A Very Special Trip to Canaan Valley - with “Special Love,” and the NIH Ski Club 6
Author thumbnail By Connie Lawn, DCSki Columnist
Curious (or hungry) deer at Canaan Valley. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

We awoke on a bright, snow-covered Sunday morning on February 19, 2006 to the sound of deer on our doorstep. One of the great joys of Canaan are the beautiful deer that are so tame, they lick your hands. They are beautiful and without fear - fortunately there were no high-level politicians or hunters around. There are signs, which threaten fines for feeding the deer, but the animals cannot read. They may be a danger on the roads, but in the natural setting of the Canaan Valley Resort, they fit perfectly.

The deer were an extra treat for the over 200 participants in the annual ski trip to Canaan, sponsored by the NIH Ski Club and “Special Love.” Most of the families, including instructors, had a child or relative who was battling cancer. Many are, thank God, long time survivors or are in remission.

These are normal, wonderful people. The children are especially affectionate, and come up to hug you as much as possible. They appreciate every moment of life. During most of the trip, where my husband and I tried to help the young skiers, we forgot these were kids with life threatening diseases. Then we would catch bits of conversation such as “so and so passed last year,” or discussions about the fear of death. It brings you up short, and makes you realize the futility of complaining about small things.

Participants of “Special Love” receive training on the slopes. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

If the kids were into complaining, they had a right to on the first day. The early morning temperature hovered between minus 8 and 10 degrees, with driving snow. The “flurries” lasted all day, covering Canaan’s slopes and fields with several inches. Despite the rough conditions, most of the brave children shouldered on, and tried their best to ski. Some of the young ones made incredible progress - it warmed our hearts in the bitter conditions. But, if we needed additional heat, there is a nice warming hut right off the Bunny Buster. It has a circular fireplace, and plenty of seats and tables for picnic meals. Most of our group did not have lunch - we had had such a large and delicious breakfast buffet at the Canaan lodge. But, it was nice to get warm. On the higher slope, there is a large cafeteria and a bar. But, the wait was long, given the huge volume of President’s Day Weekend crowds.

The slopes were crowded, as they were in most resorts over the holiday period. Beginning skiers and boarders competed with more novice airboarders, as we all made our way down the relatively narrow “easy” slopes. Fortunately, no one from our group was injured. They all returned to ski the next day. By Sunday and Monday, the sun was shining and the slopes were glistening with beautiful natural snow! It was still cold; below zero on Sunday and 10 above on Monday. By that time, it felt like a heat wave! Monday was perfect but, sadly, by that time many of the children had to leave to return to school. It was not a vacation day in all schools.

A student at James Madison University, Jeremy is a cancer survivor who had a tumor removed from his leg.
Jeremy Webb, left, teaches snowboarding for Special Love. A student at James Madison University, Jeremy is a cancer survivor who had a tumor removed from his leg. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

But the NIH and “Special Love” gave the families a wonderful experience. In addition to the skiing and snowtubing, they had sumptuous buffets, movies, and birthday parties. There is also a well-used heated pool and hot tub. The food is excellent! Troy Cardwell of Guest Services is now running Canaan, and has made gourmet improvements. He says he is just getting started. It is worth the time to visit Canaan, and stay at the lodges adjacent to the main lodge. It is heartwarming to see how well used that lodge is - filled with Church groups in prayer in one room, to parties, singing, swimming, and exercise groups in other rooms. There is also an excellent restaurant, snack bar, lounge (with widescreen television), and computer for the guests. Outside, the cabins are literally closer to nature, and there are acres of fields. There are ample trails for cross country (when there is enough cover), outdoor ice-skating, golf, and an outdoor pool and tennis courts for the summer. It sounds very built up, but it co-exists in harmony with nature, and that I like. It also provides needed employment for many of the residents of the area.

Skiing and Airboarding

The top of Canaan has a Western feel and some sweeping views. Some of the trails reminded me of the gentle cruising runs of the West. Unfortunately, with the cold and the crowds, we could not enjoy them as much as we would have liked. It is always so much better if you can sneak away to ski or board on a weekday. In many European countries, students are given a week or two off to go to the mountains. Why can’t we develop such habits here? (If there are any schools which do so, please let me know!) Most of the time, we skied on the easy Timber Run, because we were helping beginners. It was beautiful, and the snow-covered trees sheltered us a bit from the wind. But, it was crowded!

On Monday, thanks to ski area manager Michael Chaney, we tried airboarding. My husband Charles and I joined Randy Schools, the man largely responsible for this special weekend. He heads the NIH Recreation and Welfare Association. Airboarding was an experience for us, but we will probably stick to skiing. The younger members of our group loved it, and said they plan to purchase airboards. I do like to use my plastic sleds to sleigh ride when there is snow. But, on the big mountains, I prefer to be upright, unless I am tubing.

Preparing for an airboarding lesson. Photo provided by Connie Lawn.

Airboards are a cross between a sled and an air mattress (too short for sleeping!), with plastic ridges on the bottom and sides. You slide on them head first like a skeleton, and are supposed to turn by twisting your body. They can go very fast and are not easy to steer. But if you go too fast, it is no big deal to roll off into the snow. In fact, it is fun (if no one runs you over)!

We were given a 2-hour airboarding lesson by a bearded, patient instructor, Sanford Zirkle. He probably regretted having me in the class. On my last run, I cut across the slope at a very high speed. With my helmet in my eyes, I could barely see anything but the snow, and the bottom of a lot of peoples’ skis. Then whoosh - I hit something. The next thing I saw was poor Sanford climbing out of a snow-filled hole in the forest. I had knocked him into the trees. It must have been dangerous, but I could not stop laughing. Thus ended my airboard career!

Our group all agreed, it is best if airboards can have their own area on the mountain, as do the snow tubers. There are designated areas, but you have to be very skilled to use them. Until then, you train on the bunny slopes, and the other people around you are not very happy to see you. It does create a problem, but Canaan is working to sort that out.

They are also working to improve the steep climb you have to make to get up to the main lifts. Some have dubbed the climb “cardiac hill.” One way to avoid it, is to start at the bunny lift and ski down to the big lift. But, later, if you leave to go to the bar or cafeteria, you face the climb again. In ice, it is especially hard. Canaan has presented plans for improvements and expansion, but they need state park permission to go ahead.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone from Canaan, and Dave Smith, inspirational snowboard instructor and survivor Jeremy Webb, Randy Schools and the others from NIH and Special Love who made this one of the most significant weekends of our lives. We may not be the world’s greatest ski instructors, but we love these kids and hope they will allow us to join them again.

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About Connie Lawn

When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.

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Reader Comments

DCSki Reader
February 27, 2006
I really enjoy the reports on special love and adaptive skiing.
February 27, 2006
Your right Miss Lawn,A piece of beautiful Alpine south of the Mason Dixon!....Although very frusterating that they didn't fix some problems with their slopes when they renovated the old Lodge...THAT WAS THEIR CHANCE! Would love to know "the plans"
Connie Lawn
February 27, 2006
Thank you Andy and reader. I will write to the Canaan manager, and ask if he can discuss the plans. Again, they need approval for them. Please keep writing. Yours, Connie Lawn
March 1, 2006
Thanks, Connie, for an insightful article and a tribute to the children and staff of Special Love. As you said in your article, it is inspiring to see the courage that these young people show, not only in their attempts to learn skiing and snowboarding, but also as they strive to be normal kids. I'm glad you and your husband, Charles, could be part of our "community of support" in this valuable endeavor.

Dave Smith
Special Love, Inc.
Connie Lawn
March 1, 2006
Thanks Dave -it was an honor and a privilege to be part of your group. You do a terrific job. Hope we can see you all again very soon. God Bless. Yours, Connie and Charles
Emily Chamberlin
September 10, 2006
Thank you so much for writing this amazing article, it really summed up how great the trip was. I was so fortunate to get to go this year with a good friend of mine's family. This trip is the kind that will stay in my memory always and will always come up every winter. Thanks for making it happen. I will see yall in BRASS!

3 Emily Chamberlin

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