Boomers: Jack and Linda Grzesik patrol the slopes
While some transplants to northern Wisconsin may marvel at how a full 12 months of winter can fit between Labor Day and Memorial Day, for Rhinelander residents Jack and Linda Grzesik, winter is a short season. When the snow flies, these snowbirds fly in the opposite direction, reaching their destination via chairlift.
In 1984, one year after Jack and Linda moved from Chicago to Rhinelander, eventually to open Insurance Center of Northeastern Wisconsin on Lincoln Street, they both became National Ski Patrol volunteers. They’ve continued through the years, even when their children, Gregory and Linell, were born. They and other patrollers would bring their children to the hill and take turns watching them.
“The kids grew up from babies together,” Jack says. When they could walk, they learned to ski, on a tether with mom or dad.
“Once they learned to ski alone, we didn’t see them,” Linda says.
After 10 years of patrolling, Jack and Linda became trainers for the National Ski Patrol. They teach the Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) class, which is for all patrollers. The class is specifically geared toward ski and snowboard injuries, as well as high altitude and cold-weather illness and wilderness extrications.
It takes three months to complete the OEC course – with more than 60 hours of training, Jack says. The class is typically in the summer, so once the ski season starts, patrol candidates are ready for the ski and toboggan training.
One skill they learn on the hill is side slipping– when the patroller’s skis are sideways to the hill. This is an important maneuver when leading the toboggan down the hill, Jack says. Toboggan training includes learning both positions – the handles, which is the lead position, in front, and the tail, which is the safety brake. Patrollers can be trained on skis, snowboard or both. Snowboard transporting is actually easier, Jack says, but maneuvering into position to pick up an injured guest and traveling on flats is more difficult.
The Grzesiks witnessed the era when the ski hills first started catering to snowboarders by adding terrain parks. But snowboarders and skiers aren’t easily separated by the generation gap. “A lot of baby boomers are boarding and would never go back. Some do both,” Jack says.
Gregory and Linell both become patrollers when they turned 16, the minimum age requirement, and trained on both skis and snowboards. “On Linell’s first full day in a red coat, she responded to a life-threatening situation on the chairlift. She was given the Blue Merit Star Award for it,” Jack says, a national recognition.
While those life-threatening injuries do happen, knee, wrist and shoulder injuries are the most common. Jack and Linda have seen more injuries to shoulders and wrists as snowboarding has increased in popularity.
Another change they’ve seen over the years has been in the amount of snow. “Back in the ‘80s, you could open the ski hills in mid-November without making snow. Now, all hills have extensive snow-making capabilities and shoot to open in early December. They make the snow in order to be ready for Christmas, the biggest part of their season,” Jack says. “Last year, the UP got well over 200 inches of snow, but a lot of it came in late March and April.”
The condition of the snow is related to how many calls the patrollers receive. “A lot of people have difficulty on fresh powder snow,” Jack says. They’re used to the groomed snow. Ski hills make big investments in grooming equipment now.
At Indianhead, where they volunteer, there are approximately 85 patrollers on the roster, Jack says. The hill does not have to schedule patrollers for specific shifts, but will send out an e-mail if extra help is needed for special events. Some patrols do schedule their patrollers on regular shifts.
A lot of people think that the biggest benefit is free ski time, Linda says. “The reason we do this is the satisfaction of helping an injured guest and the comradeship of other patrollers.”
Her greatest joy was taking her kids and other kids, when helping with field trips, up the chairlift, she says. “The expression on their faces … It is wonderful to introduce children to skiing.”
Everyone on the patrol is required to do a refresher with the toboggan as well as take a one-day OEC refresher every year. The material review is organized so that in three years, the entire first aid book has been reviewed.
Jack is a Ski and Toboggan instructor and is required to recertify every three years.
Patrollers pay for all their expenses, including skis, coats and medical supplies, plus annual dues.
“Free” skiing, anyone?
The passing decades have seen the first aid book double in size, growing with details and new techniques.
The Grzesiks have also witnessed the emergence of new equipment, such as the shaped skis – narrower by the boot, flared on both ends, bindings which allow release in a wider range of motion and the snow brake, a bar that drops down under the ski once the boot is released, replacing the old strap that connected the skier to the ski.
It was like learning to ski all over again with the new equipment, Jack comments. He resisted the shaped skis, but was an easy convert once he tried them.
“I was amazed. They required a fraction of the effort to turn,” he says.
They’ve also seen heated cloth-ing come on the market, like gloves with heated liners and vests that will keep skiers warm all day, Linda says. They don’t use the heated clothing, but utilized new insulation materials and Gore-Tex.
Both Grzesik children are adults now, whose career choices no doubt were influenced by their tethered youth and beyond: Linell is in her third year of medical school, and Gregory is a first year internal medicine resident.
Jack and Linda have two employees at Insurance Center, one of whom, Cheryl Yoshihara, has been patrolling for almost 35 years. She is also is an instructor.
On those cold Friday evenings when they close up shop, three-quarters of the office is likely to cheerfully brush the snow from their cars and head for the hills.
“Our bodies will tell us when it’s time to retire,” Jack says. “So far, we still can’t wait to get on the hill.”
Jill Olson is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander.