Mass. Boy Scouts find inspiration from blind hikerBy JAMES NIEDZINSKI , Associated Press
Nov. 9, 2013 12:31 AM ET
MANCHESTER, Mass. (AP) — To say that hiker Trevor Thomas has conquered his fair share of trails would be an understatement.
He's hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Outer Banks and the Mountain to Sea trail throughout North Carolina, and he's traversed Grayson Highlands trails in Virginia, in addition to treks in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains, just to name a few.
But before he went blind in 2006, Thomas thought long-distance hiking was boring; he was used to racing cars and diving out of perfectly good airplanes.
But now, in a serendipitous turn of events, Thomas has teamed up with a Boy Scouts of America troop in Manchester and created the blind ambassador program.
The goal is to help blind hikers when they need it, not hold their hand through a trail or camping trip, Thomas said during a visit with members of Troop 3 last Sunday.
When a rare condition deprived him of his sight, Thomas said, his adrenaline-fueled life halted, but not for long.
"I heard you can die (long distance hiking), so I said 'sign me up,'" Thomas said. "It just blossomed from there."
His guide dog, Tennille ,and his guide team, called team FarSight, accompany him on some treks, but he has also hiked the Appalachian Trail alone with Tennille.
"I hiked the AT so I can get my life back," he said.
He has faced a number of challenges. While hiking through the Southern Nantahala Wilderness in Georgia, the team had nearly gotten lost — and it was a trail on which other hikers are few and cell service spotty at best, Thomas said.
"I chose it because I wanted a trail not a lot of people were traveling," he said. Yet, if Thomas misses a checkpoint, he tells his team to contact the U.S. Forest Service immediately to figure out how far he can travel in a given day.
"They need to start looking for a body or for me, because I'm injured," he said.
Thomas said he has many tasks to carry out while hiking. For one thing, his team emails him through translations that are read aloud through his phone. That enables him to keep track of how far he has gone since the last update.
"Cadence and time equates distance to me," he said.
Tennille, meanwhile, is trained to point out trail signs, and Thomas traces them to get a sense of where he is. He also keeps an ear out for the wind and where it hits the trees, in addition to listening for any upcoming bodies of water.
"I'm pretty much a human bat," he joked. "It gives me an idea what my environment is like."
Thomas said he was excited when Troop 3 Scoutmaster Fred Rossi and others approached him about the blind ambassador program, and he said he wanted to give his own experience and knowledge in hiking to others.
"The blind student will be having an experience (others) never would normally have," he said.
Rossi first came upon the idea when he met Lew Lasher, who helps train blind skiers and eventually came upon Thomas' career.
"When I saw that he had hiked (the Appalachian Trail) blind and alone, I knew I had to talk to this man," Rossi said.
Soon, the two got in touch, and Rossi made the request to have Thomas flown in to get things started.
"He basically stopped dead in his tracks and said, 'Are you serious about doing this'''?
Troop 3 Scout leaders said the Scouts practiced blind training exercises and spoke with Christine Leghorn, a blind athlete from Beverly, so the Scouts would not be completely foreign to working with blind people and to raise awareness that people with sight issues have.
Leghorn also accompanied around 20 Scouts and leaders through a hike in Gloucester near the Mt. Jacob Cemetery.
While Thomas has worked to train Tennille to be a guide dog while hiking, Leghorn's guide dog, Kemper, was not used to the scenario. Another problem was the relative mass of people on the trail.
"He didn't know what he was doing at first," Leghorn joked of Kemper.
Thomas also gave Leghorn a brief demonstration on how to use a hiking pole and how to get a sense of the environment. By all accounts, Thomas could describe the scene pretty well, despite his inability to see it. He accurately described just about how big a boulder was and the water source nearby.
"I am very envious; I'd like to develop that skill myself," Leghorn said. "For me, it takes a lot of energy. Luckily, I'm pretty quick on my feet."
Thomas told the group of Scouts that asking whether a blind person needs help can too often distract them from the task at hand; the goal is to give a warning if something is coming up — to avoid a low-hanging tree branch for example — and to provide help when needed.
When it comes to self-reliance, Troop 3 and team FarSight are on the same page. As the program moves forward, Rossi said, Scouts could work with students at Perkins School for the Blind, based in Watertown.
"There's nothing like this," Thomas said. "It's going to be up to the student to say, 'I'm going to do this — and I can do this without your help.'"