(The outdoors is for everyone, including people who cannot see it. The blind experience the world in ways the Austin Smokisighted can’t fully understand. When I came across Facebook posts by a woman writing about taking her blind nephew Austin on a ten mile overnight backpacking trip on Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Big Creek Trail in the Tennessee woods I reached out to her, and Austin, for an interview. Like many people I underestimate the abilities of the sightless. After this conversation I hope I ‘see’ a little deeper.

Both Austin and his Aunt Cat participated in this interview. )

Q:First, some background. Austin, how old are you?

Austin: 19

Q: What are some of your interests in school and hobbies?

Austin: I enjoy playing and singing music, I play the guitar and drums. I also enjoy studying history.

Q: You’ve been blind since birth. Is the vision loss “legal” or “total” blindness?

Austin : Legally blind in left eye – I can only see a few really bright lights (like the sun) and large shadows, Totally blind in right eye due to glaucoma.

Q: Congratulations on your backpacking trip. Was this your first?

Austin: Yes.

Q: Do you have other trips planned?

Austin: Not right now.

Aunt Cat: We will likely wait for the weather to warm up a bit before our next hike.

Austin groupQ: Most of our readers, and me as well, will have trouble imagining how we would experience the outdoors without sight. Could you tell us some of the highlights of your backpacking trip? What sticks in your memory?

Austin: I recall noticing the different scents of plants along the trail and the different sounds of the creek depending on where we crossed it. (open area/holler/etc).  I enjoyed our campfire, singing to my aunt and cousin with the river in the back ground.  I enjoy being out in nature, it’s very relaxing.

Austin iceAunt Cat:  We took time during our hike to ‘show’ Austin the huge rocks covered with icicles along the trails edge. Austin identified each time the trail turned away from the creek and when the rock walls on the sides of the trail changed to wooded areas.  We hiked 5.3 miles on the Big Creek Trail where we pitched our tent at GSMNP Backcountry Campsite 37 (Walnut Bottoms).

Q: Cat, you led the trip. What considerations did you make in your planning?

Aunt Cat: First, let me say that Austin is an amazing young man and has never allowed his lack of vision to prevent him from doing anything from he sets his mind to, from barrel racing horses to playing in the marching band.  When he voiced an interest in hiking with me and my son, Hunter, I did not hesitate. Considering that most trails are not wide enough for me to act as Austin’s guide while hiking, I started teaching Smoki, my SDiT (Service Dog in Training), additional tasks so she could provide Austin with visual guidance and act as a counterbalance (should he slip).   Otherwise, my biggest concerns were the same as they would be for taking any person on their first backpacking trip. First and foremost, I wanted to make sure he enjoyed the trip.  A friend helped me identify an easy/moderate trail with a wide footpath.  I mapped out the route for water sources and identified where we would camp. We determined what food/snacks to bring and I taught Austin how to wear his pack and use his gear. Finally, I monitored the weather to ensure we had the correct clothing and gear to stay warm/dry – overnight temperature was expected to be in the mid-twenties, with a slight chance of rain.

Austin Smoki 2Q: Austin, tell us about Smoki. What breed is she?

Austin: Smoki is a female, 19 month old Bluetick Coonhound.

Q: How long have you had her?

Austin: Smoki is actually my Aunt Cat’s dog that she is training as a service dog.  I do not use a seeing eye dog on a daily basis.

Q: Austin, I understand you hunt. Could you explain what’s involved in hunting for a blind person?

Austin: First you must always have a guide willing to work one on one with you.  While in the stand and/or ground blind my guide (normally family) gets set up behind me, when my guide sees an animal (I hear it), they get the gun aimed on the animal.  We wait for the right moment and when they say pull, I pull the trigger to harvest the animal.

Q: What’s your proudest harvest?

Austin: Thanks to the Outdoors Without Limits (OWL) program, I was able to harvest my first 6 point buck last year.  It was very exciting and I’m glad I was with family and friends during this experience.

Q: Thank you, Austin and Cat, for this interview.