Northwoods man guides blind skier to first Birkebeiner finish
By Eileen Persike
For many avid cross-country skiers, tackling the American Birkebeiner race is a lifelong goal, or at the very least, a challenge. For years, that was the case for one Northwoods skier; but then he wanted more.
“I had always thought doing the Birkie was great, but that there was something else out there for me for skiing,” said Mike Evelo. “I read a magazine article and it jumped out at me and immediately thought, ‘I’ve gotta do that.’”
He was referring to getting involved in Ski for Light, a non-profit all-volunteer organization founded in 1975 that exists to teach visually- and mobility-impaired adults how to cross country ski and give others the opportunity to improve their skills. This is the Rhinelander skier’s fifth year guiding for Ski for Light and his second year of guiding Seattle skier Tim McCorcle.
McCorcle, 55, went totally blind 10 years ago due to a hereditary disease, but began losing his sight in high school. Formerly a downhill skier, McCorcle had quit skiing until his father passed away in 2011 at which time he decided his father wouldn’t be too happy with him if he gave up on his dream to ski. As Evelo tells it, he looked up “cross country skiing” and “blind” and found Ski for Light.
Evelo, who works as a commercial airline pilot, said he laughed a few years ago when McCorcle asked whether he would be the one to guide him through the Birkie.
“I was honored and humbled that he trusted me to do that.” Mike Evelo
“I told him, ‘You don’t know what you’re asking,’” Evelo recalled. “I had nightmares thinking about guiding him through all those other skiers and thought there’s no way that would work.”
Two years ago when the Birkie was canceled due to poor snow conditions, McCorcle was there to ski an adaptive event, which was also canceled. Evelo was there, too. Birkie organizers put together a 5K loop for a fun event and Evelo guided McCorcle through the make-shift course.
“There were no tracks available, it was icy and there were upwards of 7,000 skiers,” Evelo said. “That took me by surprise, but he did very well. That got me to thinking; so I thought on it, prayed on it and we talked about it and decided we were going to do it this year.”
The classic race at the American Birkebeiner is 55K, or about 34 miles. The pair, connected during the race only through verbal cues and clicking poles, finished the race in eight hours. Though it took longer than they had hoped for, Evelo said in the end, it was great, adding that McCorcle passed some 15 skiers in the last 4K of the of the race. “Where he found all that energy at the end like that, I don’t know.”
The hard work was rewarded by cheering crowds as the two crested a bridge and headed down mainstreet.
“People saw ‘guide’ on my bib and they went nuts,” Evelo said. “It was deafening and for as late as we came in – it was 5:30 – it just blew me away,” adding that the experience was “very rewarding, satisfying, a lot of work…I was honored and humbled that he trusted me to do that.”
Evelo said he has been working to bring a Ski for Light event to Rhinelander, and hopes to do so one day. He also said the organization is always looking for volunteers of all abilities, noting, “If they can ski and like to talk about it, we’re interested in having them as a guide.”
His guiding nightmares behind him, Evelo said he has no plans to repeat the Birkie guiding adventure. Yet.