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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 21, 2006

Blind kids conqueror Haleakala

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Dave Eveland leads a group of blind teenagers and volunteers on the final leg of a four-day trek through Haleakala Crater. The five students who made the hike are Keao Wright, Leilani Kekahuna, Michael Paul Resh, Shannon Cantan and Jolene Mariano-Hardy.

CHRISTIE WILSON | The Honolulu Advertiser

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HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, Maui With its ankle-turning trails, boot-eating 'a'a lava fields and high-elevation moonscapes, hiking through Haleakala Crater can be a challenge even for the physically fit.

Imagine doing it blindfolded.

That is virtually what five blind Hawai'i teenagers accomplished this week during an unprecedented four-day trek organized by Haleakala National Park and Ho'opono Services for the Blind, part of the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Using their canes, hiking poles and assistance from seven adults, three of whom are also blind, the exhausted and dirty group emerged yesterday afternoon from the Halemau'u Trailhead at the 8,000-foot elevation.

"I miss my rice, I miss my shower, I miss civilization," said a cranky Shannon Cantan of the Big Island, who wasn't too thrilled about the whole adventure. "It was tiring and long."

But after a brief rest and some refreshments, the 16-year-old Ka'u High School student, who has very limited sight, was more reflective about the experience. "I saw probably the most beautiful things I ever saw, and the coolest sounds and even silverswords. I'm going to look back at the pictures and have a lot of good memories."

Jolene Mariano-Hardy, 16, of Waimea, Kaua'i, was elated to reach the end of the trail after the day's 4-mile hike, most of it up the near-vertical "Switchbacks."

"When I go home I can brag to my mom. She could never do what we just did," Mariano-Hardy said.

Ho'opono administrator Dave Eveland, who accompanied the group, is an avid hiker who has been in the crater many times over the past 31 years. He said he'd long thought it would be neat to bring some of the program's blind teenagers with him. So last August he called Ron Nagata, chief of resource management at Haleakala, to see if that could happen.

The two men are hiking buddies who met while participating in O'ahu Sierra Club events during the 1970s.

"Initially I said, 'Hmm, I don't know,' but he convinced me these people can do it," Nagata said, "and they don't want to be told they cannot do it."

Nagata said it was the first time the national park had sponsored a group of blind hikers, and Ho'opono officials said nothing similar has been attempted anywhere else in the country.

The teenagers underwent a year of preparation that included honing their camping skills at Camp Erdman on O'ahu's North Shore and undertaking five practice hikes with backpacks, the longest only 2 1/2 miles. Donations helped buy hiking boots, backpacks, sleeping bags and other gear for the students, and food and supplies were flown into Haleakala's cabins to await them.

Entering the crater Monday, they traveled 6 miles from the aptly named Sliding Sands Trailhead to Kapalaoa Cabin, where they spent two nights and performed a six-hour service project digging up weeds. On Wednesday, they hiked 4 miles across the crater floor to Holua Cabin, where they stayed their final night before heading up the Switchbacks yesterday morning.

Before leaving, they made a detour to explore a cavernous lava tube, reached by climbing down a long ladder.

Eveland said he thought the hikers would be able to cover a mile in two hours, but they made much better time, sometimes traveling at double that pace.

The hikers said the first day's leg was the toughest, because of the steep descent on the cinder and sand trail with uncertain footing. "You have to balance yourself a certain way," Cantan said.

Leilani Kekahuna, 16, of Nanakuli, said navigating the rugged terrain was no walk in the park. "Ho, it was very hard. I was tripping and falling everywhere, but we did it," she said.

Volunteer Virgil Stinnett, who is blind, said he used a hiking pole to help maintain his balance while "swishing" his cane around to locate rocks and boulders and the cliff's edge. "Coming up the Switchbacks I was, 'Ho, I want to stick to the wall.' "

He said he could sense turns in the trail by shifts in the wind.

Despite being blind, the hikers didn't lack for ways to describe their experiences among the crater's natural wonders.

"I was surprised at how big it was," said Michael Paul Resh, 14, of Schofield Barracks. "I thought it would be all rainforest but it's actually just dust and plant life. I got dust in my ears and dust in my nose.

"It was fun, tiring and painful," said Resh, who also complained of being kept up at night by some of his companions' snoring.

Keao Wright, 17, of Kane'ohe, had her own impressions: "It was really dusty and really cold and kind of silent."

Stinnett said he visualized "an open desert."

"We would feel the air and the different sounds at night when we went out of the cabin, all the indigenous birds. It's nothing we had experienced before," he said. "This was new and empowering. It's teaching them you really can do it."

Stinnett's wife, Katie Keim, also made the trek. She works for the Ho'opono program and, like her husband, is blind. Keim and Brook Sexton, another blind Ho'opono employee, were the last members of the expedition to reach the end of the trail, assisted by co-worker Jon Koki.

"It was pretty amazing to bring the kids up here and watch them succeed. That was really powerful for me," Sexton said.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.