Ultrafit: Tapping his way along the Appalachian Trail

With the help of a voice-enabled GPS, Minneapolis attorney Mike Hanson, who is blind, is training for the hike of a lifetime.
By Stephen Regenold, Special to the Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)
Last update: October 09, 2007 – 8:25 PM
On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, Mike Hanson zipped on a red windbreaker, checked his GPS device, then set out to hike a dirt trail at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. It was a training day for Hanson, a 42-year-old attorney from St. Louis Park who next March will start hiking the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, solo and unsupported.It would be a big deal even if Hanson, a lifelong outdoorsman, weren't blind.
"I want to show the independence of people with disabilities," he said.
Indeed, a journey on the trail -- which Hanson anticipates will entail eight months of travel at about 10 miles of trekking per day -- defines self-reliance: Hikers live out of their backpacks, pick up food once a week in towns, and sleep under the stars each night for weeks on end.
Detailed maps help hikers navigate the trail's twisting route. But for Hanson, who will bring no maps and does not use a guide dog, progress each day will be made by literally feeling his way along the trail, tapping a cane thousands of times a mile to avoid roots and rocks.
A voice-enabled GPS system will alert Hanson of his proximity to preprogrammed waypoints -- trail shelters, huts, road crossings, streams, mountain peaks -- keeping him on course as he treks through the wilderness.
"GPS is changing the way the blind and visually impaired can explore and learn about the world," said Janet Dickelman, president of the American Council of the Blind, Minnesota. "We're seeing the very forefront of the movement."
At Theodore Wirth, where paths weave through the woods adjacent to Highway 55, Hanson practiced his technique. He held a GPS-enabled cell phone to his ear, pressing the 1 key for a prompt.
"Olson Memorial Highway Service Road, 670 yards northwest," piped an electronic voice.
"I know where I'm at now," he said.
Hanson's GPS system, which consists of a small receiver unit and a software-enabled cell phone, is a custom setup assembled a year ago for about $1,200. GPS data for the Appalachian Trail is available from trail clubs, government agencies and hiking websites. But to customize the data for his expedition, Hanson has spent more than 100 hours synthesizing these sources, uploading thousands of points of latitude and longitude along the trail's nearly 2,200-mile course.
"If it goes as planned, I should never be more than a few yards from a GPS point," he said.
Earle Harrison, president of Handy Tech North America, a New Brighton company that sells products for the visually impaired, said Hanson is something of a pioneer. "He is among the first to adapt the GPS system for a wilderness expedition."
Hanson will carry two GPS units, 10 batteries and a small solar panel to charge equipment. USB thumb drives will hold extra copies of data. As a backup parachute, Hanson has old-fashioned audio cassette tapes that describe in detail every mile of the route.
"I'll be out there alone," Hanson said. "The system needs to be fail-safe."
Tapping through a practice run
It was 11 a.m. at Theodore Wirth when Hanson paused to take a reading. The trail ahead skirted a lake, swooping northeast past a marsh where the sun burned mist from the ground. He held the phone to his ear for a cue, then trekked on.
Walking steadily, Hanson tapped his cane on the trail once, then into the rough beside the path, back and forth in a staccato rhythm, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. His feet adjusted to the terrain, dancing around roots, setting firm on dirt, waiting momentarily to feel for traction, then stepping ahead.
"This feels like some thick brush," he said, raking his cane at hip height through trail-side vegetation at a junction.
Hanson will train all winter while seeking corporate sponsors to help finance the trip. His website, www.blindhiker.com, went live last month.
A local production company, Travel'n Light Films of St. Bonifacius, plans to create a documentary. Dan Miller, executive director, said the plan is to film Hanson along four sections of the trail, following for a week at a time.
Blind since birth, Hanson has accomplished much, earning degrees in law, speech-language pathology and psychology. He has hiked, camped and fished his whole life. Now he hopes to show the world what raw ambition can do. Highlighting a new technology comes in as a close second.
At Theodore Wirth, now heading back to the trailhead, Hanson picked up the pace as voice cues piped in from the phone, signaling points of reference.
"A big part is remembering the terrain in case you have to go back," he said. He stopped by a pond, frogs creaking quietly below. He said he could feel the sun on his face.
The trail veered left ahead, then down a hill, a large rut tracing its descent where water had worn through to roots. But Hanson hiked without pause, touching the cane into the green brush beside the trail, then onto the hard-pack dirt, feeling for footing, then stepping confidently ahead and onward into the woods.
Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column the Gear Junkie.

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