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by Jim Price

Steve Bayly with yellow Lab Roxanne

Summers during college he worked on commercial fishing boats in the Northern Pacific. He was an athlete and he loved to ski. He and his wife even sailed half-way around the world in their own boat. The last thing Steve Bayly ever expected was to lose his vision.

He fielded a few concerned comments from friends in college at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver about his having lousy night vision, but his response was “No big deal.” The good news was his form of retinitis pigmentosa (RP) would develop slowly. He was in his fifties before he finally had to stop driving. Now 56, he decided to get a Guide Dog and trained at the Oregon Campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind.

"RP is really a catch-all term for the deterioration of the retina," he explained."There are probably a hundred different ways it manifests itself." For some, the symptoms can come on very quickly. On his first visit to an ophthalmologist, when he was in his thirties, the doctor told him he had RP and he had better start learning Braille."It was very unsettling. I took the day off of work and spent hours in the library reading everything I could find on RP. Very scary."

Fortunately for Bayly, he had a lot of years of nearly full vision left to pursue his career and interests. After college he spent his first eight years in the business world in real estate banking. When that division of the bank was sold, he and his wife, Andrea, took a couple years off. They bought a sailboat on the West Coast of France and took off. They ended up going as far east as Turkey, then turned west and eventually sailed across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean to Florida, where he had the boat trucked back to the Northwest.

Back home in British Columbia, sailor-turned-businessman Bayly decided to reinvent himself as a general contractor and builder. He spent the next 20 years or so putting together real estate projects and finally settled in Whistler, close to his beloved skiing venues. His business experiences made him a natural for a board membership at the Whistler Athlete Village. He also serves on the board of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program, which stages downhill and cross-country events for athletes with disabilities. And even though his vision was 20-400 the last time he had it checked a couple of years ago (and it has continued to deteriorate), Bayly still skis. He said it’s usually with his wife out front and a friend to the rear, all of them communicating by radio. Last winter he managed to hit the slopes about 15 days.

As he told his story, there was a soft snoring sound drifting up from the cushion on the floor beside him. His new partner, yellow Lab Roxanne, was resting up for yet another training run into downtown Gresham, Oregon. "She is amazing," he reported."We have been together only a week and a half and already I can’t imagine not having her along for the ride."

Once Bayly’s vision reached the point he needed help, he visited the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to learn about cane travel and other available programs. For some reason his advisor there was "down"on dogs. "He told me I didn’t want a dog; they were a ‘pain in the a**’. I guess I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I went along with that idea." Fortunately, a few months later he met Paralympics participant and GDB graduate Bruce Gilmore. "He was on his third or fourth dog and couldn’t imagine getting by without one. That’s when I decided to pursue the idea."

Bayly said his main reason for getting a guide dog was independence. "At home I’m like a dog with my wife, whining; ‘Take me for a walk. Take me for a walk.’ She’s a very loving person, but she has her own life to lead. Having just returned from somewhere, the last thing she wants to do is go for a walk. Now I can take care of myself."

Bayly was quick to praise the new two-week curriculum at GDB. "If it was still four weeks, I simply wouldn’t be here," he said. "At this time in my life I could not get away for that long." He loved the 2-1 ratio of students to instructors, and said he has been very impressed by the organization’s eagerness to innovate. "They truly are cutting edge in their business, and I just don’t see that very often anymore. They are also very caring people, but not in a sappy way. There is a good peppering of humor and sarcasm."

As he got ready to head back to Canada, Bayly said he was leaving with a sense of responsibility to the staff, puppy raisers and supporters of GDB. "There are a lot of dedicated people who have sacrificed much for me to get Roxanne. I take that responsibility very seriously."