Essex County braille trail opens the woods for blind hikers
Walking in the Manchester-Essex Woods blindfolded, he felt the terrain under his feet and heard the noise coming from Route 128 nearby.
“You really do notice the noise much, much more, [and] you notice that indefinable sense of touch right in front of you,” Jack Haynie recalled. “Once you’ve walked for a while, you understand how to sense something that’s in front of you. With visually impaired hikers, it’s even more noticeable.”
The blindfolded hike three years ago was part of Haynie’s preparation for his Eagle Scout project: a recently completed Braille trail in the Manchester-Essex Woods.
Haynie, 18, who will be a senior at Manchester Essex Regional High School this year, is a founding member of Boy Scout Troop 3’s Blind Ambassadors program, in which Scouts team up with hikers and backpackers from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. His Eagle Scout project started formulating three years ago when then-Scout leader Fred Rossi attended a presentation by motivational speaker Trevor Thomas, the first blind person to complete a solo 2,175-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail.
“That’s something that’s been really eye-opening about this project, and this is what our sponsor, Trevor Thomas, told us,” said Haynie.
“It’s incredible how much self-reliance you can have even when you’re visually impaired, and that’s what this is meant to do.”
While the blind hikers learn the ways of the trail, the Scouts learn how to be good companions.
“Going hiking and camping with a troop of sighted Scouts helps Perkins students level the playing field socially,” said Perkins outreach supervisor Patrick Ryan in an e-mail. “Here’s what I mean by that: When our kids meet up with their sighted peers and the sighted kids talk about hiking trips they’ve taken, now our students can say, ‘Yeah. I hiked Mount Cardigan. It was cool.’
“Hiking with Scouts from Troop 3 as voice guides is a two-way deal,” Ryan added. “The Perkins students learn more about hiking, and the Scouts learn how to communicate with people who are blind. It’s more than pointing out what our students can detect with their canes, like that big root in the trail. A voice guide needs to know to say, ‘Look out for the low-hanging branches.’ ”
Thomas, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., became the Manchester troop’s sounding board for projects like the Blind Ambassadors, and advised Haynie as he developed the trail, which stretches in the woods north of Route 128 between exits 15 and 16.
In both raised lettering and Braille, the 16 signs provide information about the distance to the next sign in both steps and feet, and a description of the terrain with an orientation system that follows the face of a clock.
“A lot of blind hikers use the clock system,” said Haynie. “When giving directions they tell people ‘Tell it to me on the clock.’ So 12 o’clock is this way and 3 o’clock is this way. That’s generally the system.
“At the Perkins School for the Blind, that’s how they teach them to navigate. Putting it in terms they can understand is really important. From what I gather from Trevor, that’s an important part, because even when they have sighted guides it helps give them the chance to speak on their terms and navigate on their terms.”
Thomas is scheduled to appear at the second Wilderness Weekend at the Perkins school Oct. 16 to 18. Open to visually impaired high school students from across New England, the weekend event grew out of the Blind Ambassadors program.
Thomas noted that Haynie’s “grasp of the needs of the blind and visually impaired is quite exceptional, and his trail [In Manchester] does not just meet a requirement for advancement in scouting, it is something that has larger societal ramifications and changes lives.”
In a telephone interview, Thomas said being self-sufficient in the woods can be a life-changing experience for some.
“It gives them the opportunity to do things that everyone thinks you should not do as a blind person,” he said. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of well-being, and the ability to be fully independent.”
Thomas noted that many blind hikers will be able to navigate alone the trail that Haynie completed.
“To do it themselves is an experience they’ll remember forever, and can change lives,” Thomas said. “Because this is open to the public, any blind person can have that experience.”