Proving his point

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2011 - 10:47 AM

Blind hiker Mike Hanson demonstrated grit and independence on the Appalachian Trail -- and earned a CEO position as a result.

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Mike Hanson, on the helping hands he received along the way: “I have so many kind people to thank.”

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Mike Hanson, the blind hiker who spent seven months last year walking the Appalachian Trail guided by a global positioning system, is now back home in St. Louis Park facing his next challenge.

Blind since birth, Hanson undertook the Appalachian Trail to display the competence and independence that visually impaired people can achieve with the aid of adaptive technology. He spent two years programming a hand-held GPS unit to provide precise voice instructions over his cell phone.

With a walking stick in each hand, Hanson, 45, completed 1,700 miles of the 2,174-mile trail between March and October of last year.

He concluded his trip after receiving a phone call on the trail from Harlan Jacobs, president of Genesis Business Centers Ltd. in Columbia Heights, inviting him to "join a start-up company to provide real-time navigation to persons with visual impairments."

The call from Jacobs told Hanson he had done what he set out to do: "I had demonstrated my competence and independence" to the point of getting a job offer. Rather than return to finish parts of the trail he had been forced to bypass due to weather, he returned home for the business opportunity.

Now, Jacobs is seeking funding for the startup company with plans to make Hanson its CEO.

The company would offer "video guidance in real time that would enable a blind person to be assisted by a third party when he or she is trying to find something and the guide dog or the white cane are insufficient assistance," Jacobs said. "I think there is going to be quite an interest in the product. After we file a patent, we will be able to say more about that."

Hanson "obviously understands the market for assisted devices for the blind," and "anyone that can hike the Appalachian Trail" deserves an opportunity, Jacobs said.

GPS worked fairly well on the trail, but Hanson said he also relied on a paper map of the trail brought along by his travel companion, Gary Steffens.

GPS had some problems with the ambiguities of the trail, and it also added significantly to time spent finding the way, Steffens said. "The biggest enemy we were battling on the trail was that we weren't making the time that a sighted person would make on the trail."

To make the trip in a single hiking season, as dictated by their finances, they used the GPS but not exclusively, Steffens said. "It didn't solve every problem on the Appalachian Trail, but it does solve significant problems in everyday life. It provides an independence and autonomy'' that visually impaired people have not always had.

Steffens, of Fresh Images Video Productions in Mound, accompanied Hanson to film the hike for a documentary designed to open minds to what visually impaired people can do.

"People make a lot of assumptions," Steffens said. "If they don't know anyone visually impaired, they assume they can't do things."

When people see Hanson in the film scaling a slick, sharp cliff, they may gain a new perception and be willing to offer blind individuals more opportunities, he said.

"I have about 100 hours of footage," Steffens said. "I am very happy with the footage. It was challenging to get some of the shots on the top of a mountain with dropoffs below.

"Mike did a remarkable job. You will see how he kept going and overcame these huge boulders, day after day."

Steffens hopes to produce the video in three or four episodes and market them to cable television. He expects general interest in the footage. "You can't beat the Appalachian Trail for beauty. And what we were doing was inherently pretty dramatic."

Steep, rugged terrain, strong winds, split-log bridges and changing elevation make hiking the Appalachian Trail a trial for anyone.

Hanson remembers one mountain climb up a steep granite rock face in high winds and rain. "You basically crawled up very slick rocks by holding onto tree roots and hoping you didn't slip," Hanson said.

Along the way he also ran into drought and very hot weather from West Virginia through Massachusetts. Some days the temperature reached 100 degrees, and some trail water sources dried up.

Hanson appreciated the help from "trail angels" who give hikers food, lodging and other assistance.

One instance of "trail magic" Hanson recalls like this: "After six days of rain, wind and cold at Hog Pen Gap, a soaked jacket presented serious risk of hypothermia."

Trail angels "picked me up from the trail and within an hour, my gear was drying and I found myself enjoying delicious blueberry pancakes."

On another occasion, two guides "helped me find foot and hand holds on Mount Katahdin [in Maine]. I couldn't have made the climb without them."

A third time he came down with the flu near Bland, Va., and had to check into the Big Walker Hotel. The owner had heard about Hanson's trip and invited him to stay as long as he liked at no charge.

"We stayed two days and three nights and that would have cost about $190," Hanson said. "I have so many kind people to thank."

Hanson is writing a book about the hike and accepting speaking engagements.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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