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A trail with blind in mind

Sanctuary path offers nature, solo

Jerry Berrier, who helped make an audio tour for the Sensory Trail in Norfolk, reads a Braille sign along the walk. Jerry Berrier, who helped make an audio tour for the Sensory Trail in Norfolk, reads a Braille sign along the walk. (BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / May 25, 2008

On this trail, the blind will lead themselves.

The Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk is opening a path in the woods designed especially for sightless hikers. With a guide rope, informational plaques in Braille and other innovations, its creators say that when the facility's Sensory Trail officially opens Thursday, it will give the vision-impaired a rare opportunity to do what the sighted take for granted: experience nature in solitude.

Jerry Berrier of Shrewsbury, a retired Verizon worker who helped the Massachusetts Audubon Society develop the trail's accompanying audio tour, recently walked the path with his wife, Elaine, and guide dog, Sobe. Because he can't see, he said, it's a rare day one of them isn't by his side. He's thankful for the help, but said he would welcome some independence.

"I'd like to have time to be by myself a little bit," he said. "I'd like nothing more than Elaine to dump me off at the start of the trail and say, 'OK, see you in half an hour.' "

With rope strung along posts lining the 1,000-foot trail, Berrier could walk from the trailhead at the sanctuary's education center to the path's terminus at Kingfisher Pond without help from anyone. That is especially important for the newly sightless, who often haven't learned how to guide themselves, he said.

"It's for everyone, not just someone like me who is willing to take risks as an experienced blind person," he said. "There's a big difference between a guy like me who's always been blind and someone who has been blind since age 60."

A thousand feet might not seem far, but Berrier said the trail will allow blind people to walk slowly and savor the sounds and smells of the outdoors. "You're not going to get on the trail and hoof it," said Berrier. "You might take it more than once."

An avid birder who carries a directional microphone rather than a camera to log the species he encounters, Berrier said the trail is perfect for sightless naturalists seeking a properly researched trail, where the local flora and fauna has been documented in Braille, large-type text, and audio tracks formatted for MP3 players.

At 11 stops on the trail, small plaques identify the immediate environment, whether it be a red maple tree or a spillway under a bridge spanning Teal Marsh, for hikers.

But while the blind might need to be told about their surroundings, they'll also pick up aspects of the environment that sighted people might well miss.

At a stop alongside a field, where a plaque used Braille and large letters to describe the open space, Berrier stood and listened.

The breeze suddenly picked up. Before the group of MassAudubon members walking the trail with him could put their finger on a change that had wafted through the air, Berrier spoke.

"What is the strong smell that just came through here?" Sanctuary director Doug Williams answered him. "It's the mustard behind you," he said. Then Williams realized he was mistaken.

"No, it's the apple tree."

Berrier's wife led him to the tree. Berrier poked his nose into an apple blossom and nodded his head in affirmation. "I have a very keen sense of smell," he said.

Area Lions Club members and others donated $25,000 to construct the trail, with much of the labor volunteered by local Boy Scouts, said Williams. The librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Kim Charlson, helped edit the trail's Braille and audio materials.

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