Braille Monitor                                                    October 2009

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BLIND, Inc., Goes to the Dogs

by Harry Hogue

The dogsledders from BLIND, Incorporated, pose for a photo in the wilderness.From the Editor: Last spring we received the following article from the staff of BLIND, Incorporated, the Minnesota affiliate’s adult training center for the blind. It seemed appropriate to squirrel it away till cooler weather. Here it is, beginning with an introduction by BLIND, Inc.’s, assistant director, Dick Davis:

Most people think of Minneapolis, where Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions (BLIND), Inc., is located, as way up north. In fact it’s on the edge of the agricultural southern quarter of the state, barely 100 miles from the Iowa border. But stretching 300 miles farther north to the Canadian border is a different land, a land of small towns, great distances, and wilderness areas populated by deer, bear, moose, and timberwolves (who ignore people).

It’s a beautiful land of forests, glacier-sculpted hills and lakes, and low mountains like the Mesabi Iron Range, where a lot of the nation’s iron ore is mined. It was settled by fur trappers, loggers, and miners, who used canoes, horses, and dogsleds to cover the miles between isolated villages. Those forms of transportation have been replaced by powerboats, SUVs, and snowmobiles, but some of the old ways still linger on.

We at BLIND, Inc., are always seeking over-the-top activities for our students to do that uniquely highlight Minnesota--like dogsledding. Dogsledding is still popular in northern Minnesota, although more as a sport than as a form of transportation (snowmobiles have taken its place). The annual John Beargrease Dogsled Race, which ends in Duluth, brings competitors from all over the country. Minnesota mushers travel north to Alaska to compete in the Iditarod, the famous Alaskan dogsled classic. People we know who’ve tried dogsledding have described it as a rush, so it seemed exactly what we were looking for.

A dog team pulls a sled with one passenger and a student driver and coach on the runners behind.After searching the Internet and making some phone calls, we discovered Krystal Kennels in Grand Rapids, 200 miles north of the Twin Cities. Joe and Robin Oberton, the owners, host a number of school, college, and corporate groups each winter. But would they let blind people drive the sleds? Sure! In fact they’d employed a blind dog handler, who now works in Fairbanks, Alaska. Joe said he’d stand on one runner, the student would stand on the other, and he’d describe the country they were passing through, give instructions, and tell when to turn and when to stop.

In fact he wanted our students involved in the complete experience: harnessing the dogs, holding them (they’re strong) until the sled was ready to go, driving the sleds, and riding as passengers. It sounded like a good deal to us, so off we went to Grand Rapids, arriving at the Sawmill Inn about fifteen minutes before our orientation to dogsledding was to begin. We laughed when we saw the sign posted to the left of the door: “No Hockey Sticks Allowed.” Welcome to Northern Minnesota.

Harry Hogue is a BLIND, Inc., student from Arkansas, a warmer place, where dogsledding is not a local phenomenon. We asked him to write an article for the Monitor, giving his impressions of the trip. This is what he wrote:

If someone were to ask me, “What one thing do you think you will do during your training at BLIND, Incorporated, that will surprise you?” I would never have thought to answer “dogsledding.” Before the experience, like many other people, I really had no concept of what it involved. Only 10 percent of people have ever been dogsledding. All of the students, most of the staff, and the director went along for the fun, and everyone rode in and drove the sled. If the guides were nervous about having twenty-two blind people in control, they didn’t show it. The only accommodation needed or provided was that one of the dog handlers stood behind us on the runners to provide directions and ensure that the dogs didn’t lead any of us into trees, potholes, or snow banks.

Everyone had an incredible time; the only complaint was that it could have lasted longer. Because of the size of our group and the stamina of the dogs, we were outside for approximately three hours. This gave everyone at least one opportunity to ride and one opportunity to drive. Some people rode more than once.

I greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to drive the sled; the feeling of wind on your face is incredible, particularly considering that I had never before driven a vehicle under my own power. Everyone else expressed similar sentiments. Steve Decker, the computer instructor, said it was “an incredible experience!” Laura Oakgrove, Valerie Williams, Tavita Faasuamalie, and Jonathan McClung all agreed that it was “really nice,” “a lot of fun,” “really cool,” and, in Jonathan’s case, “It reminded me of Alaska.”

So what happened before our sled rides? We started the adventure the day before with the drive to Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota, followed by an orientation to dogsledding immediately upon arrival at the hotel. Joe Oberton, the owner, with his wife Robin, of Krystal Kennels, led the orientation with energy and pride. He was enthusiastic about having blind people participate in riding and driving the sleds and showed clear pride in his dogs and their abilities.

At one point during his orientation, he said he was not unfamiliar with blindness. He remarked, in fact, that he had a legally blind dog handler work for him before she moved to Alaska. In addition he had a blind dog as part of the dog teams that we would meet the next day. After the orientation all of us enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant, followed, for most of us, by an enjoyable swim in the indoor pool or a relaxing few minutes in the sauna. This relaxation was important, because, starting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, we would be on our feet for the majority of the day.

Joe prepared us to meet the dogs by telling us that they would “scream” in eagerness to pull the sleds. It was a cacophony of noise with nearly forty dogs simultaneously vying for our attention. I found the dogs, despite my previous expectations, to be quite friendly.

After meeting the dogs, we followed Joe, Robin, and one of Joe’s assistants to a local snowmobile trail that cut through the woods. While some students helped harness the dogs to prepare the team for the sleds, others discussed who would be first to ride or drive. Though some expressed nervousness initially about driving, once they had ridden, they were eager to try it.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I found driving to be far more enjoyable than riding. It went deeper than a simple sled ride. It was a physical sensation of freedom that represented the fact that, despite blindness, I could do lots of things that I had previously thought impossible. The experience opened possibilities for employment, leisure activities, and so forth that I had never considered possible.

While none of us drove the sleds without a dog handler traveling behind us providing directions, this was the same as it would have been for anyone else. No one, blind or sighted, goes through life without accepting some form of assistance. Sighted people depend on directions in an unfamiliar city; blind people do the same. Sighted people depend on reading print to access materials; blind people depend on Braille.

Attitudes are the overarching determinant of success or failure for any individual in any stage of life. We would have had a different experience in Grand Rapids if Joe and Robin had not expressed their enthusiasm and confidence in blind people and if we had not been willing to find a way to participate in this activity. It is the same at BLIND, Incorporated. When I walk through the door each morning, I expect and receive a feeling of confidence from every instructor here. It is the attitude, “Of course you can. Why wouldn’t you be able to?” This feeling—this attitude—naturally lends itself to success.

If you listen to something long enough, you will start to believe it. BLIND, Incorporated, is a six-to-nine-month adjustment-to-blindness training program for a reason: it takes much less time to acquire the skills of blindness than it does to acquire the positive attitudes that make those skills truly efficient and effective.

If someone hands me a piece of wood and says he or she would like me to make a project, I expect, because of my training, that I can. If someone gives me a recipe and requests that I prepare a meal, I expect, because of my training, that I can do so. If someone gives me directions to a place I have never been and asks me to bring something back, I expect, because of my training, that I can.

I do not worry about my performance; I will not worry about other people’s perceptions of me. These days I worry only whether or not I am challenging myself. It seems to me that challenging yourself should be the goal of everyone, anywhere, regardless of life circumstances. As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “The man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”


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