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  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    With the aid of his seeing eye dog, Quinn, Nashua resident Randy Pierce hikes up a rough trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Randy Pierce of Nashua
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Randy Pierce's dog, Quinn is more than a best friend. He's his fifth sense - sight. The two are inseparable.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Randy Pierce uses a raised relief map to locate elevations of mountains in New England.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Randy Pierce's dog, Quinn is more than a best friend. He's his sixth sense - sight. The two are inseparable.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    Quinn wears hiking shoes as well, protecting his pads from wear and injury.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    With the aid of his seeing eye dog, Quinn, Nashua residents Randy Pierce and his fiancee Tracy Goyette hike up a rough trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    With the aid of his seeing eye dog, Quinn, Nashua residents Randy Pierce hike up a rough trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    With the aid of his seeing eye dog, Quinn, Nashua resident Randy Pierce hikes up a rough trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    With the aid of his seeing eye dog, Quinn, Nashua resident Randy Pierce hikes up a rough trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
  • Staff photo by Karen Lovett

    Nashua resident Randy Pierce suits up Quinn with hiking shoes before hiking up a trail in Pack Monadnock State Park Friday, June 25, 2010. Pierce, who is totally blind, depends on Quinn to lead him around obstacles along the way.
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dog helps blind man scale the heights

On a day in early summer, a man and his dog set out for a hike.

The man wore khaki-colored hiking pants and shades, and wagged a black hiking stick.

The dog wore dark red hiking booties to protect his pads, and wagged his yellow Labrador tail.

They ventured to the Wapack Trail in Temple, which features a steep, craggy, somewhat menacing start that eventually settles down into easier pleasantries.

Together, the dog leading the way, they stepped through an easy pathway leading to the sharp verticals.

“Hop up,” the man said repeatedly, signaling the dog to go ahead.

This section was tricky. They carefully hoofed around stony corners and wobbly rocks. They steered around young trees parked mid-trail, and low-hanging branches as threatening as whips.

“Adventure dog!” the man called out with a grin, hoisting himself up a boulder.

On this hike, the Labrador was the leader. The negotiator of risky spots. The navigator of the course.

The man followed merrily, offering unbridled love and showers of “good boy” praise to his best friend.

“Whatcha got, buddy?” the man asked enthusiastically as the dog sidestepped a fat, would-be-ankle-breaker root.

They brushed by smoothly.

Time and again, the team worked up the precarious landscape.

Then, at one point, the dog stopped suddenly, cocking his blond head, seemingly to question the man about a next move.

The man handed his trust to the dog.

“You pick the road,” hiker Randy Pierce said with a smile to Quinn, the Labrador. “You’re the guide. I’m the blind guy.”

Blind spot

Pierce was born in Nashua, but grew up in the northern reaches of New Hampshire. His tiny childhood hometown of Colebrook neighbors Vermont, the border of which Pierce often crossed as a kid to scale Monadnock Mountain in Lemington.

Pierce was an active child, carrying his enthusiasm for sport into adulthood. He played recreational basketball and still follows the New England Patriots with religious fervor. (He was named their “fan of the year” in 2001; he has missed just one home game in 20 years.)

Then, in 1989, at age 22, Pierce was eyeing a blade in a fencing class when his instructor noticed something wrong: Pierce’s blind spot was far larger than it should have been.

The instructor told him to have the problem examined.

Eventually, doctors discovered that Pierce’s optic nerve had swollen because of a mysterious neurological condition. In just a week’s time, Pierce lost all the vision in his right eye and half the vision in his left.

Pierce – who at the time had just graduated from the University of New Hampshire with an engineering degree – said he was terrified.

“My life, in my mind, was coming to a complete end,” he said.

Doctors didn’t understand the cause, even after Pierce spent more than a month at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

With one blind eye and tunnel vision in the other, Pierce began to use a cane.

“I became ashamed of it,” he said. “I felt broken, crippled. I had enough vision to see the looks I’d get. … The worst was pity.”

It wasn’t others’ fault for pitying him, he said, but it hurt: He was a capable, adventurous 20-something guy.

Pierce’s blindness grew progressively worse during the next 10 years. Various episodes in 1993, 1996 and 1998 reduced his pinhole vision to mere sensitivity to light and dark.

By 2000, Pierce knew that one day, “The lights wouldn’t come back on.”

He began preparing for complete blindness.

Pierce practiced cooking with the lights off. He started using vocal computer software. He began closing his eyes while traveling on the street, testing his ability to walk in a straight line.

He also took up karate, which he felt would improve his focus, orientation and general body awareness.

Eventually, Pierce, who describes himself as a “high-energy, high-affection dog lover,” felt the next natural step would be to get a guide dog.

In the summer of 2000, he was paired with Ostend, a lovable, reliable golden retriever.

While training with Ostend at a guide school in Oregon, Pierce felt it again: an episode of fogginess in his head, an indicator of bad things to come.

On a day when Pierce and Ostend were practicing their skills on a bus, Pierce’s last iota of vision blurred and faded to black.

He began to cry. Ostend noticed, springing up to rest his head on Pierce’s knee.

For a moment, the man’s sight came back. He glimpsed Ostend’s face.

Then, the world went dark for good.

Subtle communication

Quinn wasn’t trained to be a hiker.

Rather, his primary job is to help Pierce be aware of and avoid obstacles. His methods are much faster than a cane.

For example, if Pierce had to find the front door with his cane, he would scan the whole wall, possibly tripping up other interior doors before determining the real exit.

With Quinn, Pierce can simply say, “Where’s the door?” Then they go there.

“It takes me 15 minutes to get to the bus stop with a cane,” said Pierce, 44. “With Quinn, it’s less than five.”

Pierce, who is 6 feet 4 inches, walks about five miles an hour on the straight and narrow.

But hiking is a different story. In steep areas where a sighted person could achieve one mile an hour, Pierce can travel about a third as fast.

On the mountain, it’s all about subtle communication. Pierce and Quinn operate in ways that a casual observer can’t decipher.

Quinn assesses the whole picture, from ground to the air, looking for barriers. He uses his body to tell Pierce when a single-file approach is necessary.

“His devotion is amazing,” Pierce said. “He’s looking for, ‘Where are my sides? My shoulders, head, knees? Do we have this?’ ”

Then, Quinn picks a route. The metal harness tells Pierce whether the dog is moving left, right, up or down slope. Constantly listening for Quinn’s footfalls as a model for his own placement, Pierce then takes his steps.

Scrambled rocks underfoot are always the hardest part of hiking.

“Every time you put your foot down, who knows what’s going to happen?” Pierce said.

“Quinn evaluates future steps and stabilizes me.”

Earlier this spring, the duo embarked on a week-long excursion across the Pemigewasset Loop, a route along the Twin and Franconia mountain ranges. To give Quinn a break at one point, Pierce had another hiker guide him. They lasted about four steps before tripping.

Quinn works so well, in part, because less is more, Pierce said. The dog doesn’t offer an opinion about whether something is going to be tough or not. He just finds a way.

This kind of thing gets Pierce marveling.

“I’m three times his height, three times his weight and I’m walking alongside him blind,” Pierce said. “He puts himself in jeopardy for me. Imagine doing that for 15 hours?”

On the trail, Pierce’s stream of acclamations to Quinn is nearly constant.

After all, Pierce pointed out, “Which time, when he saves me from falling on my face, does he not deserve praise?”

Partnership sealed

In 2003, Pierce sank into what he called “the lowest point in my life.”

Without warning, the still mysterious neurological disorder flared again, this time attacking his cerebellum – the area of the brain controlling balance. Pierce suddenly found himself wheelchair bound.

Around the same time, Ostend – his first faithful guide of six years – collapsed with a sudden discovery of cancer. He died in May that year.

For the next two years, Pierce worked to dig himself out of the trenches. Through medical treatments, eventual graduation to crutches and finally to a hiking stick, Pierce got on his feet.

“By 2006, I started making good progress,” Pierce said. Losing Ostend, he added, “almost made me more focused. It’s OK to step back, just as long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going.”

In the fall, the time was right to get a new guide dog.

Pierce connected with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide school in New York. The matching process, he joked, is like “Match.com for dogs” – meaning the profiling is extensive.

Pierce was interviewed about his living habits and needs. With a 36-inch inseam, Pierce’s comfortable stride is a jog for the average Joe – never mind the average four-legged pooch.

Pierce needed a fast-moving pup for his frequent trips to downtown Nashua. And he needed one that was OK with a weekly visit to Gillette Stadium and its 68,000 other Patriots fans – not to mention the away-game tailgating shindigs at Pierce’s Nashua home.

Last, he needed a partner willing to tag along for adventure.

Guiding Eyes seemed to have just the dog in mind when Pierce went to New York in October 2006. Quinn was a 2-year-old yellow Labrador with a quick pace, happy spirit and thwacking tail. A picture from his puppy days shows him perched atop a flight of stairs with a handwritten note: “Stairs? I want to climb mountains!”

After two days of his own training, it came time for Pierce to finally meet Quinn, who bounded across the room to greet his new charge with two kisses.

In the same moment, a partnership was born and sealed.

Positive influence

With a couple years of walking together under their belts, Pierce and Quinn discovered they could pick up the pace.

They could run.

Then, the duo decided to push their limits again: In 2009, Quinn, Pierce and Pierce’s girlfriend, Tracy Goyette, tried hiking.

Pierce met Goyette in 2007 through mutual friends. They discovered a common love for martial arts and the outdoors, among other things.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing. I would love to connect with him,’ ” Goyette recalled.

Sometime later, the pair – plus Quinn – crammed into Goyette’s little MINI Cooper, headed on a 10-hour road trip to Pennsylvania for a friendly camping weekend. The couple clicked.

“He’s been such a positive influence on my life,” Goyette said. “I’ve never met anybody who has encouraged those around him in such a way as to not be nagging, but to inspire people to grow to new heights. …

“I really honestly think that this is a function of who he is. It doesn’t have anything to do with his blindness, but it certainly helps because people see he’s out there earning a second-degree black belt, and he’s out there hiking mountains and running races with his guide dog. It’s like, ‘Geez, maybe I can get off the couch and go to the gym.’ ”

In May, Pierce arranged to hike with Goyette and friends up Welch-Dickey in the White Mountains. It’s Goyette’s favorite hike. At the summit, Pierce proposed. She accepted.

Still, there are some tough aspects to their relationship, Goyette said. For one, when they get married, Pierce won’t get to see his bride.

“It’s a little bit of a sadness, but as far as managing life together, our personalities are so well-suited,” she said. “His health concerns me and I worry about him, but Randy’s an independent guy and he doesn’t want someone to mother him.

“It’s a hard line sometimes to find the balance between being helpful and not being smothering because you care and you worry about people, and that’s a natural instinct. But it’s something that I think we’ve balanced.”

On the other hand, Pierce joked, he also can’t comment on Goyette’s morning bed-head.

“Bad hair days don’t count when you’re married to a blind guy,” she said.

When Goyette started hiking with Pierce and Quinn, she described feeling “frightened at each obstacle, whether it was something for Randy to stumble upon, bash a knee or crack a skull. I was sure that Quinn might miss it.”

Most times, he didn’t.

Quinn isn’t invincible, and Goyette occasionally needs to warn him and Pierce of serious danger. But she also doesn’t want to get in the way of Quinn’s job.

“When I notice a particularly rough spot, I do worry and I pause and look back, ready to chime in with a word of warning,” Goyette described in a blog entry.

“What is my most common sight when I do that? I see Quinn with as much concern on his face as I feel at that moment. I also see this remarkable dog making the right decision most of the time.

“Seeing Quinn’s work day after day does inspire trust and comfort and has taught me, through experience, to believe.”

Last summer, after reaching the top of the Wapack Trail in Temple, Pierce drank in the moment. He’d achieved something new, something that had seemed out of reach.

Maybe, he thought, he could do more.

In September, Pierce, Goyette, Quinn and some friends tried Mount Osceola, a challenging, 4,300-foot climb in Waterville Valley.

The loose rock underfoot tested Pierce’s each step. It was a struggle to make the top.

“I thought about how hard it was, but how satisfying,” Pierce said.

Well, heck.

As a blind man, he’d earned a second-degree black belt in karate. He’d waded through the Everglades in Florida. He’d body surfed in San Diego.

What’s one 4,000-foot climb when he could do all 48 in New Hampshire?

The great 48

One man described himself as former 300-pound couch potato who could barely make it to the refrigerator, let alone hike a mountain.

Somehow, he’d become inspired to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers – and in three years, he did.

Another writer described how her grandmother had introduced her to the splendor of the White Mountains, so she climbed them in honor of her ancestor.

A third person described first climbing a 4,000-footer in summer camp, topping his last 50 years later as a retiree.

These are the kinds of stories that Eric Savage reads all the time on applications to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Four Thousand Footer Committee. As secretary of the committee, Savage has read people’s many reasons for scaling the 48.

Never in his six years, though, has Savage heard of a blind man and his guide dog making the attempt.

While there are no specific records of people with disabilities having accomplished the feat, Savage believes Pierce would be a rarity.

“As far as I know, I don’t have anyone in the club who’s applied with that kind of disability,” Savage said, noting the membership of about 9,400.

Pierce, Quinn, Goyette and a crew of friends – which includes an experienced hiker – plan to become members of that club in time.

They’ve pledged to climb all 48 in the name of their newly formed nonprofit, 2020 Vision Quest. The organization is designed to raise money for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and Guiding Eyes For the Blind, where Pierce met Quinn.

The quest, Pierce described, “epitomizes using small steps and community to accomplish a grander result.”

Indeed, New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers include some monster peaks, such as the northern Presidentials – famous for their height and upper exposures – and some marathon climbs, such as Mount Isolation.

Every applicant takes varying periods of time to complete the 48, Savage said, but many sort of stumble into it, hiking here and there until they suddenly have 20 done, which inspires them to go on.

Does it surprise him that a blind man and his guide dog would attempt it?

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Savage said, adding, “We’ve had 100-odd dogs do it, too.”

Independent goal

This morning, Pierce, Quinn, Goyette and their crew set off for the summit of Mount Washington, the state’s highest peak, grazing the sky at 6,288 feet.

After that, Pierce and Quinn plan to climb the other 47 mountains within the next 10 years.

But in typical Pierce fashion, he wants to do it in half the time.

That way, Pierce and his trusty partner, Quinn – already 5 years old – can finish the quest as a team.

Just the way they started.