AUBURN — If you guessed Gerard Desjardins has been on skis his entire life, you wouldn’t be far from wrong.

The National Ski Patrol Senior Patroller, who turns 55 next month, first hit the slopes at Auburn’s Lost Valley ski area when he was just six years old. But Desjardins — known to all as “Gerry” — was sliding on sticks even before that. Using hand-me-down slats twice his size, Desjardins used to play on “Pepper’s Hill,” off Lake Street, in Auburn. The site got its name in typical kid fashion, Desjardins explained – not because Pepper was the name of the folks who owned the local attraction. No, “Pepper,” he noted, was the name of the owners’ dog.

“It was a little hill, two or three houses from my parents’ house,” said Desjardins. “My parents had these old, wooden skis with bear-trap bindings and square, leather ‘jump boots.’ I never did find out where they came from, but I strapped ‘em on and away I went.

“I was basically self-taught,” he recalled, with a fond smile. “Of course, there wasn’t a whole lot of turning involved. All I’d do is go up and down, up and down, all day long.”

Desjardins graduated from Edward Little High School in 1975, where, naturally, he was a member of the ski team. “At first I saw that as a way to get out of class early and kill the rest of the day,” Desjardins laughed. “I never thought I’d go anywhere with it.”

But go he did. Desjardins enlisted in the Army, where a chance conversation about skiing while training in Georgia, of all places, opened up new opportunities. Desjardins learned the army had a ski patrol in Germany, where he was to be stationed, and he wasted no time putting in an application. He didn’t make the ski patrol, but he was asked to work as an instructor and spent much of his enlistment teaching military families how to ski.

“I was in the signal corps, but I didn’t work that very much.” he said, with a broad smile, looking in his white beard not a little like Santa Claus with a naughty secret. “It was great. The only time I put a uniform on was once a month to do duty ‘in charge of quarters’ at the barracks. Other than that, what I wore was ski boots.”

Desjardins more than made up for the easy assignment, however. After his regular stint was over, he re-upped as a medic in the Army Reserves, and only recently retired after 31 years. His medical training served him well when he returned to Lost Valley to join the ski patrol there.

Desjardins started at the bottom of the hill, so to speak, as an NSP candidate. Eventually, he worked his way up to Senior Patroller. Today, Desjardins is Southern Section Chief of NSP’s Maine Region, in charge of training at six mountains. And his duties don’t end when the snow melts, as Desjardins leads more than 200 hours of instruction for ski patrollers across the region each year.

“We may ski three months out of the year, but we’re at it [training] year round,” he said.

Desjardins’ NSP work is done entirely on his own time, without pay, working around his installer’s job at Damon Insulation and a full-time course load at Colorado Technical University.

“All the patrollers respect him, the older guys and the young ones,” said Lost Valley manager, Phil Brushwein. “We’re lucky to have him around here.”

“I enjoy it, of course, because we get to ski, but I like working with the people,” said Desjardins. “That’s the fun part of it. We don’t just help people when they’re hurt; we try to be helpful when they have questions. We’re ambassadors to the hill, really, and we try to be a presence to the public.”

As a sign of his dedication to helping others learn how to help others, Desjardins recently won an NSP National Appointment, landing him in an invitation-only group within what is the world’s largest search and rescue organization. Desjardins is just the 11,088th person to get an NSP National Appointment — as signified by his badge number — dating back to the group’s founding in 1938.

“I’m very active in the education aspect of the National Ski Patrol,” Desjardins acknowledged, “but even so, I was surprised. I mean, you always want to get nominated, but it’s not something that you go up to people and say, ‘Hey, you want to put me in for this?’”

“He had not a clue about it, even though I had been working on the paperwork for over a year,” laughed Desjardins’ fellow NSP National Appointment member, Roland Gaumont, who made the filing at the behest of NSP Maine Region director, John Kane.

“Gerry is one of the hardest workers I know,” said Gaumont. “I just don’t know anyone who goes the extra mile like he does for the National Ski Patrol. If somebody needs help with anything, anywhere, he just jumps in and does it.”

Almost as proof, Desjardins stopped this interview mid-sentence. He’d been working hard to deflect the spotlight, talking about the NSP’s training programs and bragging about the 36-member ski patrol at Lost Valley, all of who are NSP members, including two who share National Appointment with him and Gaumont. “You’re pretty well taken care of here,” he started to say when, spotting a snowmobile coming down the trail with a toboggan in tow, he sprung into action. Suddenly, the interview was over and his sole focus was on guarding the young boy in the sled from oncoming skiers.

Later, with the boy taken care of (it was a slight knee injury) Desjardins walked back across the bottom of the hill, between the slope and the chairlift, where faces of all ages waited in line and watched him as he went by in his bright red jacket, with the big, white cross. He was not wearing his skis at the moment, but, still, Desjardins could not resist his love of outdoor adventure. As he hit the back side of a foot-high mogul he might as easily have stepped over, Desjardins locked his boots together and began to slide. As he did, a twinkle played across his eye, and, for just a moment, he might have passed as a six year old who played all day on that neighborhood hill that belonged to a dog.

Some people flee Maine in the winter. Some people grow old before their time. It seems unlikely that Gerry Desjardins will ever do either.


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