This article is reprinted with the permission of AMC OUTDOORS, the member magazine of The Appalacian Mountain Club.
As soon as she spotted the dark silhouette against the gray sky, Clare Long knew it was a bald eagle. Leading a small flotilla of canoes, she began paddling toward the tree where it was perched, telling the others about the bird all the while: that it had hatched several months earlier, that its nest was nearby, that it was probably on the lookout for fish. And then Long, the AMC's Visitor Education Coordinator, realized that she would have to tell her story in a different way.
Because this wasn't her typical workshop crowd. Long was leading a group from New England Regional Ski for Light (NERSFL), a Boston-based nonprofit that offers skiing, hiking, and paddling outings for visually impaired outdoors-lovers. Each of the 16 canoes trailing Long's carried a visually impaired person - or VIP, as they're called in this circle - in the bow, and a sighted guide in the stern. And the questions were coming fast: "What does it look like?" "How big is it?" "What color is it?"
Long fielded the queries as quickly as they came. Many of the VIPs had partial vision, so the types of question varied. She described the eagle as a brown bird, three or four feet high, and fledged from a nest that weighs half as much as a Volkswagen. "I was trying to think, 'How do you even describe brown?'" Long said later. "But I decided just to go for it."
The guides supplemented her information with verbal pictures of their own. "It's the size of a child sitting up there in the branches," one told her canoe-mate. Others described the dead branches clawing the sky, the slow turns of the bird's head, and the enormity of its wingspan when it finally flew away.
The rainy, eight-mile Androscoggin paddle was the first half of an August weekend at the AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in New Hampshire. Sunday, another gray day, found the group in the woods at the base of Mount Washington for an interpretive hike. This first joint venture between the AMC and NERSFL arose from a suggestion by AMC Research Director Ken Kimball, who has volunteered with the group as a cross-country ski guide. "It seemed like a natural fit," says Kimball, noting that both groups are motivated by a love of the outdoors, espouse non-motorized recreation, and rely on support from volunteers.
NERSFL has its roots in Ski for Light International (SFL), a separately run organization based in Minnesota that focuses solely on skiing. Founded by Norwegian Erling Stordahl, a visually impaired skier who wanted to give others a chance to glide, SFL sponsors an annual weeklong event for visually and mobility impaired skiers. But NERSFL has moved beyond the slopes: in addition to sponsoring two winter skiing weekends, the group organizes at least one summer hiking weekend and several day trips each year.
To plan the weekend at Pinkham Notch, the AMC's director of Human Resources, Christina Cheng, invited NERSFL organizers George and Janice Bianculli, Lil Johnson, and Claire Morrissette to its Boston office to meet with AMC president Jennifer Huntington and volunteer Al Cressy, chair of the AMC's diversity committee. Although some AMC chapters have sponsored events for visually impaired people, and people of all abilities are welcome at AMC activities, Johnson noted that some NERSFL members had met people at AMC events who "didn't know how to treat people like us." But she felt the AMC representatives assuaged these concerns.
"It's a learning experience for both groups and a wonderful combination," said Cheng. "Here's a group that is interested in the outdoors, loves to learn and experience different things, and we're a facilitator of that." As a result of the meeting, Cheng and her husband signed on as guides, as did Huntington. The experience of guiding "struck something inside me," said Huntington after paddling with Johnson. "I've noticed how often we say 'look at that' or 'see that' ...but [Lil] sensed the wideness or narrowness of the river in ways I never could."
In addition to learning about each other, these guides and VIPs learned a bit about the water and woods they were in. It was a new twist for NERSFL, whose outings haven't focused on education before. In addition to Long's narrative of the canoe trip - which touched on subjects as diverse as water quality and Native American creation myths - Sunday featured the Education department's notorious "Skins and Skulls" presentation, which offers a chance to touch the hides of everything from a bat to a black bear. Then, during an afternoon hike on the Old Jackson Road, participants got to touch hobblebush leaves, sniff fox musk, and listen to birdcalls. "On a regular hike, you can go from point A to point B and you don't realize what you've passed," said George Bianculli. "It's nice to get that educational component."
The rain didn't seem to dampen the group's enthusiasm. "This was great," Bianculli said. "We're not wimps. We're just people who love to get outdoors who happen not to be able to see."
As the guides and VIPs got ready to leave, Huntington bade them farewell. "We've been able to share our natural world in ways you clearly enjoy, and you've taught us how to see and hear and touch in very different ways. We've enjoyed that, and we hope you'll come back often," she told the group. At least one return visit is certain - a cross-country skiing and snowshoeing weekend planned for January.
- Katharine Wroth is associate editor of AMC Outdoors: A Maine native who's not quite sure how she ended up in the city, Katharine Wroth doesn't think twice about escaping Boston for the great outdoors. And her work as associate editor of AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club,gives her plenty of opportunities for adventure, from sea kayaking to winter camping. Before coming to the AMC, Katharine was an editor at Maine Times, a weekly statewide environmental and arts newspaper. She has also contributed to Outdoor Explorer,Hostels USA,and the Montana-based Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources