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Blind, deaf hikers tackle Appalachian Trail

NEWPORT – The 2,160-plus-mile Appalachian Trail is daunting enough for most hikers. For Roni Lepore and Roger Poulin, the trail presents extra challenges.

Lepore, who is deaf, and Poulin, who both deaf and blind in one eye and has tunnel vision in the other, talked about their special relationship with the trail when they spent several nights with Carol and Ron Baker at the Huffman House Bed and Breakfast at Creekside Farm near Newport, which is half a mile off the trail.

Deaf hiker Roni "Ram Sham" Lepore, who acts as Special Service Provider, and deaf hiker Roger "Adventurous Cane" Poulin stayed at Huffman House B&B at Creekside Farm near Newport on their Appalachian Trail adventure from Georgia to Maine.
Deaf hiker Roni "Ram Sham" Lepore, who acts as Special Service Provider, and deaf hiker Roger "Adventurous Cane" Poulin stayed at Huffman House B&B at Creekside Farm near Newport on their Appalachian Trail adventure from Georgia to Maine.

The hikers had accomplished more than 600 miles by the time they stayed with the Bakers, after starting their adventure in early April from Springer Mountain, Ga., on the trail that runs from Georgia to Maine.

The Bakers, who thru-hiked the AT – from end to end – in 1999 and said they found it “extremely difficult.” They noted Lepore and Poulin “hike faster than we ever could. They managed around our house and ‘talked’ to us by writing things in a notebook.

“Roni is very patient and loving and really cares that Roger makes it all the way to Katahdin, Maine. Roger is determined to hike through ‘thick or thin’! He gets banged up a lot, but trudges on! He generally comes in to the pick up site (I shuttled them) after Roni. She whoops and hollers and jumps up and down and claps for him. She is truly glad that he has made it,” said Carol Baker. “We can’t fathom how either of them is doing this!”

Lepore’s trail name is “Ram Sham” for Rambling Shamrock. The New Jersey resident holds bachelor and master’s degrees from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in the area of Information Technology.

Maine resident Poulin’s trail name is Adventurous Cane. He was born with Usher Syndrome, the most common condition that affects both hearing and vision, which also comes with balance problems – not able to walk steady.

The two met at the Helen Keller National Center in Long Island Deaf-Blind Interpreters Training seminar three years ago.

“I went there to learn how to work with Deaf-Blind people in 2007,” said Lepore. “Roger told me about his dream to hike the Appalachian Trail and he was looking for a SSP – Special Service Provider – to hike with him. I agreed to work with him. A SSP is specifically trained and hired to work with Deaf-Blind individuals by providing visual and environmental information, sighted guide services and information accessibility to empower Deaf-Blind individuals so they can make informed decisions,” she explained.

“I visited Newfound Gap in Great Smokey Mountain National Park and saw the AT. I am an avid outdoor person myself, so I enjoy hiking and camping. On that day, I made a wish to hike the AT someday before I end up in the rocking chair since I thought it would be an ultimate adventure – visiting various environments across 14 states. When Roger mentioned his AT dream, I thought to myself it would be a great opportunity to help him to accomplish his dream and at same time, get my wish fulfilled.”

Poulin admitted loving adventure. “It is my big dream to hike on the AT with my vision and balance problems, so I know it is going to be a challenge for me to uptake the hiking. I want to find out if I can hike from Georgia to Maine. I want to show the deaf-blind community that they can do it regardless of their dual disability – deafness and blindness. I want to educate the world about how valuable the service of SSP is to the Deaf-Blind community. We are constantly in need of them,” he said.

Lepore described how they prepared for the journey: “Research, research and research. I spent a great deal of research on equipment, food, mail drops and much more via online, magazines, books, and people. I took some backcountry-related classes with Roger through REI in New Jersey and Pennsylvania the year before we began hiking the AT. I am a certified Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder (known as “Woofer”) though Wilderness Medical Associates,” she said.

“It helped me to deal with the emergency situations and injuries sustained in the wilderness which are different from the street – for example – getting to a hospital may be a few hours to days away from the trail. I felt comfortable to be able to make crucial decisions on how to handle situations in the wilderness.”

Poulin also took the classes through REI on backcountry camping. As for the food preparation, he used a dehydrator. He read a lot of books to learn about mail drops, food preparation, camping gear, and a list of essential items to bring with you on AT.

“By reading, talking with people, and researching, it helped me to understand better about hiking culture – average of miles per day, using the shelters, and treating the water,” he relayed.

Although she is deaf, Lepore does not require any special adaptations/equipment to hike the AT. “I wear a hearing aid, but I choose not to wear it on the trail because of sweat problem and it’s too expensive to lose it in the woods. It costs around $1,000. As for the support system, I do need support from time to time since I am working as solo SSP with him and do not have a second SSP to relieve me,” she said.

“It is a full-time job – not just 40 hours for a five-day week, but from sunrise to the time to go sleep on a daily basis. I get pretty exhausted from time to time, so I still ask around for some help from hikers, people or friends. It doesn’t happen often though,” she said.

Poulin uses trekking poles to help him to maintain good balance on the trail. “I also wear safety glasses for my eyes, protective guards from my wrist to elbow on my both arms, shin guards for my shins, and fingerless leather gloves for my hands to protect them from hitting into the trees or falling on the rocks,” he added.

Lepore and Poulin began their hiking trek from Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 6. By the time they stayed at the Huffman House, they had been on the trail for more than three months and hiked 666 miles.

“I think it is a cool mile marker and I am not a superstitious person,” said Lepore, referring to the number 666 that shows up in some horror movies and is mentioned in the Bible in the book of Revelation.

Their goal is to reach Katahdin, Me., no matter how long it takes them.

“It is not the question as when we will summit, but it is the test of our teamwork to accomplish Roger’s goal – to hike the entire AT,” Lepore said.

“We plan to arrive at Katahdin no matter how long it may take us to complete,” added her hiking partner, “by the end of this year or next year or whenever. “

Lepore explained among the challenges she faces on the journey are her own physical pains and discomfort. “I hiked after my foot surgery to remove neuroma from my right foot in January 2010. It was extremely painful to hike on my foot over the rocky trail or talus footpath for the first three weeks. I cried and dealt with my swollen foot every night. In mid-May, my foot finally healed enough for me to hike with a manageable pain level that I can tolerate,” she said.

She also confessed that she had to deal with her own illnesses on the trail, while helping Poulin and having “no sick days for an SSP on the AT.”

“When I become exhausted from all-day hiking or working with Roger once in while, I become an inefficient SSP because I can’t do my duty by providing the service that he needs, such as giving him the visual information, interpreting what people are saying, showing him where things are when he asks.”

She explained that she communicates with Poulin by “tactical sign language, which means Roger places his hands on my hands and I sign. He understands what I am signing to him without having to see me sign. It is not a problem communicating with him at night, but it is a challenge to communicate with hikers who do not know sign language without any lights in the campsite or shelter at night.”

It is doubly difficult for Poulin to climb over boulders, talus, shale, roots, and rocks on the narrow portions of the Appalachian Trail, and to maintain his balance without falling off the trail.

“My feet are sore and beaten up from time to time because it is extra work for me to maintain a good balance with my trekking poles over the rocky terrain.

My ankles twist from side to side, my toes blister from sliding and stopping going downhill,” he explained. “I stub my toes into the rocks and logs. My head gets banged up by hitting the low branches of an occasional tree. My legs sustain multiple cuts from time to time by hitting the cragged rocks and branches from trees or logs.”

Lepore said some of the toughest miles that they have travelled were in Virginia from Hot Springs to Erwin. “That was when I was stricken with my first illness. It was mind over matter to get myself up and keep hiking and working for Roger throughout this difficult episode. The first few weeks of extreme ongoing pain in my foot were difficult enough – from Springer Mountain to Hartford, Tenn.”

Poulin said for him, the toughest miles were before the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, N.C. “It was raining and getting dark at that time. I slipped and fell many times due to the muddy trail and slippery rocks.”

When asked about future miles she expected to be challenging, Lepore said, “I keep hearing about how tough and very rocky the terrain it is in the northeast part of Pennsylvania, so I am aware how it will be a challenge for Roger to hike over it. I am going to do my best to see Roger through this challenge in one piece and without sustaining any major injuries.

Her hiking partner agreed. “I heard from the hikers and read the book, written by a blind hiker named Bill Irwin, about how rocky the terrain in Pennsylvania is, so I am thinking about getting a rollerblade helmet and knee caps to minimize injuries from falling down.”

Lepore said they chose the Bakers’ Huffman House B&B after hearing about it from Neville and Michael, owners of Wood’s Hole Hostel in Pearisburg, when they went out for dinner at The Paradises Restaurant in Eggleston.

The Bakers supported the “slack packing which was a plus for us – to help us to move faster and be able to enjoy our hiking experiences more rather than working hard to hike over some difficult portions of trail with our heavy AT backpacks,” she said, referring to the ability to use lightweight day packs of supplies instead of what they needed for camping on the trail.

“What was even more wonderful is that they have farm animals where we can interact and watch them. It was a great idea to take a break from daily hiking.”

Lepore talked about some of their most memorable experiences on the trail so far.

“We hiked with a group of wonderful hikers for three weeks from Hartford, Tenn., to Damascus. It was so amazing to see how they learned American Sign Language and finger spellings in order to communicate with me and Roger. We supported and cheered on each other to hike on a daily basis. It was definitely a motivation for me personally during that time, especially when I was ill for a couple of weeks.”

Poulin said he had a wonderful time at Trail Days in Damascus the weekend of May 14. “It was great to meet some of the hikers again that we met prior to the Trail Days. I felt that they are part of my AT Family. “

When asked what the two wanted to share about their hiking experiences on the AT, Poulin said, “I met many wonderful hikers that were amazed at my ability to hike independently with my limited vision. They were wondering how I was able to hike with my trekking poles, on my own, while my SSP was hiking ahead of me. Some of the hikers hiked along with me and witnessed my falls, trips or injuries and were awestruck that I kept getting up and going on.”

He continued, “Individuals with various disabilities have different experiences while hiking the AT. For example blind hiker named Bill Irwin had good hearing and good balance and used his guide dog to hike on the AT. I am a deaf-blind hiker who is using a SSP to hike on the AT. Therefore his and my experiences are unique in their own way. “

Lepore said being deaf doesn’t stop her from hiking, “just because I simply cannot hear.”

“I am proud to be a deaf person. I hike because I love what I am doing – being part of the wilderness, getting away from civilization, getting in touch within myself, and meeting other wonderful hikers and people on and off-trail. It is challenging for anyone, with or without disabilities, to hike the AT in different ways – physically, mentally and/or emotionally.”

She also had some advice for people who meet those with disabilities: “When you meet anyone who has any form of disability for the first time, please do not be afraid to appear stupid or unsure as to what to do. Just ask the person how s/he would like you to communicate or interact with him/her. Please feel free to ask any questions, no matter how stupid you may think they are, because it is only way to learn coming from a person with disability. Most important of all, people with disabilities are human like everyone else.”

– Dianne Dinger, Special to The New Castle Record

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