By Gretchen Wehmhoff

With the latest dump of snow, winter really showed up. People had to step out of their comfort zones – I mean the comfort zone of toasty homes and cable television. There was so much snow that it was all hands on deck, or snow shovel.

My siblings and I grew up with a 40’ x 60’ ice rink in our backyard. Keeping it shoveled was just part of the joy. We learned to keep the blade at an angle as we skated with the shovel.We set boundaries with the neighborhood kids. If they wanted to skate, they had to shovel the rink at least once. Dad made sure we had plenty of shovels and even built a small fire pit next to the rink for warming. I’m sure by today’s standards the fire pit would be considered dangerous. I think it ensured you learned to stop.

Speaking of learning to stop…

My first adventure on skis happened at a Girl Scout winter event at Elmendorf’s (now JBER)  Hillberg in the late 60s. I was 12. Most of my friends knew how to ski, so they rushed to the hill while I waited in line for rental equipment. The attendants were kind, showed me how to take the skis on and off, how to hold my poles and sent me on my way. I didn’t think to ask any questions.

The skiers grabbed a long heavy rope that pulled them to the top of the hill. Easy. I could grab a rope. I worked my way over to the line, and with some instruction, I grabbed on. Working to keep my skis straight and remembering the instructions to lean back, I started to move forward and up. Friends called out to me on the way down. I was excited to join them. In my moment of peace I noticed the rope was doing something peculiar – it was dragging on the hill above me. In fact, it was cutting into the snow and settling in. Panicky youth brain set it. I was sure my hands would be caught in the rope snow grip. Not sure what to do, I let go of the rope. I may have saved my hands, but I caused a knock-down pile-up of about ten skiers behind me. Everyone fell into each other, a few skied over us. I crawled away from the chaos and watched as the ski patrol jumped in to line all the girls up and get them back on the rope. I felt meek when I realized that had I held on, the rope would have lifted up and all would be good.

A better, uneventful trip up the rope tow took me to the top of the hill. I was beginning to think that I should have asked more questions at the rental shop, like, how do I get down the hill? 

“Come on, Gretchen!”

My friends whizzed by, laughing, stocking caps flying. How hard could it be?

I used my poles to move to the edge then let gravity do the rest and headed straight down. I mean straight down. I didn’t know about edges, or that skis were similar to skates. I didn’t know about turning or snowplowing… I just went down in a straight line. The further I went, the faster my hair blew. I held my legs together for fear they would split and go separate directions. 

“Turn, Gretchen, turn!”

It didn’t take long to notice there was a forest at the end of the run. I hadn’t thought about stopping, I had been focused on a rather exhilarating sense of speed. Now what common sense I had brought with me told me to stop, quickly, as the trees were getting closer. So, I fell. Actually, it was more of a crash, tumble and body plant ten feet from the nearest tree. I lay looking up at my breath puffing air into the sky, checking my limbs. 

Maybe snowshoe softball would be less dangerous. I returned my skis and headed over to the softball game. The adult in charge fitted me with snowshoes, the kind you see on people’s walls with long boards in the back. This should be easier. I knew how to play softball and I was pretty good at bat.

When it was my turn, I waddled my way to the plate. Positioning my hands in the familiar way, I waited for the pitch. It came and it was perfect. Powering the bat forward, I heard the loud smack as I sent the ball flying into the air. I didn’t get to see where it went. I had forgotten I had snowshoes on and couldn’t move. I also forgot to drop the bat which continued its arc around my body hitting me in the back of my head. I was down, and once again looking at the sky. This time a group of worried adults huddled over me. They decided that perhaps I’d had enough fun and should go rest in the warm up tent. I didn’t argue at all.

I did play snowshoe softball once more during Fur Rendezvous in the ‘80s.  There was a write up in the paper. According to he reporter I had popped the orange ball high into the air and headed to first base. The first base player struggled to retrieve the ball an outfielder had thrown in. She didn’t need to hurry. I had fallen, struggled back up, fell again and eventually crawled through the snow to the base. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make it, but it was a touch and go match to see who could keep moving in the right direction. Again, I found myself looking up at the sky. Maybe space travel would be easier.