Blind since birth, a St. Louis Park man is hitting the Appalachian Trail with GPS technology and a shot at making history.
Mike Hanson navigated a snowy hillside recently while hiking along a trail in St. Louis Park. The 44-year-old, blind since birth, will begin hiking the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail next week, guided by GPS technology that he has programmed into his cell phone.
Mike Hanson plans to hike the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail end to end, without ever seeing the ground under his feet.
On Monday in Georgia, the St. Louis Park man -- who lost his sight at birth -- will start his seven-month trek to Maine, navigating by GPS. He has mastered its use by cell phone and trusts global positioning technology to steer his every step.
"It gives me everything I would need to know about the trail but the view," Hanson said. "I will be able to hear and smell what is going on."
If he makes it, he'll be in select company.
More than 11,000 people have completed the trail but only three or four were blind, said Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. One was Bill Irwin, author of "Blind Courage," who did it in 1990 with a guide dog.
Steep, rugged terrain, strong winds, split-log bridges and changing elevation make hiking the Appalachian Trail a trial, Potteiger said. Veteran hikers commenting on a trail website are skeptical that GPS will give Hanson all of the information he needs, she said.
Hanson, 44, is driven to prove that visually impaired people are more competent, capable, independent and employable than is generally assumed. He arranged for his trek to be filmed as a documentary by Gary Steffens, of Fresh Image Video Productions in Mound. Steffens and Hanson met through a mutual friend.
The trip will cost them about $25,000. They have raised about $9,000 and hope to attract media attention as they go to raise the rest.
Wielding a white walking stick in each hand and carrying a pack filled with food, clothes, and batteries, Hanson expects to cover about 15 miles a day. He'll stop once a week in towns off the trail to shower, do laundry and recharge equipment.
Like other hikers, Steffens and Hanson will cook and eat together on the trail. But there is a strict agreement that Hanson alone will navigate.
"Mike is in charge," Steffens said. "I am just following him. I am not leading. If he gets lost, I get lost with him."
If he gets into physical danger, "I would have to do something about that," Steffens said. "I can't let him get hurt. Any group of people would do the same. Mike doesn't have to do more than the average hiker."
Hanson's quest grows from a life begun with a bad medical decision that cost him his sight. (He was born prematurely, and oxygen treatments burned his retinas.) Now, he is striking out to apply his skills and self-reliance to a once-unthinkable challenge. After two years of fundraising, planning and getting in shape, Hanson hopes his unusual journey will educate people and -- as a side benefit -- land him a job.
With a law degree from the University of St. Thomas, Hanson has practiced law through a volunteer lawyers network. He left a job in telemarketing, in which he felt underemployed, to prepare for his hike.
"He has direct experience with the fact that you can be tremendously skilled and not be employed," Steffens said.
The skills needed for the hike -- computer know-how, knowledge of technology, blogging savvy and independent thinking -- are all assets in the workplace, Hanson said. If people see in the film that technology is available that would allow them to hire a blind person, "I will have done what I wanted to do."
Hanson, who hunts, fishes and backpacks, said he would not have tried such a long hike before GPS technology became available. "Getting lost would have been highly likely and there were certain risks associated with getting lost in an outdoor setting that I am not prepared to take," he said.
Hanson chose the Appalachian Trail because it offered the most GPS data.
Three years ago he hiked 40 miles of the trail in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. He came away convinced that his equipment would work well enough that he could hike the entire trail.
He programmed his GPS software with points for roads, water sources, campsites, shelters, re-supply points, and landmarks every 100 yards. Pressing a button prompts a voice from the phone to tell him where he is, which direction he is heading, and how far to go to the next trip marker.
It took months to acquire the technology and master its use. He outfitted his phone with a program that verbally reads everything that appears on his phone screen. He was thrilled to find a receiver with a 32-hour battery life.
Finally, he installed the GPS, experimented with commands, and spent weeks learning how to use it as a guide to parks, stores and friends' houses. That freed him from having to choose a route ahead of time and memorize every turn.
"For the first time in my life I had something where I could walk out a door, hit a few keys and not have to spend a lot of time planning a trip," he said.
Steffens plans to show the documentary at film festivals next year. He and Hanson also plan to make regular blog entries on Facebook and make footage available for media. The Web address for the trip is www.hansonatcampaign.com.
Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711