Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

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Winter in the North Woods

by Ron Schmidt

Shown here are Ron Schmidt and his dog guide enjoying the outdoors.From the Editor: Ron Schmidt grew up on his family’s farm near Springport, Michigan, where he managed the cows. He has a lifelong interest in the outdoors and astronomy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Michigan. He has raised twin daughters as a divorced father and has written a personal memoir and three children’s books based on his experiences.

Ron has always enjoyed pushing himself beyond his own notions of what was possible, and he likes reading about other people’s adventures. He credits his parents for expecting him to do everything that sighted kids could do, and he hopes that his experience in the North Woods in winter may inspire other blind people to challenge themselves to stretch beyond the expected. Here is his story:

I am awakened by a cold nose nuzzling my right ear. It is Groundhog’s Day, 2011, and my yellow lab Patti wants breakfast and a walk in the woods. I tell her the groundhog was frightened by his shadow and didn’t take the time to leave her any ham this year, just a few crackers and an extra slice of bread--her favorites.

Six weeks ago, we spent our first Christmas together at my rustic cabin in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We have no neighbors, and the logging road that ends at the nearest highway, three miles distant, is not snowplowed in winter. I wear snowshoes to pack down the snow and create a half-mile trail for Patti and me to use on our twice daily walks.

Once a foot of snow falls, we are isolated until mid April. That first foot fell on December 10, and I’ve been shoveling paths to the well, the outhouse, and the wood pile ever since. Yes, I said “outhouse.” I have no indoor plumbing or bathroom. I keep warm by loading my woodstove each day with two-hundred pounds of firewood my brother and I cut and split in June. I get my water from an outdoor hand pump like you would find in campgrounds. The pump freezes when the temperature falls below thirty degrees, so I have filled several storage containers ahead of time to prepare for the weeks when it’s usually twenty degrees in daytime and ten at night.

I have a propane tank I filled before the snow fell, and propane gas powers my kitchen stove and refrigerator as well as some overhead lamps I light with a match for visiting friends. I myself don’t need lamplight since I have been totally blind since age three from a disease I inherited. I heat up water on the stove for bathing and doing dishes. I have a cell phone I rely on for keeping in touch with my friends and family. When the batteries run low, I re-charge them using an electrical system I made from a couple of golf-cart batteries, an inverter, and a generator. With this system I can also listen to movies on my TV and keep my radio and Talking Book player running. That way I can enjoy favorite books, music, and news.

Since retiring from my job nine years ago, I have spent six months of every year here at my cabin. May through October has found Patti and me walking in the woods while listening to the many kinds of birds that also summer here. I feed them sunflower seeds and love to hear their varied songs and beating wings as they fly to and from the feeder. Ruffed grouse live in the marsh west of my cabin, and they drum with their wings in the spring. Loons and sandhill cranes live at the end of my small lake, and it’s thrilling to hear them call. In July and August I enjoy picking wild raspberries and blackberries that grow along the two-track roads Patti and I walk between my cabin and the highway three miles distant.

You might think I would get bored out here alone, but nothing is further from the truth. In summer I canoe, build campfires when the mosquitoes aren’t too ferocious, and entertain friends who drive north from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to visit. When I need my mail and more groceries, I ask a friend to pick me up, and we drive nine miles to the nearest town, where we have a fun outing with pizza or sandwiches I don’t have to prepare.

Now that the road’s impassable except on snowshoes, skis, or snowmobiles, this friend comes once a month on a snowmobile to bring me things I want or need, such as fresh produce, snacks, and chocolate. In the fall I stockpiled lots of canned goods, fruit, and soup, as well as pasta, frozen fruit, and meat, not to mention the Diet Coke I am lost without. I had to plan ahead to stock a myriad of other essentials, including dog food, toilet paper, paper towels, and other daily items we all use. My brother brought a pickup truck full of these things a week before the big snowstorm blew through.

Now I’m cozy and really like taking care of my basic needs without modern so-called conveniences that rely on power from electric lines, which all too often go down in storms and leave people without water, heat, and the ability to use their bathrooms. I never have these worries, and I feel great about that.

So this is my first winter at my cabin. I had thought about staying here through the winter for many years but chickened out when snow was imminent. I had always gone south and lived in a rental home with all of the conveniences we take for granted. I did like getting out with my friends for dinners, movies, and concerts but always wondered what it was like at my cabin. In the Snowbelt, where I am, the usual snowfall is 150 inches. I worried that a tree might fall on the roof and also wondered what birds and animals would be spending their winters here. I finally decided last fall that I needed a new adventure while my health was still good.

I’m gratified to know that I was encouraged in my adventure by my sighted friends, who have known me for years and years and have no doubts about my ability to function and enjoy the cold season without the need for sight. Many who do not know me well think I am foolish and bound to fail and to need rescuing. But they don’t know what a determined, competent blind person is capable of. They will be more educated about what people who are blind can do after this year. I hope they will no longer see blindness as an inability to do what one wants to do. As with all things we accomplish as blind folks, our own satisfaction is coupled with showing sighted folks that we are normal people. As a positive consequence, blind kids growing up now will have an easier time living and finding jobs they want to do and are skilled in doing. A very happy 2011 to everyone from Patti and me in the North Woods outside Grand Marais, Michigan.

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