Seven of the men and women on horseback will never "see" an eagle because they are legally blind. Some suffer, as well, from deafness. But every summer, in a remarkable show of courage, the Deaf-Blind Trailblazers, a group based in Seattle, travel on horseback into the wild. On this trip they ventured into the Pasayten Wilderness, half a million acres of rugged territory in the northernmost part of their home state. Sitting around the campfire after the day's ride, this year's Trailblazers do "see" the eagle as sighted members of the group give vivid descriptions of the bird's flight.
Even for a rider with all five senses intact, a trip into the Pasayten can be grueling. One of the most remote and primitive areas in the United States, it is dotted with glacial lakes and untouched pine forests that shelter bears, mountain goats and cougars. "Can you imagine folks who can barely see light and dark on a bright day being able to hike 20 miles into the mountains?" says Dick Blue, 61, a printing executive who is one of Trailblazer's founders and supplies mounts for the travelers. "Horses really are their open door into the wilderness."
This year's week-long expedition, the seventh since Trailblazers was founded in 1985, started at Billy Goat Corral, a trailhead 25 miles north of the remote town of Winthrop. Among those in the party were nine guides and helpers, including a wrangler, a cook and a wilderness ranger from the National Forest Service.
It took two days for the group to reach its destination, Sheep Mountain Camp, a rugged site 6,000 feet above sea level in the Cascade Mountains. During the entire trip, in carefully ordered formation, sighted riders traveled between the visually impaired. At the campsite, the blind riders shared chores with their sighted guides; they hauled water, mashed potatoes and washed dishes. A guide rope was strung up so they could make their way easily to the makeshift latrine. At night some slept under the stars, others in tents.
But for the Trailblazers, the most intense moments were spent not in a group but alone, straining to experience nature. Doug Hildie, 40, a counselor for the blind who suffers from optic atrophy, sat alone on a mountainside to isolate himself from what he calls "camp noise." He heard the rustlings of small animals foraging in the dry woodlands and the piercing whistle of marmots in a nearby rock slide. "What I couldn't experience visually," Hildie says, "was made up for by those quiet times when I sat and simply listened."
On the evening of the seventh day, the Trailblazers, dusty but proud, trotted into the familiar Billy Goat Corral. More at ease on horseback now, they covered the 22-mile return trek in half the time they had a week earlier.
For all of them, the week in the Pasayten was unforgettable. Maida Pojtinger, 48, may not have seen the golden eagle but she will retain other memories of life in the wild. "There's the feeling of being in the wide open spaces, riding horseback, all the wonderful smells," she says softly. "I felt a lot of other nice things, too. I heard the birds, and the water going through the creek. It kind of made up for what I didn't see."
—Harriet Shapiro, Dale Wittner in the Pasayten Wilderness
Eagle!" a man on horseback shouts. "Look up. There it goes. Did you see it? Did you see it?" Beyond the line of his pointing finger, a magnificent golden eagle skims the treetops before dipping out of sight. A few of the riders snaking down the treacherous mountain path do catch a glimpse of the enormous bird, but for most of the group the eagle soars only in the imagination.