Come snow or sunshine, on Saturdays during ski season, chances are you’ll find Gord Poulton out on the Mission Ridge ski slopes.
“This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my lifetime,” says Poulton, smiling and squinting while sun rays bounce off the snow-covered ski hills.
The 61-year-old is the founder and program director of the Adaptive Alpine Ski Program, which allows people with cognitive and physical impairments the ability to hit the slopes.
Poulton is hard to miss, but not because of his bright red ski jacket. With an ever-present smile he’s often seen pushing what looks to be a chair on skis – also known as a sit-ski.
The introductory sit-ski allows people with a spinal cord injury -- or disease such as multiple sclerosis or spina bifida – the ability to navigate a ski hill with the help of two small ski poles, called outriggers.
Each device, complete with poles, costs anywhere between $5000 and $7500.
With time, and granted the para-athlete has use of their arms, they can independently maneuver the slopes.
“Honestly, I’m only here to give them the tools they need to get going on their own, or enjoy this with someone else,” he says, patting both handles mounted to the back of the sit-ski’s metal frame.
He estimated he travels up and down the hills, aiding para-skiers, nearly 15 times or more every Saturday.
Since 1987, he’s been involved at Mission Ridge. Although he’s never skied competitively, he coached several downhill race teams, including the nationally recognized Nancy Green Ski Program.
Skiiing is something Poulton says has always been his passion. He spent his childhood building snow hills at the family farm in Quill Lake, and remembers his first “real ski trip” to Wakaw – 90 kms northeast of Saskatoon -- when he was 12.
Until 2002 Poulton hadn’t given much thought to becoming involved with the disabled ski community.
But, then the unexpected happened.
His then 19-year-old son, Mike, was paralyzed from the waist down in a downhill ski accident.
“It was a lot of emotional trauma,” says Poulton. “We all felt that we had lost a huge opportunity not knowing the things that we would be doing into the future, so at the end of that time there was a lot concern about activities and even just getting around.”
A study the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine found the average rate of any employment after a spinal cord injury was about 35 per cent. Those numbers are what Poulton says worried the family most.
He wanted to ensure his son would still enjoy the outdoor activities he loved most. Family friends and the ski community showed an outpouring of support.
“They opened their hearts, and wallets, and time just to get Mike back on the ski hills,” he said.
Poulton decided he would give back by reviving the disabled-ski program, which shut down in the late 90’s due to lack of volunteers and money.
But, now the program isn’t only for skiers with spinal cord injuries.
You can find 13-year-old blind downhill-ski-racer, Joshua Schramm, on the hill up to four times a week. Adaptive Alpine purchased audio pack systems for blind skiers like Schramm. The systems direct skiers down the hill by voice or radio command.
“I won three gold medals already this year,” said Schramm. “I just like to go fast, and skiing lets me.”
Through it all, Poulton admits he has been “sort of” a fixture at Mission Ridge over the last 30 years; however, there’s a sense of togetherness on the hill that everyone can benefit from.
“(The program) has had its struggles, but like I said it’s just about the opportunity to actually go out and enjoy the snow, and the outdoors, and be a part of a recreational activity that a lot of able bodied people get to enjoy during the winter,” he said.