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On the Trail Again

Wednesday April 03, 2024

Mary Wilson sits beside her black Lab guide dog, Thor, along the Appalachian Trail.

To say that hiking is Mary Wilson's favorite pastime is an understatement. The GDB client and outdoor enthusiast is passionate about hiking and has set a goal to become the first blind woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. “Hiking with my guide dog is vital to my mental health and physical wellbeing,” says Mary. “Having a guide dog has been life-changing. I could never hike without a guide dog and certainly not the Appalachian trail.”

Mary says GDB’s Support Center was incredibly helpful when she wanted advice on how to prepare for the trip safely. Mary and Thor began their Appalachian Trail journey last year in Damascus, Virginia and headed north. GDB Field Services Manager Will Henry, a guide dog mobility instructor, and an avid hiker, joined Mary for a 50-mile portion of the trail. “Will has been a huge resource for me, helping me troubleshoot little things if they popped up,” says Mary.

One of those things was ensuring Mary had the right equipment. “I use a longer guide dog harness handle when I’m hiking than I do for urban work because I often have to walk behind Thor on a narrow trail and don’t want to injure my shoulder having to extend my arm for long periods of time,” says Mary.

Mary says Will shared his expertise of backpacking, guide dogs, orientation and mobility, and many other things to make their first fifty miles memorable, educational, and safer, noting that she and Thor improved their techniques for water crossings, traversing footbridges with no rails, going through cattle stiles, and managing other unique trail challenges. “I am incredibly grateful for people like Will who devote their lives to empowering people who are blind or visually impaired through the partnership of a guide dog.” Will says he and other GDB Field Service Managers are here to help clients like Mary live the life they want to live. “It was an honor to work with Mary and Thor and be a part of their journey.”

During the winter of 2023, Mary took a break to be with family. In March 2024, she hit the trail again, starting at the trail's southern terminus at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. She and Thor have hiked more than 700 miles of the trail. When the trail or weather gets tough, Mary says she just takes her time. “When you hike with a dog, it becomes their hike, not yours,” says Mary, noting that Thor’s health, safety, and happiness will always be her top priority.

Knowing that she would be hiking much of the trail solo, Mary says having Thor with her makes the journey less lonely and gives her peace of mind. “I feel so much safer having Thor with me,” says Mary, noting that Thor can find things for her when they get back to camp. “I can say to him ‘find the tent’ and he will take me back to my tent.”

When she does encounter other hikers on the trail, Mary enjoys sharing the impact GDB has had on her life. “It’s been great to educate people on the trail about what a person who is blind can do, especially when paired with a guide dog. It’s really neat when people can see the partnership of the person and guide dog working together.”

Mary says she will always be grateful to GDB for supporting her in her journey and helping her do what she loves. “The outdoors is for everybody,” says Mary. “Being able to hike again after losing my sight is just phenomenal for my morale. I was so active before I lost my sight. It was important for me to have a dog with the drive and stamina to help me go out and do what I want. Thor has changed my life.”

Categories: GDB Alumni, GDB Community