Monday, March 1, 2010

Interview with Blind AT Hiker Walking 2,175 Miles

“Make no little plans: They have no magic to stir men’s blood”
- Daniel H. Burnham


Mike Hanson, completely blind, will hike the Appalachian Trail this year with no guide and no guide dog. Just a white cane and using GPS.  He will be followed – but not interfered with (Mike will do all the navigation) by videographer, Gary Steffens.  Mike and Gary are making a documentary to help demonstrate that blind people can be independent and that their capacities are underrated by the general public.  It is his hope this will help overcome the perceived limitations of blind people.

Mike is starting the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain on March 3rd, he was kind enough to interrupt his preparations to answer a few questions for me via email:

1. What type of hiking and backpacking have you done to prepare for this journey?

I have backpacked in Colorado, around Mt. Rainier, tested my GPS system in Shenandoah National Park, and done a good many other hunting, fishing, and canoeing trips.

2. A few other blind men have done this, such as Bill Irwin, have you talked to any of them? Were they able to give you any helpful advice?

I will be the first blind person to hike the AT using only GPS and a white cane to the best of my knowledge. I have talked extensively with Bill Irwin and briefly with Trevor Thomas. I found their advice helpful, particularly concerning methods of resupply and difficult trail sections.

3. Did you consider bringing a guide dog? I understand that GPS will keep you within 10 feet of the trail or so, put from personal experience I know a many point on the AT a few feet from the trail can be sharp cliffs and GPS data can be out dated. You are OK with these risks?

I considered using a guide dog. Bill Irwin fell quite a few times.  According to Mr. Irwin's book, I believe this had something to do with him training his guide dog to avoid rocks and obstacles below a certain height. I opted for a white cane because I believe I can reduce the risk of falling by using a cane, as opposed to a guide dog. GPS will give me the location of points of interest, location of the trail, and similar information. My white cane will give me information about cliffs, rocks, and other obstacles or hazards close to me. I am aware that GPS data can be outdated. Maps can also be outdated, due to wash-outs and other things that occur since their publication. I experienced this while hiking in Shenandoah National Park. I understand there is an element of risk in any outdoor activity. I have done the best I can to minimize these risks and am okay with the remaining risk.

4. Will you be bringing a "SPOT" and /or updating you blog so we can follow along? What device are you brining to update your blog (if you are)?

I plan to activate a spot and will bring it with me, both for emergencies and so people can follow my progress. I will also update my blog at www.blindhiker.wordpress.com and a page for the Hanson Appalachian Trail Campaign on Facebook via either a smart phone or a small laptop.

5. What is your backpack base weight? How would you classify you self as backpacker - "Ultralight", "Light weight" or "I bring a U-haul"?

My backpack's weight when full will be thirty to thirty-five pounds. This is as light as I can make it, given the need to carry a GPS system and extra batteries. I am sure it will feel like I am pulling a U-haul at times, particularly at the start. I have been training for over a year but there is only so much one can do to get in shape.

6. Can you give us a glimpse of what is in you pack - Tarp or tent - what kind? What kind of stove?, what pack, bag, anything special?

I will be carrying a Granite Gear Stratus backpack. I will carry a Lost Ranger sleeping bag and Seed House tent. Granite Gear and Big Agnes have generously donated these items. Smartwool, Tilley Hats, Leki, Backpacker's Pantry, Sun Valley, Cloudveil, Primus, and Vasque have generously donated socks, long underwear, hats, trekking poles, food, rain-wind gear, a stove, and boots. Midwest Mountaineering has generously given us an expedition discount and a great deal of useful advice. I will carry a primary and backup GPS system and about ten extra batteries for these systems. I will also carry a charger that works off of a standard outlet, a laptop, or a 9-volt battery.

7. How much money have you raised? Do you have enough? Many thru-hikers try to do the hike on a minimal budget, Do you think there is added costs due to being blind?

I have raised about $10,000 in cash, commitments, and in-kind contributions. See above or visit the websites listed below for a list of sponsors and what they have donated. We estimate the cost of the hike and filming the documentary to be $25,000, including necessary electronics to allow me to use GPS, update my blog, and award-winning Videographer Gary L. Steffens of Fresh Images Video Productions to film the documentary. We hope to raise money as we hike the AT.  There are two factors that increase the cost substantially. First, electronics I need easily cost me $4,000. These costs are directly associated with my visual impairment and desire for as much independence as possible.  Second, Gary's camera equipment cost at least $8,000. This is directly associated with the message I want to communicate in my answer to your final question.

8. Many of us dream of taking six months to hike the AT but find it difficult to carve out time from work and family. How are you dealing with these issues?

I am grossly underemployed. I have a law degree from the University of St. Thomas, passed the Minnesota State Bar Exam on my first attempt, and am currently licensed to practice law in Minnesota. People who are blind face a staggering seventy percent unemployment rate according to conservative estimates. I am not immune to this high unemployment rate. Some of this unemployment might be due to the current state of the economy. I took a leave of absence from a part-time telemarketing job to undertake this hike.

9. Is there any specific message or something you would like to say?

I hope the hike and resulting documentary demonstrate the independence of persons with visual impairments and the increasing role of adaptive technology in our independence. I am trying to say that our capabilities are underrated by the general public, due to misconceptions about what we are capable of and how we overcome perceived limitations. I chose to hike the AT for two reasons. First, travel is a highly visible perceived limitation. Recent advances in technology, including GPS have made it much less of a limitation than it used to be. Second, the AT had the most complete data I could find for any major or minor hiking trail.

Below is a video of Mike discussing his plans:

Mike created the websites below to spread the word and ask for contributions. "$10 helps Mike walk another mile."  People are sending notes on Facebook to see our YouTube video and offering donations.

Please visit www.hansonatcampaign.com or www.blindhiker.com (accessible to persons with visual impairments) to learn about Mike’s sponsors and to learn how you can help.



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