Monday, July 27, 2009

Alaskan commemorates the day he was blinded by a bear

From the Juneau Empire:

"'After the bear left, I put my hand up to my face. It was really a mess. I felt bone tissue and flesh. My face between the bridge of my nose and the middle of my forehead was gone. My left eye was hanging down on my cheek and my right eye was gone. I thought, 'My God, I've been blinded.'"

- Lee Hagmeier, "A Boy is Blinded" in Larry Kanifuf's "Alaska Bear Tales"

July 27 is the 50th anniversary of the bear mauling that blinded former Auke Bay resident Lee Hagmeier (pictured). But rather than stay bitter, Hagmeier plans to commemorate the day with friends during receptions at the downtown and Douglas libraries.

"I'm enjoying being back in Juneau and looking forward to seeing people I haven't seen for some 50 years," the 67-year-old said. "I'm looking forward to seeing old friends."

Hagmeier's longtime friend, Doug Dobyns - who was with him the day he was blinded - will be at the gatherings to celebrate his friend's accomplishments.

"While it is not a celebration, this is a chance to commemorate the date of the event and also congratulate Lee for the achievements in his life," Dobyns said.

Another purpose of the commemoration is to thank the city of Juneau. At the time Hagmeier was blinded, the Territorial Sportsmen of Alaska created a trust fund to cover his medical and educational expenses.

"They really enabled me to get the surgeries and the years of education I did obtain," Hagmeier said. "The fund really opened up a lot of opportunities. I can't give enough thanks to the people of Juneau and how they helped out, so I'm very deeply indebted to them."

Hagmeier was only 17 when he lost his sight. He and Dobyns were fishing about a mile up McGinnis Creek, near Montana Creek, when Hagmeier decided to go into the woods - "with the express purpose of killing a bear," he says in Larry Kanifuf's "Alaska Bear Tales."

Hagmeier's story is completely documented in the 1983 collection of stories, but in short, a brown bear came out of the alders and mauled him.

"It picked me up by the leg three times and shook me, once under the shoulder," Hagmeier described. "Then I played dead, and it had bit me across the face. ... It's an incident where you really aren't thinking. It's just happening."

Aside from being immediately blinded, Hagmeier sustained minor injuries on his knee and under his left arm. After attempting to walk 30 to 40 feet, the pair decided Dobyns should go for help.

"Doug really did a heroic effort in making me comfortable and in obtaining assistance," Hagmeier said. "He was very mindful under terrific stress."

Dobyns blazed a trail with his knife out to McGinnis Creek, then downstream to Montana Creek, where he found two fishermen, Clark Meriwether and Ralph Shafer. He brought Shafer to help carry Hagmeier out, and Meriwether went to the sawmill on Montana Creek to call for an ambulance. A few men from the sawmill also came to assist.

"Actually, they pondered whether they should believe this guy," Hagmeier said.

Looking back on the incident, Hagmeier advises all outdoorsmen to be mindful when tromping through the woods.

"Unless there's reason, avoid getting into very thick vegetation where there's less visibility," he said. "For me, I thought since I had a rifle, I had a false sense of power. The gun seduced me into thinking (I was immortal) - and I was 17."

Since the incident, Hagmeier and Dobyns have remained close friends. In fact, in 1999, 40 years after the incident, the pair returned to the site together.

"It was good to go back," Hagmeier said. "He and I got very close to the location, and Doug carved our initials in a tree. We gave each other a hug. Then we came out and walked back out."

Hagmeier said the revisit was a way to "kind of clean things up a bit."

"It was a way of undoing what had been," he said, "getting a fresher perspective of where you were currently, bringing more into the present and letting the past be."


In addition to being well-traveled (to places such as the Philippines, Africa and Italy), Hagmeier has remained an avid outdoorsman.

While living in Juneau, Hagmeier took advantage of SAIL's and Orca's outdoor programs. He and his wife even did five one-week kayaking trips.

"I just enjoyed the camaraderie of being with other people, everybody accommodating each other's abilities or disabilities," Hagmeier said. "It felt wonderful to be out in the woods again. SAIL and Orca are wonderful programs."

In 1999, Hagmeier was even the first documented blind person to hike the Chilkoot Trail, and the following year, he hiked the Resurrection Trail on the Kenai Peninsula.

"He always wanted to get out and do more - more hiking and more camping," Christy Hagmeier said of her husband. "Lee and I have had a tremendous number of adventures together, and we will continue to do so."

Before retiring, Hagmeier enlisted local longtime friend Pat Leamer to hike some of the most challenging mountains in Juneau: Mount McGinnis, Thunder Mountain and Mount Jumbo.

"I'm probably the only blind person who's ever been up there," Hagmeier said.

"Anybody who has climbed those mountains knows what it's like to go up them," Leamer added. "So I admire his courage, and I admire his trust in me as a leader."

As far as how a blind person hikes a mountain, Leamer said he typically opens the back pocket of his backpack so Hagmeier can hold on during difficult terrain. Leamer said he has come to appreciate his friend's uncanny sense of his surroundings.

"Any place he goes, he's able to describe probably far more deeper than most of us," Leamer said of his friend. "When we're out hiking, he knows whether we're in the deep forest. He knows if we're on the ridges.

"On East Glacier Trail there are number of steps, and he has kept track of how many steps and what sequence they're in. He knows about the birds he hears in the forest. He just makes things come alive when you're with him."

On one occasion, Leamer wanted to get off to an early start in the morning.

"Lee called me and said, 'Pat, it's dark then. We can't get started then,'" Leamer described. "I said, 'Lee, what the hell difference does it make? You're blind!' He said, 'Yeah, but I want my guide to be able to see where we're going.'"

Leamer said he and Hagmeier have shared many laughs and "a lot of good times" over the years.

"It's not often in life that you find a friend who you can be that close to," Leamer said.
After recovering from his wounds, Hagmeier immediately started school at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., where he completed his last year of high school.

"I was bewildered and confused," Hagmeier said. "It took time to get around in my new reality."

Hagmeier said when he first put his finger on a Braille, it felt like a blob.

"It's easy to learn the concept of Braille," Hagmeier said. "But it's more difficult to get to where you're fingers are sensitive enough to distinguish the pattern."

At Perkins, Hagmeier found a niche in the track team, where he and his partner set the school record for the 2-mile run - 11.5 minutes on two separate occasions.

After graduation, Hagmeier continued school for five more years at Chico State College in California. He said he surprised himself, because at Juneau-Douglas High School he was a C student, but at Chico State, he graduated first in his class - suma cum laude, with a 3.96 grade-point average.

"That's what you can do I guess when you're not distracted," Hagmeier said, "not distracted by forests and beaches - and pretty girls."

Later, Hagmeier earned a Master of Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling and Doctorate of Educational Psychology from the University of Washington as well as worked as a prevocational specialist for the Northwest Regional Center for Deaf Blind Children and as a ___ at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Anchorage (1978-84). He also trained for four weeks at Seeing Eye Inc., a training facility for seeing eye dogs in Morristown, N.J.

Hagmeier and his wife, Christy - a deaf student he met at the University of Washington and married in 1980 - moved back to Juneau in 1984 to work for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

"He really struggled through one of the best universities in the nation, all the way through to get a Ph.D., and I very much admired him for that," Christy Hagmeier said. "There weren't any complaints. There was never any 'Woe is me.' He's just been a wonderful person to be with. We clearly are soulmates."

The couple stayed in Juneau until 2003, when Hagmeier retired to Lacey, Wash.

"You keep on pushing forward and you can usually do most anything that you want to," Hagmeier said of his accomplishments. "Put one foot in front of the other and you can overcome most difficulties."

Leamer holds his friend in high regard.

"I think what was so neat about Lee is that he has a master's and a doctorate, and he's a very knowledgeable person," Leamer said. "But when you're out with him, he's very humble, and he meets you where you're at. You just feel very comfortable in his presence."