I HAVE been at the top of a ski hill before, but only during the time of year when one can walk on green grass and see leaves on the trees instead of snow.
So how did I find myself about a four-hour drive from Winnipeg at the top of a run at Asessippi, Manitoba's premier ski area, with a rented pair of Rossignol skis under my rented boots while standing on snow?
Well, I suppose you can blame my daughter.
You see, my now 14-year-old daughter Mary, who I've written about numerous times during her life, faces several challenges daily including having to use a wheelchair continuously to get around. Two of the greatest loves she has are riding a therapeutic horse, thanks to Manitoba Riding for the Disabled, and bowling, thanks to the special devices available at Academy Lanes.
But after a recent weekend at the invitation of the Asessippi Ski Area and Resort, I now know she has a new love -- downhill skiing.
But how does a kid who uses a wheelchair all the time go downhill skiing? Well she can at Asessippi because it turns out the ski resort has an adaptive ski program and what's known as a sit ski or bi-unique ski. This device, which looks like a sled but has a pair of skis underneath, has the ability to take people who can only dream of downhill skiing out of their chairs and onto the slopes.
And hey, if it could also allow her father to see if he could master the slopes in time for the next winter Olympics, good on me.
Dave Zerr is one of eight instructors and volunteers at Asessippi who have received training from the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing and he was the one who made Mary's day.
After lifting Mary into the chair, strapping her in and putting a helmet on her head, Zerr activated a hydraulic pump to lift the sled part of the device farther up from the skis. By doing this the sled was able to sit on the seat of the quad chairlift while the skis went underneath and Zerr was able to accompany Mary to the top of the slopes.
Once at the top of the lift, Zerr dropped the sled back onto the skis and took the two handles at the back and began skiing down the hill with Mary wiggling around excitedly. Other people using the sit ski, depending on their abilities, could use the sled themselves with the instructor skiing further back, holding two tow ropes just in case the user started to get into trouble.
There is currently one sit ski at the resort; they are working with possible sponsors to get at least another one. If you're hoping to use it you should book ahead for a two-hour session.
One look at Mary's face as she came zipping around a corner, laughing aloud, her hands folded together at the side of her face, showed she was having a level of fun that she probably had never experienced in her life.
Take a look at the video on the Free Press website to get a glimpse of her fun.
Mind you, my vantage point on Mary's fun was while I was standing at the top of a run. Not one of the difficult black diamond runs, but a run so terrifying, so blood curdling, so heart stopping that they couldn't call it a precious gem, but could only name it something more frightening: the bunny hill.
But I wasn't unarmed at the top of this rodent of a hill. I was equipped with the resort's ample rental equipment and had been given a few minutes of instruction at the bottom as part of an hour of instruction available hourly at the complex. I was ready to slide. They'd quickly showed me how wide the skis were, how the edge of the ski was my best friend and how to use my newly-found friend to slow down while coming down the hill and how to stop.
I also quickly learned that what I would call snowplowing to bring myself to a stop, thanks to my years of cross-country skiing, is now more commonly known as a pizza, because when you spread your legs wide and point the tips of the skis towards each other it looks like a big pizza slice.
A few minutes of me trying out my moves and I was ready to hold onto a rope lift and be pulled up to... about halfway up the bunny hill. From here I fairly easily slid back and forth across the slope until I reached the bottom. Then it was rope lift, halfway up, and down again. I felt ready to go to the top of that hill.
I have to say that the first thing I learned after pushing off was a valuable lesson as well: how to get oneself back on one's feet after falling. But I kept at it and after a few tries I was ready to go up a chairlift and try a beginner's run.
The one I tried out was called Easy Street. I got to the beginning of this after riding up on the quad chairlift affectionately named Squirrel Chair. My wife, Gail, stumbled and fell -- her only time that day -- getting off the chair while I (a good omen?) kept on my feet and glided away from the chair.
Well, I did fall on the way down. And I did take it very slow. But I got down and I was ready right away to do it again, which I did.
I'd like to say I tried the resort's black diamond runs. I'd like to say I actually saw them or at least saw them close up. Alas, I'm not quite ready for those slopes -- actually I'm a long way from tackling those slopes. But that's the beauty of this resort. With 25 runs, three chairlifts and elevations of 552 metres (1,810 feet), there are slopes for all skill levels.
It's also the only resort in Manitoba to be certified to hold international slalom racing competitions.
And the kids and teens -- even my eldest daughter Sarah -- love it. I could see them shredding down the slopes, some with skis, others on snowboards, like they'd been born with them on. All were having fun and many -- because of the different runs -- were able to go on ones that were suited to their skill levels while older teens -- or adults -- went on runs matching their skill levels right up to the most difficult runs.
The resort is full-service. For lunch or dinner there's a Pizza Hut Express and a KFC as well as two counters featuring different foods including burgers, sandwiches and other lunch specials. There's plenty of seating and there's also a licensed bar at the end of the complex which, on the outside, looks like a quaint row of several chalet-type buildings put together. There's a place for souvenirs or ski clothing if you forgot something. And if you want to spend more money, you can even enquire about purchasing a lot or a fully-constructed cottage at the adjoining cottage area.
For those who don't want to ski -- or want to do something fun at the end of the ski day -- you can go downhill snow tubing.
From my vantage point on the aforementioned bunny hill, I could hear the screams and laughter coming from two slopes over as people in brightly-coloured single tubes hurtled down one of three separate runs. What I didn't understand was the several metres of straw scattered across the bottom of the run.
Trust me, when your tube hits that straw you don't have to go looking for a brain to realize what it's there for -- it's your brakes to stop you.
Tubing is a hoot. Especially when you get a few people together to hold onto the handles of the tubes to enable two, three or four people to slide down the run together. There's no skill involved. Once you start down lying on your back in a tube there's nothing to do but enjoy the ride. Then you run with your tube back to the rope lift where an attendant connects a hook to your tube and you ride back up before you walk into position to zoom down again.
At the end of the weekend, yes, I did blame my daughter -- I blamed her for helping her family have a blast skiing. And we know without a doubt that our entire family -- especially Mary -- will be back on those runs one of these days real soon.
After all, I've still got a bunny hill to master.
If you want to have as much fun as Kevin Rollason had, the Winnipeg Free Press is offering a sweet Saturday deal for skiers and snowboarders from Feb. 4 to March 10.
For $129 plus taxes you'll get a round-trip by Beaver Bus Lines to Asessippi, coffee and a morning Free Press to read on your way, ski or snowboard rental, lift tickets, lunch and dinner on the ride home.
You'll get a $5 discount if you have your own skis and, for an extra $10, you'll be given ski lessons.
Just call Christa Richard at 697-7064 or firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
How to get there:
Take the Trans-Canada Highway west of Winnipeg and then head north on the Yellowhead Highway just west of Portage la Prairie. That highway will take you straight to Russell where you follow the signs to Asessippi about 10 minutes away on Hwy. 83.
Tourist tip: If you have a few minutes and it is still daylight, take a five-minute detour to Inglis, home of the stretch of intact grain elevators that are now listed as a national historic site. It's about 370 km from Winnipeg.
Where to stay?
There are five hotels in the area and 22 bed and breakfasts and guest houses, but both the Russell Inn, the largest in the area and the one with an indoor pool, hot tub and water slide, and the Jolly Lodger Motel offer ski-and-stay specials. Check them out at russellinn.com and jollylodger.com
What to do:
A full-day lift ticket is $44 for adults, $37.40 for juniors 13 to 17 and $33.70 for children 12 and under (preschool kids are free). Equipment rentals run $28.90 for adults and juniors for skis, boots and poles, while preschoolers are $26. Snowboards, including the board and boots, are $32.80 a full day for everyone.
Tubing is a $10.50 add-on to your lift ticket or there are tubing-only rates of $21 for adults, $15.80 for juniors and $14.20 for children (preschoolers are free).
To use the adaptive sit ski, you have to buy a lift ticket and then pay $50 for rental and two hours of instruction.
Group lessons cost $25 per person while private lessons are $49.
There is also a variety of three-day and one-day packages. Check it out on Asessippi's website at www.asessippi.com or call (204) 564-2000.
Fast hint: If you're willing to make last-minute plans, the ski area offers its last 99-cent sample Sunday to try out skiing or snowboarding on Jan. 22 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For less than a dollar you'll get to use the bunny hill lift, full rentals including helmet, and instructions on site. Go to www.asessippi.com to see what age restrictions may apply.
Thanks to the resort's pumping system and snow-making equipment, you're guaranteed snow. River water is turned into snow on the hill even when there is no snow on the nearby farmers' fields.