I love hiking, I always have. I divide my hiking experiences into three groups; Hiking when I could see, Hiking when I couldn’t see but before I had a Seeing Eye Dog, and hiking now that I do have a dog. The third group of experiences are, by far, the richest and most rewarding.
When Jim and I met in 1984 I had been blind for only a year and four months. I had learned a lot in that time. I had learned to read and write braille, to travel safely with a long cane, to successfully participate in college academics. What I had not done was explore my abilities in recreational areas.
The first time Jim and I went into the Michigan forest together it was for an assignment for the class called “The dynamics of Blindness.” Each member of the class had to choose four recreational activities and do them while wearing a blindfold. I had to choose four activities that I hadn’t done since becoming blind. I took several botany and forestry classes in college and, since one of the activities on the list was tree identification, I chose that as one of my activities. I had to do my dendrology experiment with someone and it needed to be someone who knew about the trees of Michigan. I asked around and that’s how I met Jim.
The forty acres around which we rambled for our dendrology experiment were relatively flat and smooth. The forest had been managed so that there wasn’t much in the understory which also made for easy walking. Our next adventure took us to Lake Michigan where we had to scramble down a very long steep hill to get to the shore. After graduate school we did a little hiking in the foothills of The Smokeys before I went to The Seeing Eye to train with my first dog. When I brought Sadie home a month later hiking became the joyful activity it had been in my sighted life.
During the time that we lived on the coast of Maine we really began pushing the limits in our hikes. Each weekend, weather permitting, we’d head for Acadia National Park and its hiking trails. The park has 58 miles of carriage trails, wide flat gravel roads that are used by hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, and cross country skiers. Walking on the carriage trails was easy. It required almost no concentration which left my mind free to appreciate the feeling of the world around me. The Maine woods are full of things to delight the senses. The abundant aromas are of balsam fir, white cedar, and dusky heath. The feel of the lacy leaves of the Northern White Cedar leaves and its silky bark thrilled me. Then there was the feeling of the place. There was the intimacy of walking alongside a dancing stream surrounded by huge trees. There was the wide open feeling of standing on the carriage trails overlooking one of the lakes or a steep valley. Walking on the carriage trails provided us with many hours of easy enjoyment.
For the times when we fancied a challenge we’d choose a trail up one of the mountains. On a guide dog list I learned about the Leki Explorer. My mental image of a Leki Explorer was that of a dude wearing a pith helmet with water leaking out of his ears. But I digress. The Leki Explorer is a hiking stick. It extends between 28 and 58 inches, has a titanium tip and a cork handle with a strap used like the strap on a ski pole. With my hiking stick I can probe the trail ahead of me to discover why my dog has stopped. I can use it for balance on particularly rough terrain. Armed with my hiking stick and a good pair of hiking boots I’m ready for anything.
On a memorable hike up Parkman Mountain everything came together. We set off on a carriage trail and soon turned into the woods. I was working Beverly at the time. On rough terrain we find that it’s better if I lead. That way, Jim can see where I’m headed and warn me of tricky terrain, narrow trails, or drop offs. Many a time Jim will say, “Don’t fall to your right.” Of course I’m not anxious to fall in any direction but his casual warnings let me know that if I fall to the right I might be dead.
We proceeded along the trail and I reveled in Beverly’s mix of caution and her joyful shepherd trot when the trail was smooth. Soon we came to a sheer rock face. There was no way Beverly could guide me up this part of the trail. I unsnapped her leash and draped it over my shoulder. Picking up the harness handle I commanded her to go forward. When she had taken me as close to the rock face as she could get me I dropped the harness handle. I also dropped the hiking stick and allowed it to dangle from my right wrist.
I moved forward, feeling the rock before me. Remembering my rock climbing mantra of always having three points of contact with the rock, two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand, I began to look for hand and footholds. It was a stretch to some of them and I arrived victorious at the top of the rock face. By now Beverly had found her own way up and she was right there waiting for me. I swung the hiking stick up and grasped it in my right hand and my left hand fell right on the harness handle. “Beverly, forward,” and we continued on our way without hesitation.
Arriving at the top of Parkman Mountain I stood looking over the ocean and let the cold wind cool my hot and sweaty face. Drawing up beside me, Jim hugged me. We stood there in silence drinking in the experience.
Hiking, for me, embodies everything that a Seeing Eye Dog brings to my life. Independence with dignity, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s the ability to fully participate in life on my own terms. It’s the ability to push the envelope and discover my horizons. Thank you, thank you to all of the people who, over the 83 year history of the school have made the school what it is. Using the dogs you have so carefully bred and trained I have a level of independence beyond my wildest dreams. I have dearly loved, cherished, and appreciated each dog in her turn.
Experience Hiking With a Guide Dog
Transcript of audio:
Transcript of audio