As fall and winter approach, I thought it would be fun to sit down with Steve Johnson, a member of the Council Board and an avid sportsman, to get his perspective and recommendations on outdoor activities for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.
Q: How did you acquire your love of the outdoors and sports? Was your family involved in these activities?
A: I come from a family of hunters and fishermen, and I remember fishing with both of my grandfathers when I was young. When I was in second grade, my dad taught me how to operate a firearm. I dreamed of becoming a hunter someday and moving to the mountains of the western United States to take on the biggest and meanest game out there. I also learned to shoot a bow and arrow, and I enjoyed many warm fall days out in the woods, after the school day ended. On weekends, I hunted with my dad and brother. Eventually, our family purchased a piece of land in Clark County, where we have a cabin today. I have so many fantastic memories of hunting there--building tree stands and ground blinds and hunting woodcock and grouse.
Q: What is your favorite outdoor activity?
A: As a blind person, I have experienced many outdoor activities over the years, including downhill skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, camping, and even harvesting morel mushrooms, but hunting and fishing are at the top of my list. I have learned that hunting is not just about taking or harvesting game. That is a bonus and a gift. It’s also about the many other interesting experiences I encounter in the outdoors. Whether it is hearing an eagle swoop down to pick off an injured fish or watching a doe and her fawns come within a few feet of me, these are the experiences that keep me coming back.
Q: You lost your vision when you were 22. Did having vision prior to that have an impact on your interest in sports and the outdoors?
A: In 1986, I lost my sight, after being diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes when I was six. In 1991, I received a kidney and pancreas transplant. This had a tremendous impact on what I thought I would be able to do, in terms of outdoor sports. Eventually, I began to pursue my love of hunting and fishing again.
It wasn’t until 1999 when I was introduced to the Wisconsin DNR Disability Advisory Council that my attitude began to change. I became an official member in 2000, and we researched and later introduced legislation that allows legally blind hunters to use a laser sight to harvest game. The bill was passed into law in the fall of 2003, and this, for the most part, changed how blind and visually impaired people hunt. The laser allows for greater independence when shooting, and it is a much safer and more accurate way to operate a weapon and harvest game.
Q: What are some of the benefits of participating in outdoor sports and activities in Wisconsin?
A: To me, the greatest benefit is simply being outside and enjoying all the great outdoors has to offer. Being able to stay physically active is another plus. The challenge of navigating the rugged woods and meadows is not as easy as it seems. I appreciate the opportunity to see and hear things that you cannot experience in an urban setting. That can include sitting by a campfire and listening to wolves howling back and forth, a pack of coyotes hunting, or owls hooting.
Q: What advice do you have for blind and visually impaired people or anyone else who wants to become more active, particularly in Wisconsin, during the fall and winter?
A: This time of year is great for hiking and biking on our state trails. Although blind and visually impaired individuals can’t fully appreciate the beautiful change of colors, we can hear and smell the changes that are taking place with the season. Some of the best fishing happens in the fall, and wild game is plentiful--with migratory birds moving in by the tens of thousands--not to mention deer and turkey. Winter is a wonderful time for downhill and cross country skiing, ice-fishing, and ice skating. The important thing is to just get out there and enjoy the experience!