consists of a rigid hard plastic ring connected to a waist belt.
"It's designed to help the snowboarder initiate turns with the help of an instructor," Hallvik said.
There are also seat harnesses, for people prone to seizures, to prevent them from falling off the lift; tip connectors that keep ski tips in a more controlled position; spacer bars that maintain distance between the two skis and bamboo poles and hula hoops that can be employed in various ways to assist participants down the slopes.
"We also have a lot of toys, cones, different instructing tools to try and make it a fun, exciting and a pleasurable experience for everybody," Hallvik said.
Basically, each participant is outfitted on an as-needed basis.
"Some people experience multiple disabilities," Hallvik said. "They may just feel more comfortable with outriggers, or they have balance impairment. An inequality in the inner ear. There are endless applications for our equipment."
Interested participants can call the ORCA office and sign up for a two-hour lesson, in the morning or in the afternoon. The program provides transportation if it's needed, and instruction. There are three employees, Hallvik, Tristan Knutson-Lombardo and Kate Walters. The rest of the instructors are volunteers, trained specifically to assist with adaptive ski and snowboard gear, to understand participants' disabilities and how to most sensitively and effectively assist them in enjoying outdoor sports.
These volunteers are essential to the program. This season there was an information night for interested volunteers at the end of November. Each volunteer instructor must participate in a full day training session, offered on Dec. 15 and 16 and Jan. 13.
"During the training we (teach volunteers how to work) with people with disabilities as well as ski instructing techniques, then joining the two together," Hallvik said. "We (also) go over disability etiquette."
After the initial training, ORCA offers clinics every other week with a more specific focus.
Each volunteer instructor receives a free day lift ticket to Eaglecrest after three two-hour lessons.
Last season Hallvik estimated that ORCA had between 30 and 35 volunteer instructors, including Olivia Sinaiko and Kiel Renick.
"I think skiing is a beautiful way to exist, and I think sharing it is one of the best ways to help cultivate new joy in the world," Renick said.
Sinaiko began participating once she saw how much her partner, Renick, was enjoying it.
"An unexpected benefit of participating in ORCA was that I think it actually made me a better skier," she said. "As a beginner, it was easy to be too focused on the little aspects of technique. Once I started skiing with ORCA my job was to get us both safely down the mountain, and make it as fun as possible. When you're so focused on someone else and enhancing their experience, all the little stuff just falls into place."
Sinaiko said that for the participants she worked with, ORCA was the highlight of their weeks.
"The freedom to get outside and play, while mastering new skills and abilities gives them a sense of independence and joy that's hard to match. I can't recommend volunteering with ORCA highly enough," she said.
For many of the volunteers the sheer selfless enjoyment of helping others learn to ski and snowboard is a reward in itself. Another incentive is the camaraderie. The ORCA program fosters a positive spirit that's infectious.
"We have many volunteers that have built really strong relationships with the participants and become really good friends," Hallvik said. "Maybe they get to know one individual over the winter and look forward to see them grow over the season."
Hallvik said they also have monthly volunteer après ski evenings, where volunteers can get to know one another better. But she's hoping that more community members will get involved, both as volunteer instructors and as participants. She said that about 90 percent of participants are from Juneau, but that there are regular participants who come from Ketchikan and Sitka, and occasionally from Anchorage and Fairbanks. But, she said, she would like to see more people take advantage of the ORCA program.
Hallvik is actively involved in outreach efforts, working with the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health and Juneau Youth Services. She goes into schools and contacts organizations around town like the Juneau Veterans Affairs.
"Just getting the word out to the community," Hallvik said, is one of her goals. "We've started a 'Learn to adapt' day every January," she said, as January is national Learn to Ski and Snowboard month.
"People can learn about the equipment and the services and try it out and meet instructors, get involved as a volunteer," Hallvik said.
Also, as her job entails, Hallvik assists with coordination efforts between ORCA and Eaglecrest. ORCA volunteers are invited to Eaglecrest instructor clinics. ORCA welcomes Eaglecrest instructors to help participate in their program. Hallvik estimated that 11 Eaglecrest instructors are certified to teach adaptive lessons. They have received the training to instruct people experiencing cognitive disabilities, visual impairments and to use the adaptive ski and snowboard gear. Hallvik said ORCA is also trying to incorporate their participants into mainstream Eaglecrest group lessons.
Part of this collaboration effort includes the plans for the new Learning Center, which was approved by voters this fall.
"We hope to have included in the new Learning Center both an adaptive office, a storage area for the equipment, as well as a calm multipurpose room to offer individuals one-on-one learning opportunities," Hallvik said. "And an opportunity to do individual assessments inside, as well as training for volunteers. A calmer space for lunch. For a lot of participants, especially with cognitive disabilities, the Eaglecrest lodge on a busy Saturday can be an overwhelming experience."
Hallvik said that the staff at SAIL has a lot of resources available to offer Eaglecrest in their Learning Center planning stages.
"Ways to make it most accessible, practical for people with disabilities," she said. "Even down to specific measurements for doorways. There's endless places we could go with the new Learning Center, but we'd really just like to make it easy to use and accessible to all patrons of the mountain."
Hallvik hopes that the Learning Center may provide the much needed space for the program she hopes will continue to grow.
Hallvik enjoys her job because of its impact.
"The opportunity to share the thrill of snowboarding and skiing with a diverse group of people, help everyone access the mountain that maybe otherwise wouldn't or couldn't on their own," she said. "Why I do it is to help people realize their own abilities and have fun in the outdoors."
Sinaiko and Renick share this sediment.
"Share that smile," Renick said. "Get that little buzz of endorphins that comes with feeling a flow and simultaneously knowing the potential of life."
"It's a great way to have fun on the mountain while contributing to a really worthwhile cause," Sinaiko said. "I'm so grateful to ORCA for creating a point of access into Juneau's community of people experiencing disabilities - this community has so much to offer, and I'm happy to call my ski buddies friends, both on and off the mountain."
The ORCA season officially starts Jan. 5 and runs through April 13. For more information on the ORCA program, including booking lessons or how to get involved volunteering, contact Lindsay Hallvik at 907-586-0104 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.