Saturday, March 26, 2022
Sunday, November 7, 2021
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
Blazing fall colors
from Paradise meadows at
Mt Rainier National Park
Mt Rainier from trail near
Myrtle Falls, Paradise
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 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.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
|Mt Rainier from |
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
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 |
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|
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
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!
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???
Monday, October 4, 2021
|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.
|Getting strapped in before |
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.
|On the plane|
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.
Monday, July 5, 2021
|A recent trip to Wisconsin included a visit to -- |
you guessed it -- a cheese factory!
A recent flight to WI taught me a lot about myself and my relationship to the Corona-virus pandemic. It also reminded me about the challenges of flying with a wheelchair. After I returned, I took a short road trip to a neighboring state to see some friends. This jogged my memory about the challenges of staying in a hotel. I'd recorded some of my travel tips before, but these recent trips were a good memory-dredge, so I figured I'd mention them again.
My husband has a collection of skis and chooses a pair based on conditions. Likewise, I have a collection of wheelchairs and choose a chair based on conditions. For most domestic travel, I choose my Golden LiteRider portable battery-powered chair. The pros are that it dissembles and fits into a space as small as a Toyota Prius trunk. The heaviest piece is 35 lbs. The battery seems to last as long as I need, and it takes me up significant hills. I can roll a carry-on suitcase behind me with the non-joystick hand, and the charger fits in the basket below the seat. The cons are the lack of customization (one size fits all), and the wiggle in the joystick that makes it difficult to steer. There are always plenty of outlets in airport, so emergency battery charging is not a problem, and I bring an extension cord for charging in hotels, which are sometimes limited in outlets. When I board the plane, I take the joystick with the cord and the charger with me. So far -- knock on wood -- the chair has not been extensively damaged.
Pre-flightWhen making an online flight reservation, I always find and fill out a form requesting wheelchair assistance (and some airlines have even more forms) that lets the airline know I'm traveling with a wheelchair. These forms differ and require different details. I've found that some airlines don't allow me to check in at a kiosk, because of the wheelchair, but I never know which ones they are, so I always just head to the line to check in. I always remind them at check-in that I require an aisle chair to get to my seat, because that information seems to get lost.
I think that my golden ticket for flying is my TSA pre-check authorization. Yes, it costs ($85 for 5 years), but it is worth every penny, because it allows you to keep your shoes on, to leave your electronic items off, and -- most importantly -- to skip the extensive and invasive "body search". Instead of the whole long and painful process, the assistant simply swabs your cushion and hands to check for suspicious residue.
Aisle ChairIf everything goes smoothly, you can ride your own chair to the plane's entrance, where you will swap it (don't forget to take the joy stick and charger with you and to turn off the brakes) for a narrow aisle chair, pushed by two assistants. They will often assert that all straps must be buckled (and there are a lot), but not tightening the straps can cause your knees to bump or your clothes to get caught. You may have to remind them that many aisle seat hand rails can be moved up and out of the way when a secret button is pressed. For de-planing, this process is done in reverse. Remember that you are usually the first to board and last to de-plane, so arrive at the gate extra early (about an hour) and avoid tight connections. In fact, you will probably reach baggage claim after all of the baggage has been removed, so you may need to go to the unclaimed baggage office to collect yours. If everything doesn't go smoothly (I'd say about 20-25 % of the time), everyone -- including you -- waits to get on, or you wait to get off.
Airplane lavatoriesMost airport bathrooms are reliably accessible. Most airplane lavatories are reliably not. When wheelchair users no longer travel, the most common reason is the difficulty of going to the bathroom. Dual-aisle planes are required to have an accessible lavatory (usually this is accomplished by temporarily collapsing the wall in between two neighboring lavatories), but this requirement is not very helpful. Firstly, it only covers dual-aisle planes, which are generally a subset of trans-oceanic flights. Secondly, accessing such a lavatory necessitates calling the flight attendant for assistance, assuming there is an aisle-chair on board (legally, there should be), assuming that the flight attendant knows how to assemble the aisle chair (you may want to learn how before your flight, just in case), cutting in front of the line of waiting people while the lavatories are combined for you, transferring to and from the toilet by yourself, and pulling down/up your pants on a public toilet or wheelchair.
For many, this is understandably too much. Some consciously dehydrate and hope for the best, which is risky and probably unhealthy. For men, the best option may be a condom catheter with a leg bag and collection bottle. For women, the best option may be an in-dwelling Foley catheter (urethra or supra-pubic) with a leg bag and collection bottle. All in-dwelling catheters must be inserted in the hospital, but a temporary urethral one can be inserted rather quickly and painlessly by a urology nurse, can be kept in for awhile, and can be removed at home by you.
The other big ticket item is lodging, which often requires a lengthy conversation with the front desk agent, even when the room is advertised as "ADA compliant." The main thing is a level entrance to the building and room, with doors wide enough to get into room and bathroom. I've found that asking someone whether or not their location is "wheelchair accessible," is often useless, as people have different interpretations of that definition, and they often don't consider one small step a problem. If the room is not specifically ADA-certified, I ask the front desk person to measure the bedroom and bathroom doors, then I compare that to my wheelchair width. Remind them to measure passable width with the door open, and not the width of the door frame, since the hinges impede passage. I have taken off the bathroom door by removing hinges, when it was just inches too narrow (a good reminder to bring tools and a handyperson or else ask hotel engineering).
Hotel bathrooms and beds
For the shower/tub, ask if you can get in (width, configuration, shower door, threshold) and if there's a shower chair/bench. If the shower has a fixed bench, ask how far it is from the controls and from the shower head (holder). For the toilet, ask if you can get to it (width, configuration), how high it is, and if there are any grab bars. You may have to bring your own vertical pole or toilet seat ???riser or even a commode chair. For the bed, ask how high it is (the perennial problem!), if there is space beside the bed for a wheelchair, and if there is an electrical outlet nearby to charge your chair at night. You might want to bring a bed rail or vertical pole, and an extension cord. If the bed is too high, you may have to remove the box spring or base frame (lots of work!), so again, be prepared with those tools and engineers. You may even have to use a roll-away bed (they're usually lower).
We found accessible activities where we didn't expect them. Along with internet research before leaving, we relied on on-the-spot personal referrals, informational phone calls, and tourist brochures. If someone is savvy to accessibility, then asking them about accessibility by name may work. Luckily, it seems the world may be heading in this direction. In many cases, however, it might be better to ask specific questions related to your needs.
Obviously, there are a lot of challenges and a lot of preparation involved in traveling with a wheelchair. To me, it's still worth it.
I have spent the last year living in fear --only a low level, but fairly constant. I take an immuno-suppressive drug to counteract an auto-immune disease, leaving me susceptible to the weakest virus. So during the Corona virus pandemic, I adhered strictly to WA state's restrictions, and isolated myself from family, friends, and travel. For those of us in WA, those restrictions began in March 2020, so that was a very long time, and there were very few exceptions. Doing my part to "flatten the curve" for the community morphed into doing everything possible to protect myself.
For me, the approval of the vaccine was almost a miracle. I say "almost," because there was some concern as to the effect of the vaccines for those with suppressed immune systems, leading to the depressing thought that I might be stuck in isolation forever. However, my neurologists assured me that the vaccine was probably working for me through unmeasurable mechanisms. With this, I felt this miraculous sense of freedom and permission to once again see friends and family, interact with people, and travel. I decided to take advantage of the extra security of airports and planes still requiring masks, in order to fly to WI and see my parents.
I think that the trip to WI was the best thing I could have done to ease myself out of a Covid-restricted life. Flying was not as scary as I thought it might be: my neurologist assured me that airline flights were not known virus-spreaders, my research indicated that plane's air filtration systems worked to prevent disease spread, and Delta was very conscientious about requiring all passengers to wear masks, except when eating or drinking. Airports were also not as frightening as expected, since they required masks and distancing, as well (though the passengers in SeaTac and MSP were a little less likely to comply, and the staff was less likely to enforce the rules)
|Sign at MSP airport|
|Sign at MSP airport|
|Free vaccinations and coffee|
at the MSP airport
At my destination, I mainly visited with family and friends, who were also vaccinated. When we did venture into public spaces, it was always and only outside. WI was a scary place for a West-Coaster to visit, because of a contentious history with the virus, masks, and restrictions. Still, I clung to the data showing that no case of Covid-19 transmission had occurred outside. Every time I've visited, the town has been different: at first, changes, such as the installation of city utilities, seemed oriented toward residents. Then the big-box stores moved in, incorporating the desires of the whole region. Current changes are oriented toward residents and visitors alike, and the concept of "accessibility" seems to have entered into the language and mind-set. For example, a local park has a paved and accessible path, a paved walk-way was built along the river, and botanical gardens were being built with an eye toward accessibility. Thus, we were able to enjoy outdoor activities relatively free of crowds.
|New river walk in Wausau, WI|
|Sign for accessible paved path to Eau Claire Dells, WI|
I doubt that the cavalier approach to potential virus transmission was good for the state of WI. Still, I think it may have been good for me -- confronting my extreme caution with extreme unconcern may have allowed me to settle on a happy medium, which helped me to prepare for the flight home and the upcoming end of restrictions in WA. I realize that the articles in The New York Times may be accurate, and my immuno-suppressant medicine may yet be proved to render the vaccine less effective. However, for now, I have to believe in the power of these vaccines, the assurances of my neurologists, and my experience during my travels. And I must admit that it felt wonderful to travel again!