One of the questions I am often asked is how do you navigate in wintery weather. Is it harder? Well, yes, but then it is harder for everyone. Having said that though there are some adjustments that blind or partially sighted folks may need to make that others may not. Most of it though is pure common sense and safety.
As I was walking in my yard over the holidays I thought about this and thought I'd share my musings with you.
A bit of background first. I grew up in London Ontario. Yes, snow belt country, and learned to travel with a white cane – yes, in the winter when I attended my local high school. In looking back on it now, what I remember most is losing stuff! Out of my pockets, shoulder bag, you name it. I used to carry my shoes with me and yes, I lost one of those too. I made some changes fast, like leaving my shoes in my school locker. This had the added advantage of stepping in to warm toasty footwear when I arrived.
Aside from that, I did develop some savvy winter mobility tricks. Some of which I still use today. Why not all of them you ask? Read on and you'll see.
Initial discovery, know the lay of the land before you step out the door.
This may seem obvious but if you have little or no vision you may not always think to look out the window when you first wake up in the morning. Or you are in too much of a hurry to check the weather report. Particularly if you are a young and foolish high school student as I was. Or, shame, you think you know better even though people tell you it's snowing and to be careful.
On the move.
Once you step out the door you are greeted with the elements. All of the obvious things apply such as dress warm, plan your route, allow extra time and so on. But there are a few others that blind and partially sighted travelers may need to consider.
- Sounds are very different in snowy conditions. Generally, acoustically, sounds are deadened, or masked, and you need to learn to analyze the winter environment differently. However, the crunch of snow underfoot as you walk can provide sound clues that work very well in the right conditions.
- Glare and reflection. If you have some vision, you may use the reflection off the snow to assist you in navigating, but the winter glare can also be a drawback as well and you need to experiment to see what works for you.
- Knowing what's underfoot. As any skier can tell you the type of snow conditions make a difference. The same applies here. I made a science out of this from determining the best footwear, to how I moved my feet when walking. I remember I was rather picky about gloves too, as I needed to feel my cane through them and use it in such a way that I had an idea of what was ahead. Now that I have a guide dog, this last point is not as crucial, except that I still need to grasp the harness and feel how she moves to alert me of possible hazards on our chosen path.
- Pay attention! This again may seem obvious and it is something we all need to do, but don't step forward if you are not sure what's ahead. This helps keep you oriented in the direction of travel. Using the traffic as a guide often works well with this one.
Arrived safe and sound.
Now that we've arrived at our destination, I thought we'd tackle some frequently asked questions on the subject of navigating the winter wonderland. If you have others you'd like to share, feel free to post a comment to the blog, and tell us what tips you've found work best from your experience.
Now, on to the Q&A.
What is the biggest challenge for winter travel?
Answer: Blocked street corners and cross walks. I find these particularly problematic for several reasons. First, ensuring you are lined up for a straight crossing is difficult if you can't get there because of a snow bank. It causes trouble on both sides of the street, as after you have made the crossing, where do you step up on the other side?
Are there other differences travelling in winter using a guide dog versus A cane?
Answer: I found that having a guide dog reduces the sheer mental concentration needed to analyze the environment. Your dog will do its best to find a clear path, though you still need to know where you are, and the direction you are travelling. It's simple really, take care of your dog and he/she'll take care of you. The team aspect plays an important role in these crazy weather situations. And speaking of teamwork. Remember to be neighbourly and thank those who shovel their sidewalks. Coming home from school I'd know when I was approaching home as most of the houses on our street had clean sidewalks, signaling clear sailing ahead. Great when you wanted to get home fast and out of the cold.
How can you tell if you are on the sidewalk with all the snow? And what about that dreaded ice?
Answer: I've developed what I call the snowman's shuffle. It works reasonably well, and literally keeps you grounded and aware of what's under your feet. Though since having a guide dog I don't do the "shuffle" as much as I used to because of the increased pace of travelling with a guide dog. Though Having said this, there are real advantages to stopping to check out tricky terrain when using a cane that you might not do when working with a dog. As for ice, believe it or not you can often detect surface changes underfoot as you walk. The old adage applies, be careful where you step and pay attention to your surroundings. Ah, we're back to common sense again aren't we.
With all this concentration going on, do you still like winter?
Answer: Yep, but not as much as I used to, as I have become older and wiser. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Happy travels all and stay safe. Spring will be here soon. March 20th to be exact. Hmmm, that makes it 77 days from the time of this blog post. J