Saturday, March 25, 2023

Participation: Kicking Horse wedding

Riding the gondola at Kicking Horse Resort in
Golden, BC (Canada)

Many of my friends love skiing.  Some are so obsessed that they talk of nothing but snow reports as soon as the temperature drops below 50 degrees.  Several of them volunteer with the alpine ski program at Outdoors for All - an organization which offers outdoor adventures to people with disabilities.  It is through my own participation in this ski program that I re-discovered active outdoor life post-wheelchair, leading me to the discovery of other outdoor adaptive adventures and a re-definition of my self-identity.  It is also through this organization that I have met good friends and that I have been able to participate in the ski culture and its discussions prevalent in the Pacific Northwest.

Mountain top wedding at
Kicking Horse Resort

One of these ski-loving friends recently married another ski-loving person, and they aptly exchanged their wedding vows on the top of a 7700 foot mountain at Canada's Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.  

Chalets and lodges at 
Kicking Horse Resort
The mountain-top ceremony was followed by a reception in a chalet at the 3900 foot base.

The way from the gondola
to the wedding terrace

In order to reach the ceremony, guests rode up on the resort's gondola and crossed a swath of snow to reach the restaurant terrace.

In order to reach the reception, the majority of guests donned skis and followed the newly-married couple down the mountain to the reception in the chalet at the base.  About 50 people skied together for nearly 4000 feet down the catwalk and headwalls of the green runs.

I am overwhelmed by the amount of detailed planning that must have gone into this weekend, as well as by the number of people who showed up and and joined the ski procession down the mountain from the ceremony to the reception.  Although the "how" was vague to uncertain until the last minute, with help and creativity, I was able to participate in this amazing weekend.

Waiting for the gondola
on the Dynamique,
on top of the dolly
A major part of my participation was the equipment.  I rented a Dynamique sit ski from Outdoors for All in Seattle, and they included a dolly to transport it.  I transferred from my wheelchair to the sit ski at the lodge's main patio behind the locker room, from where Ted pushed me to the gondola.  At the gondola, the liftees helped me ski onto the dolly.  They then stopped the gondola temporarily, which allowed my friends to push and pull the dolly (with the ski and me on it) into a gondola car. At the top, the gondola was temporarily stopped again, and I was helped out of the gondola to the edge of the concrete (un)loading pad, from which I slid off of the dolly onto the snow.  Ted pushed me across the snowfield to the terrace, while the liftees sent the dolly back down to the base (a procedure they were obviously used to).  

Ted and I skiing down

I watched the ceremony from my ski, and afterward I joined the group for the ski down the mountain to the reception.  I went last, after the skiers and snowboarders, because I ski across the whole face, and because I anticipated falls (I hadn't really skied for years, due to the pandemic).  

Looking over the valley 
from the top
before the ski down

As with many situations, it takes a village.  The bride and groom checked with me about the wheelchair in several situations.  The staff at Kicking Horse -- especially the sales coordinator (Rachel) and the liftees --  were eager to help and to offer suggestions.  The wedding guests --both old friends and new -- held the sit ski, helped slide the ski onto the dolly, helped maneuver the dolly on and off of the gondola, blocked for me while skiing down, and helped to pick me up when I fell over (yes, I did that a few times).  A big thank you to all of them for their help.  

Posing with the bride
after the ceremony

Between the people and the equipment, I was able to participate in an amazing weekend and to feel like a part of the weekend, the festivities, the wedding, and the group.  

Watching the ceremony ...
from outside the terrace!

I can't overstate my gratitude for this feeling of participation and belonging.  It is, I know, not to be assumed or taken for granted, and I was fortunate to experience this confluence of people and opportunity.

I would, however, be remiss, to omit the fact that even in the height of inclusion, I felt like I was on the fringe.  We couldn't stay with the rest of the guests, because the on-mountain lodge was not accessible (no Act for Americans with Disabilities in Canada!), and because stairs prevented me from accessing the food and the restroom at the reception.  This is, in no way, to detract from the kindness and concern of the people involved.  It's just a fact of life for people with disabilities that is probably only noticed/felt by us.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Redwoods National and State Parks

In my experience, the hardest thing about the Redwoods National Parks was getting there,  I planned to meet my brother and his kids there in Spring 2000 ... but Covid jumped onto the scene, and the parks closed.  After the pandemic closures abated, I hoped to go with my husband, but West Coast wildfires closed that area in in late summer 2000.  Finally, in the summer of 2021 conditions allowed us to meet my brother and family there for several days of tree hugging and neck-crimping gazing.  

and a separate picture
for the tops!
It was a wonderful trip, followed by the second most difficult challenge -- transferring my experience to words online.  Despite a fantastic trip, accompanied by well-documented and accessible trails that were artistically photographed by my teenage nieces, I was stymied by by my own reliance on technology (I usually keep notes on my mobile phone, but there was no electricity to re-charge the
battery), as well as the procrastination inherent in a busy life and in human nature.  Of course, the longer I waited, the more difficult it became to reconstruct my travels and travails, based solely on photographs.   Fortunately, others have documented the accessibility of  CA redwood trails in detail, and I can at least provide encouragement to go (GO!) and direction toward some useful information.

Accessible cabin
at Elk Prairie in 
Prairie Creek Redwoods

The northern redwoods region in CA includes Redwoods National Park and 3 state parks.  Redwoods National Park has no developed campground of its own, but it is home to back-country campgrounds, a visitor center, and several redwood groves and trails.  Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is the most steep and inaccessible, although Mill Creek Campground and several beach overlooks are wheelchair accessible.  The most accessible hikes are found in Prairie Creek and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks -- each boasting a visitors center, at least one developed campground with a few accessible sites and restrooms, a few accessible cabins, and a network of accessible trails.  

Accesible restroom --
except for the threshold
and the loose gravel!
The great thing about national and state parks is that most of them try to comply with the ADA, whenever possible.  In general, visitor centers, restrooms, vault toilets, picnic grounds are more apt to be accessible than in non-governmental areas.  The problem, of course, is that accessibility -- even ADA compliance -- is not always practical, complete, or even effective.  For example, although there are many "accessible" restrooms in these parks, several of them are built on concrete pads with a 2" threshold (sometimes
adjoining a soft surface).  And the visitor center at Prairie Creek State Park is indeed accessible -- once you get to it, which entails going up a short yet steep bank.

ADA campsite across from
the field of elks
We ended up camping at the aptly named Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek State Park, and our campsite provided front-row observation of the herds of elk grazing in the prairie that draws tree-weary tourists from all over.  Our campsite wasn't very private in front, but it was very accessible -- with a large paved center and a nearby accessible restroom with a separate accessible toilet/shower.  There were also accessible cabins for rent nearby and there were accessible campsites more surrounded by trees behind us (though they seemed more crowded).

The large herds of large mammals were impressive, but the true stars were the redwood trees themselves.  Towering over 200 (and a few even over 300) feet and more than 50 feet around, these giants watched over us mortals as we travelled between groves and craned our heads upward to gaze.  Several of the trails in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park were wheelchair-accessible (see below). 


Cal-Barrel Road in Prairie 
Creek Redwoods SP

Even those not wishing to hike could take a gentle stroll or roll underneath the trees and feel their majesty. In fact, one could drive on Cal Barrel Road or on the Newton B Drury Parkway and see and feel the giant trees without even exiting the car.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, at the north end, also offers a multitude of choices for visitors with wheelchairs.  In fact, it was really a coin-toss as to whether we camped there or in Prairie Creek.   This
park also boasts accessible picnic grounds and waysides, redwood groves, campsites, and trails (see below), as well as drives along the big trees. such as the Howland Hill Road. 

The Redwoods parks offer excellent trails for hiking with wheelchairs. Several paved, boardwalk, and dirt trails are firm, wide, and well-maintained, with good thresholds.  Of course, some trails have gentle to serious slope, and there is some cross-slope on hilly areas.  

CA has done an excellent job of documenting slope, cross-slope, and other accessibility features in printed literature and at trailheads.  The non-profit group Save the Redwoods has done an outstanding job of including disabled visitors in its marketing.  In fact, they have actually teamed up with the Disabled Hikers to publish a guide to hiking in the CA redwoods for those with disabilities.  

In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Redwood Access Trail (.7 mile ow), Revelation Trail (.3 mile loop), Foothill/Prairie Creek Trail (2.3 mile loop) and the Big Tree Wayside/Circle Trail (.16 mile) are all accessible. 

In Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the Simpson Reed-Petersen Memorial Trails (.93 mile loop) and the Leiffler Trail (.88 mile ow) are accessible.  

Two of the more famous redwood groves are only sort-of accessible but worth it if you can do it.  Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park both are truly magical with their displays of huge trees, surrounded by wood sorrel, ferns, and rhododendrons.  The trails around both groves (. 5 mile for Stout Grove and 1-2 miles for Lady Bird Johnson) are mainly accessible, with wide, moderately firm dirt surfaces that are well-maintained and seem to be kept clear.  (Some areas have slopes steeper than 1:12, so hikers in manual chairs may need assistance in the groves.) 

Entrance to Lady Bird
Johnson Grove
Unfortunately, both groves are reached via a very steep slope.  There are
blog posts from a hiker in a power chair who was able to go down and up, but hikers in manual chairs will definitely need strong assistance. 

I frequently encountered
roots in trails;
almost all could be
Keep in mind that this is a land dominated by nature. Even in summer, the air was cool in the woods and even cold and foggy at the coast.  Phone connectivity was spotty to non-existent.  On trails, we frequently encountered tree roots which had broken through above ground or had pushed up the trail in their attempt to do so. Thresholds between trail and bridge or boardwalk were generally well-maintained and low exposure, although I can easily imagine this may change in inclement weather.  There were numerous fallen trees, although in my experience the trails had always been cleared for through-hiking. We had to schedule our travel between parks around major repair work on Highway 101 between the two state parks.

I found the trees and forests magical, the cool temperature lovely, the crowds manageable, and the accessibility surprisingly good.  I have a feeling that recent publications for disabled hikers make accessibility decisions even easier and worth a return trip!

For more info on this area, the following websites may provide helpful information:

Many people also visit the redwood trees farther south, where there is a famous drive-through tree, as well as several accessible hikes.  The following websites may provide helpful information:

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Sources for Wheelchair Hiking Trails -- March 2022


Wheelchair Wandering (WA & beyond, esp: 5/17, 5/18, 8/18, 11/20, 4/21)
Rolling Washington  (Western WA)
Tales of Trails  (national)

Online organizations:
Outdoors for All (WA wheelchair and bike rentals)
Disabled Hikers (WA guides and programs)
Ian's Ride (West Coast, annual multi-day trail ride to promote accessible trails)

Rugged Access for All by Chris Kain (national)
The Disabled Hiker’s Guide to W WA and OR by Syren Nagakyrie (upcoming) (Pacific Northwest)

Online videos:



Trail Databases:
TrailLink (national (former railroad) trails, filter for accessible trails)
AllTrails (national trails, filter for accessible trails)
WTA (WA trails, stay tuned for improvements to accessibility)

Also, look for webpages from state and national parks, webpages from forest lands, bike trails, and closed roads.


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Mt Rainier National Park

Clutching the brakes on the steep paved trails
at Paradise in Mt Rainier National Park

In different online forums, I've seen the question, "Is Mt Rainier wheelchair-accessible?"  Even though it's in my own backyard, I never really knew the answer, so I decided to do some research.  The answer will be disappointing to lovers of clarity, since it depends on what you mean by "accessible" and what you want to do.

Mt Rainier from Paradise trails

In early September, my husband and I spent three days at Mt Rainier National Park.  Answering the question of accessibility did not even cross my mind until about half-way through our visit, so there was not nearly enough time to explore this park of over 200,000 acres.  Acknowledging that the park is huge, I wanted to narrow my exploration  to what was unique about this place -- the mountain, with its alpine meadows, and the big trees below.  Even with this truncation, the area is too large for such a limited visit, so I relied not only upon my own experiences, but also on previous posts, suggestions from friends, and the insightful guide book, Barrier-Free Travel: WA National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers by Candy B. Harrington of Emerging Horizons.  In addition, I trained myself to think of this as a contribution to that answer, rather than a comprehensive conclusion.

Blazing fall colors
from Paradise meadows at 
Mt Rainier National Park
Before I get to accessibility, let me briefly go off on a tangent of beauty.  The magnificent and awe-inspiring Mt Rainier floats above the horizon at a distance, boggling the mind as to how earlier humans could have understood it.  Covered in (unfortunately melting and receding) snowfields and glaciers, the lower half boasts fragile and lush alpine meadows.  Further below, the park visitor can enjoy mountain views, rushing rivers, and big trees.  The growing season is short, but the meadows explode with colorful wildflowers in the second half of summer, berries (and berry eaters) around Labor Day, and fall colors in mid- to late- September.  Our visit corresponded with the last warm(ish) sunny day of the season, rewarding us with the picture of a mountain seemingly on fire, as the mountain ash, vine maple, berries and other plants of the alpine meadows were awash with fall color.  The insane beauty of that day was definitely a highlight -- even in a life filled with beautiful memories.

Mt Rainier from trail near
Myrtle Falls, Paradise

Now, on to the main topic -- accessibility.  It's important to remember that Mt Rainier is a 14,411 foot volcano, and because it is so close to sea level, its prominence is over 13,000 feet.  This means that the land around the mountain is necessarily extremely steep, and accessibility needs to be accommodated to this geographical reality.  My conclusion? The accessibility of the park is related to your goals.  If you want to see the mountain up close, the park is quite accessible.  If you want to experience the mountain by hiking its trails, not so much!  Here's my humble run-down:

Visiting the park

You will definitely need a car and the ability to drive curvy mountain roads.  An Access pass, available for free by mail to disabled visitors, can be used to gain entry into the park.

Viewing the mountain

The main reason for visiting the park is to experience the mountain up close.  This is best accomplished by visiting the tourist areas of Paradise and Sunrise.  As the official park brochure reads, "Most visitor centers, restrooms, picnic areas ... are accessible or accessible with help for wheelchair users." To me, this is frustratingly vague, because "most" does not mean "all" and "accessible" is different from "accessible with help."

Parking lot at Paradise in
Mt Rainier National Park

The Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise is fully accessible.  Outside, there is a picnic area on pavement,  but no specific tables designed for wheelchairs (wheelchair users can sit at the table ends).  The large paved parking lot fills up quickly, but there are many disabled parking spots to the right of the visitor center and near Paradise Inn at the top.  There are seasonal accessible restrooms inside the visitor center and year-round accessible restrooms with flush toilets outside of Guide Services.  

Paradise Inn
The Paradise Inn has an accessible indoor dining room and an accessible cafe, with an accessible outdoor porch that offers a great mountain view.  The beautiful meadows at Paradise can be viewed from the parking lot, the inn or cafe, or from the visitor center.  They can also be viewed up close from the lower reaches of the meadows (there is a steep path that bypasses the stairs).  The Paradise webcams offer good pictures of actual conditions on the mountain and in the parking lot.

The Sunrise Visitor Center is accessible with help (steep ramp), through the north side entrance.  There are accessible restrooms, with flush toilets, and there are disabled parking spaces.  There may be accessible picnic tables.  I have read that there is a semi-accessible seasonal snack bar opposite from the Visitor Center (but I did not visit or verify that).  Sunrise webcams offer good pictures of actual conditions on the mountain and in the parking lot.

Log outside of
Ocanapecosh Visitors Center
The Longmire and Ohanapecosh areas do not offer mountain views, but Longmire is a good place to learn about the history of the park and both are filled with big trees.  The visitor center at Ohanapecosh and the Longmire museum and the national park inn are accessible, as is the dining room at the inn.  The Longmire webcam offers a good picture of actual conditions.

Throughout the park, there are various pull-outs on the road.  Some of them are unnamed and unmarked -- you can pull out and gaze at the mountain from your car whenever it is safe.  Some of them are officially designated, and you can pull off and park.  Waterfall views are tricky for wheelchairs, since most paths end in narrow, rocky trails with steps, meaning you can only see the falls from the top.  However, mountain views are scattered throughout the park and definitely appear on the way up to Paradise and Sunrise.

Reflection Lakes and Mt Rainier

One of these official pull-outs is at the aptly named (on a calm, sunny day) Reflection Lakes, east of the turn-off up to Paradise.  Along with the view, there is a paved lot with disabled parking and some benches (but no picnic tables).  Unfortunately, there is no accessible path to reach to trail around the lake, but the mountain is best viewed from the parking lot anyway.

Parking lot for Box Canyon
and Cowlitz River

Farther east is the pull-out for Box Canyon.  As I remember it, the parking lot side was a bust -- the path to the restroom is inaccessible and the path to the overlook is paved but steep, without a good view at the end.  (The Box Canyon Picnic Area further on is also very inaccessible.). 

Mt Rainier from
Cowlitz River

On the other side of the street, the short, paved trail along the Cowlitz River is better, leading to a bridge with a view of the river and mountain.  However, the trail is steep enough to make it very challenging for a manual chair, and the final downhill before the bridge has an evil cross-slope, so even power chairs may just want to stop and admire the view before the descent to the bridge.   Beyond the bridge, the trail completes a loop as a dirt trail that quickly becomes inaccessible, so it's better to turn around and return down that same paved path.

Tipsoo Lake and Mt Rainier

My favorite viewpoint is at Tipsoo Lake on Chinook Pass (eastern edge of the park on Highway 419).  A large paved parking lot (I think with disabled parking spaces and accessible restrooms?)  offers a view of the mountain, which positively glows at sunset --thus the crowds of people and tripods.  The trail around the lake should be accessible, but is definitely not (narrow and bumpy).


The recently-renovated Paradise Inn at Paradise has at least two accessible rooms.  

The National Park Inn at Longmire also has an accessible room.

Despite our intention, we didn't stay at the White River Campground, so I'm not sure about its accessibility.  There were a few sites along the river, which seemed nice and flat, but not official ADA sites.  Otherwise, the campground looked and felt rather crowded.

ADA site at
Ohanaecosh Campground

We ended up camping at Ohanapecosh Campground.  I think it is often overlooked, because it is shaded and far from mountain views, but that means that the trees are bigger and campsites more private.  Loop D contains a couple of ADA sites (D20, D21) and a few flat non-ADA sites (the nicest was D24), next to an accessible restroom.  Unfortunately, Loop D is closed after Labor Day, and there are no other ADA campsites (and the Loop A restroom by our site was truly inaccessible).

Accessible restroom at
Ohanapecosh Campground

A ranger told me that Cougar Rock Campground has ADA campsites and an accessible restroom open past Labor Day.  A brief stop there showed that many sites were closed for tree hazard, including an ADA site.

There were several campgrounds on the map just outside of the park, and I just feel like some of those might be accessible.  But, I don't know yet!


The official park brochure tells me that I can "find fully accessible trails at Kautz and Paradise.  Some trails at Paradise and Longmire are accessible with help."  So, my husband and I set off to explore.

We didn't make it to any of the Sunrise area trails, because of time.  Two of the trails are listed as "Easy," so they may be accessible; then again, they may not.   Does anyone know?

Ohanapecosh hot springs --
very warm water
springing from the ground

The trails in the Ohanapecosh area were disappointing.  We tried to roll to the hot springs from the campground, but the trail soon grew narrow and rocky.  Likewise, the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail should be accessible, since the path is a boardwalk around big trees, but the path to and from the boardwalk is frighteningly inaccessible.  

Paradise, Mt Rainier
(most trails near the visitors center
were paved)

Paradise offers a network of trails, sprouting from the visitor center and parking lot.  Wheelchair hikers can head toward the stairs and mountain on a paved path to right of visitors center, and then turn right before the steps onto a short gravel path, leading to alpine meadow trails.  The mountain's steep prominence makes for difficult/thrilling/dangerous wheelchair hiking even though the paths leading out of the visitors center are paved.  The park brochure claims that there is at least one fully accessible trail at Paradise, while other trails are accessible with help.  The park ranger at Ohanapecosh Campground told me that the Skyline Loop was accessible.  My take is colored by the type of chair I use (manual off-road Freedom Chair by GRIT) and by my assistance (super-human spirit and strength of an able-bodied pusher/braker who does not want me to get hurt).  Nonetheless, I would not call any of the trails accessible for manual chair hikers, and they are only barely accessible for hikers using power chairs.  Unfortunately, two of the most iconic views are not accessible -- you can get close to Myrtle Falls and Glacier Vista on the steep paved trails, but the accessibility stops short of the actual viewpoints. 

Inaccessible Iconic View #1:
Mt Rainier from Myrtle Falls

The Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls is paved, but very steep.  The paved part ends at bridge over the falls, so you can see the river as it disappears over the edge, but you can't actually see the falls. The trail beyond the bridge becomes unpaved and inaccessible.  The greatest travesty is that the trail to see the falls, which turns off of the main trail just before bridge, is totally inaccessible --meaning that you can get near to the falls (with a lot of steepness and difficulty), but you can't actually see them.  I asked my husband to hike the short distance from the main trail to the falls, and he took a photo for me, which is one of the most gorgeous spots accessible to walking visitors -- but not to those of us in wheelchairs!

We also took the Skyline Trail to Glacier Vista. The Skyline Trail is paved, but this part is incredibly steep.  I ascended only because of my Freedom Chair's levers and husband's strength.  I survived the descent only with clenched teeth, aching brake muscles, and the tenacious hold of my husband behind me.  I know that at least one hiker in a power chair uses a chest sling so as not to fall forward off of the chair.  Maybe going on the Waterfall Trail to Deadhorse Trail instead of Skyline is better, but I have also heard that Deadhorse Trail is incredibly steep.  Either way, you can only get so far, because the trail to  Glacier Vista becomes hard-packed dirt with water channels --obstacles which probably prove impassable to all but the most sturdy off-road wheelchairs.  This is truly unfortunate, because the view at Glacier Vista is amazing.  Inaccessible Iconic view #2: Mt Rainier from Glacier Vista:

Nisqually Valley

Perhaps most forgiving of the inaccessible accessible trails is the Nisqually Vista Trail.  I actually hiked this trail a couple of years ago (see 2019 post), so things may have changed.  The typical access to the trail is from the lower parking lot at Paradise, but this involves a large staircase, so we approached the trail from behind the visitors center.  There are views of the Nisqually Glacier and the mountain, and there is a multitude of blue/huckleberry plants.  The trail is paved, and the altitude gain is minimal, but the trail is very hilly, and it is extremely challenging for a hiker in a manual chair.  A hiker in a power chair with a strong battery should be able to enjoy this 1.2 mile loop and the berries -- but watch out for bears!

Mt Rainier from overlook
at end of Kautz Creek

Longmire-area trails hold a little promise.  The Kautz Creek Trail, highlighted on the park brochure, was easy to find.  It begins across from a a paved lot with accessible vault toilets and with picnic tables on hard-packed gravel, about halfway between Longmire and the south-west Nisqually entrance.  Unfortunately, there is a steep approach from the highway to the trail.  The trail itself is a short (500 feet each way) boardwalk ending with hard-packed gravel and a view of the mountain.  Unfortunately, the slope on the trail would be challenging for hikers in manual chairs, and the poor access from the highway makes it difficult for any chair.

The Trail of the Shadows begins across from the National Park Inn at Longmire.  I've read that this historical interpretive trail of hard-packed dirt through the woods is accessible for about 700 feet, although I don't think there are any mountain views.  I didn't actually try this trail, so I can't speak to the conditions.

Mt Rainier from Westside Road

The Westside Road, now closed to vehicles, provides good wheelchair access to a river with mountain views for a short while, but the road surface soon devolves into rocky unpleasantness, so it's more of a short roll to a viewpoint than a hike.

Is Mt Rainier National Park accessible?  If you want to visit the park to experience the mountain, the park is quite accessible.  If you want to stay overnight in the park, it is minimally accessible (a few rooms and a few campsites).  However, if you want to go hiking in the park (which, of course, I do!), the park is woefully inaccessible.  Every year, power wheelchairs descend onto Paradise for "Ride Tahoma" (they have a group by that name on Facebook), to help raise awareness about the need for accessible trails. 

Tipsoo Lake -- future ADA trail???
The other mountain passes in WA boast at least one wheelchair-accessible trail each (Rainy Lake Trail in the North Cascades, the Iron Goat Trail near Stevens Pass, and Gold Creek Pond Trail near Snoqaulmie Pass).  Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a wheelchair-accessible trail at Mt Rainier's Chinook Pass, as well?  An accessible trail around Tipsoo Lake at Chinook Pass seems feasible, since there already exists an inaccessible trail.  The lake and trail sit at a large paved parking lot, with accessible vault toilets and disabled parking spots (I think), and a spectacular mountain view.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Flying without the wheelchair (skydiving)

Flying with Vlad at Skydive Snohomish

I thought that my favorite quote was from Mal Reynolds, Captain of the Serenity (Firefly). Recently, I discovered that his quote was actually a bastardization of a statement by Martin Luther King, Jr. Putting the two together creates my own meaningful sentiment, "If you can't fly, then run; if you can't run, then walk; if you can't walk, then crawl; if you can't crawl, find someone to carry you." Although, based on recent experience, I might just change that to "If you can't walk, then fly!"

I have always wanted to fly and dreamed of flying. Loss of mobility has only strengthened that desire, and I can't wait until jetpacks become de rigueur. In the meantime, though, I content myself with flying down hills in my wheelchair, with occasional ventures into flying down snow-covered hills or across water. I've never had any desire to try sky diving .................... until now!

I am fortunate enough to have access to an Adventure Club at the local MS Center. I call them my adrenaline enablers, since they sponsor adventures for people with MS -- usually including modifications for people in wheelchairs. Several years ago, they advertised an outing to the local indoor skydiving center, and it was open to people in wheelchairs. As I said, I had never been interested in skydiving, but I feel compelled to take advantage of any opportunity given to people in wheelchairs, so I joined them at iFLY in Tukwila, WA, a suburb south of Seattle.

Admittedly, it was a challenge to put on the required flying suit and earplugs, but I had someone to help me, and the staff were very helpful, as well. The flyer enters the transparent vertical tube with the assistance of 2 iFLY staff members. In order to simulate the free-fall of skydiving, a huge fan is turned on, forcing air from the bottom to the top of the tube, holding the flyer aloft. Depending on the flyer's position, s/he moves in different directions. The basic flying position involves arching the back, so that the hips are the lowest point, with the head and feet up high. Those of us with no control over our lower limbs need not fear; iFLY has created a contraption that holds a flyer's legs in that raised position. The flight was short -- only a few minutes -- and I was lucky enough to do it twice. At the end, I was completely exhausted and dehydrated, but overjoyed. In fact, I was so excited about this experience, that I did it another time.

Skydive Snohomish

Fast forward several years. The same MS Adventure Club sent out a notice about actual skydiving, including spaces for people in wheelchairs. There was again this compelling feeling that if someone offered an opportunity for wheelchair-users, I ought to take advantage of it. This was now combined with a love of flying, a memory of a fantastic time at the indoor center, and the knowledge that the free-fall part was not a stomach-dropping fall. Daunted by Covid the first year, I signed up the second year, and I was happily rewarded.

We went to Skydive Snohomish at Harvey Airfield in Snohomish, WA, a town just north of Seattle.
The front door was not wheelchair-accessible, but the staff were waiting for me, and they directed me to a side door, which was accessible. The restrooms were outside, next to the staging area. There were several unisex rooms, and the first one was designated "accessible." I suppose it was, because I could get to and inside of it with my wheelchair, and there was a grab bar on the side wall. However, the room was narrow, so I couldn't turn my wheelchair with the door closed, and I couldn't fit the chair to the side of the toilet.

The first step was watching an video, which went through the basic positions and procedures of tandem skydiving -- including preparation, flying to altitude, free-fall, parachuting, and landing.

Getting strapped in before 
the jump

We then went outside to the staging area, where we were strapped up (we didn't put on the usual flight suits or helmets, due to Covid) by the tandem instructors. For wheelchair users, they had additional straps, so that the tandem instructor could pull up on our legs when it was time to land. My tandem instructor, Vlad, did everything pretty much by himself: lifted me out and back in to my wheelchair, rolling me from side to side on the ground in order to fasten all of the straps. He had obviously done this before. It was quick and easy. Since I am used to people poking and prodding me, it didn't even seem intrusive.

All strapped in,
including the special
straps for the instructor to 
pull up my feet for landing.

The plane and my
team of helpers.

We boarded the plane in small groups, with some people waiting in the staging area. The plane
made continuous trips to transport
jumpers to the sky, making the entire operation seem like an efficient factory. It made me think, "How bad could this be, if all of these people were doing it?"In order to get in the plane, I backed my wheelchair up to it, just below the opening, and two staff members lifted me up into the plane, then helped me to the proper sitting position.

On the plane
We all sat on the floor, in-between the legs of the person behind. I was in the front of that chain, right by the open door, so I would be able to get out of the plane first and easily. The flight itself was noisy, but short.
During the flight, the tandem instructors attached themselves to us.

When we reached altitude, my instructor and I opened the door and rolled out, while the others scooched forward. There was no moment of hesitation, because we were attached to the instructors, and they quickly rolled out.

The free-fall was in fact similar to the indoor skydiving experience, and the tandem hook-up seemed to keep us in position. The only negative part of the experience was that -- despite swallowing and breathing out -- my ears were blocked and a little painful.

After a minute or two, the parachute opened with a jolt, and we spent a couple of minutes gliding and turning under parachute.

All too soon, it was time to land. Almost all of us first-timers landed gently on our butts. My instructor was able to pull on the special straps to raise my legs, so that I didn't get them tangled in the landing.

The staff brought my wheelchair out to the landing spot, and after removing the parachute, they lifted me into my chair. It was a short and level roll back to the building. As with indoor skydiving, I was exhausted, deaf, and parched, yet overjoyed, after my flight.

The entire experience was fantastic! The efficient and smoothly-run organization was staffed by extremely helpful, friendly, and knowledgable staff. I was able to communicate my needs and concerns before the flight day. Nobody looked surprised to see a wheelchair in their midst. Vlad, my tandem instructor, inspired the utmost confidence, with his skydiving experience, positive attitude, and helpful approach. I might wish the restroom were larger (I think I would advise simply avoiding it, if possible), but that was a minor inconvenience in a wonderful day. The only really challenging part for me was the speed and noise which guided the event from the moment the training video ended through the landing. I guess my advice would be to be prepared for that, and to voice any concerns to your instructor before you are strapped in (don't assume that s/he has any prior knowledge). Hopefully, the club will sponsor skydiving again next year, as I am already hoping to fly again.