A Different Look at the Cumberland Trail

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Experiencing the Outdoors Through The Eyes of the Blind

By Stephanie Mallory

When hiking down Tennessee’s scenic Cumberland Trail in the spring, the first thing you may notice is the lush green color of the trees, the birds as they flutter from branch to branch or the sunlight as it filters through the canopy, but for 10-year-old Katie Kilgore, her experience on the trail mostly came through what she could hear, touch and smell.

A visually impaired student at Barger Academy, Kilgore and 43 other visually impaired and blind students from 35 schools in the Chattanooga area took full advantage of a beautiful spring day back in 2005 to hike down the Rock Creek segment of the Cumberland Trail in Hamilton County. Designed to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act, this trail made it possible for these students to experience the nature on a very up-close and personal level.

“I had never been hiking before, but I loved my experience on the trail,” says Kilgore. “I liked the quietness. I liked closing my eyes and listening to the birds in the trees. I enjoyed touching the leaves and splashing the creek with my cane. I could see the clear blue sky, the shining sun and the large trees.”

An Amazing Day

Suzanne Goodemote, vision specialist for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said the field trip was “absolutely amazing.”

“This field trip gave many students the opportunity to experience hiking in the great outdoors for the very first time,” Goodemote says. “Throughout the hike and afterward, many of the students came up to me and said it was by far the best field trip that they’d ever taken.”

Both students and volunteers spent months preparing for the hike. The Cumberland Trail Conference, which builds and maintains the trail, joined up with local partners to make sure the students had the best time possible all the while making safety a top priority. Included were the American Hiking Society, which in partnership with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga developed a Braille map of the trail and a CD featuring bird songs of the Cumberland Trail for the students to listen to.

“The students spent a lot of time listening to the CD, so that when the day came, they were actually able to identify the birds by their songs. They were also already familiar with the trail thanks to the Braille map,” say Goodemote.

Helping Hands

The Hamilton County Department of Education – Office of Visual Disabilities brought its staff to assist with students’ needs and to share information about the visually impaired with volunteers. Tennessee State Parks provided three rangers to inform the students about the trail. The Lions Club sent volunteers who were experienced with working with people who have visual disabilities, and Reflection Riding sent master gardeners to assist the students with planting native plants along the trail and the parking lot.

The first thing the students did upon arriving at the trail was to teach the volunteers how to be sighted guides. They taught the volunteers the same techniques that a guide would use on any street. Once the volunteers were ready, the students and their volunteers split into two groups. The first group walked along the trail while the second group aided in reforestation by planting native plants along the trail and parking lot.

Kilgore says she truly enjoyed her hands-on involvement in the trail’s preservation.

“I liked planting the small plants in the dirt,” Kilgore says. “It was fun. I liked the way the plants felt in my hands.”

After the children planted the plants and hiked the trail, they got to experience something, which for many of them was the highlight of the trip. The park service rangers put on chest waders, entered the water and invited the students to join them. The students took off their socks and shoes and waded in the water with the rangers’ assistance.

“My guess is that none of these children had ever done anything like that before,” says Goodemote. “Sadly, these kids are often the voiceless population. They’re there, but many people don’t recognize them. They fade into the background. That’s why this field trip meant so much to them.”

When they weren’t hiking, planting plants or splashing in the water, they were eating lunch and listening to banjo music played by park ranger Bobby Fulcher.

“Fulcher is a wonderful musician, and his banjo playing definitely added to the enjoyment of the trip,” Goodemote says. The Ideal Hike

Goodemote credits her husband Jeffrey Hunter with the idea of taking the children on a hike down the Rock Creek segment of the trail. Hunter who is the American Hiking Society Southeast Trail programs director told his wife that they were developing an American With Disabilities Act trail and suggested that the trail would make a great field trip for the vision-impaired students.

“Many of the vision-impaired students are also handicapped in other ways,” says Hunter. “Some are confined to a wheelchair, so I knew that the paved section of the trail would provide those students with an opportunity to experience the outdoors in a safe environment.”

Hunter says the highlight of the day for him was seeing the smiles on the students’ faces and hearing their laughter.

Goodemote says they hope to take the students on many more similar fieldtrips in the future.

“The Office of Visual Disabilities is working with these students to build the foundation for their lives, and fieldtrips are an integral part of that process,” Goodemote says. “With the help of the community partners, we’re exposing the students to a variety of activities and opportunities. Our current emphasis is pre-employment working skills, building a community garden and, in a year or two, a Braille Trail.”

Dayton Ogletree, 17, from Hixson High School, said he would definitely like to go on more hikes, but that he learned a very important lesson during his hike down the Cumberland Trail.

“I learned not to wear new shoes,” Ogletree says. “Hiking is a muddy experience. I messed up my new shoes. I'll wear some old, beat up ones next time.”

A Little Bit About the Cumberland Trail

The Cumberland Trail, a Tennessee State Scenic Hiking Trail, became Tennessee's 53rd state park in 1998. The construction of the Tennessee hiking and backpacking trail is a public-private partnership, an example of the power of volunteerism. The Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park will contain a core corridor of 300-plus miles of trail beginning in the Cumberland Gap National Park (Ky) and stretching south to Chickamauga Chattanooga National Military Park and Prentice Cooper Wildlife Management Area just outside Chattanooga. In addition to providing multiple recreational opportunities, this protected greenway will act as a buffer to protect water quality and provide natural habitat for animals.

Currently 150 miles of the Cumberland Trail are open and ready for exploration. This includes the Cumberland Mountain Segments above LaFollette and Jacksboro and in the Cumberland Gap National Military Park, the Grassy Cove Segment on Black and Brady Mountain in Cumberland County, the Tennessee River Gorge Segment in Prentice Cooper State Forest, and the Obed Wild and Scenic River Segment in the Obed River Gorge and Catoosa WMA.

The Cumberland Trail wanders among the remnants of the Cumberland Mountains that once rose as high as the Rockies. The trail represented a barrier to all who dared push through storied gaps westward onto and over the Cumberland plateau. It now provides a linkage north to south, forming natural connections and opportunities for scenic vistas and curious geological formations.

The Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) is a non-profit volunteer organization that builds, maintains, promotes, organizes volunteer efforts, and provides activities on the Cumberland Trail. All of the programs, backpack and maintenance outings, hikes, and workdays are open to the public. Except for a few special programs, there is no charge.

For more information about the Cumberland Trail, check out www.cumberlandtrail.org.

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