Monday, July 5, 2021

Traveling with a wheelchair (revisited)




A recent trip to Wisconsin included a visit to -- 
you guessed it -- a cheese factory!


A recent flight to WI t
aught 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.  

Travel Wheelchair

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-flight

When 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.

Airport Security

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 Chair

If 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 lavatories

Most 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.

Hotel accessibility

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).  

Accessible activities

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.  








On the road again -- post(?)-Covid travels

Passengers arriving at CWA (Central WI) airport with masks

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!






Saturday, June 26, 2021

Shadow of the Sentinels

 




Shadow of the Sentinels Trail 


Last fall, I did a great loop through the North Cascades, hiking, camping, and blogging about many of the trails and sites.  This spring, I hiked one of the several trails I had written about, but hadn't had time to try: the Shadow of the Sentinels near Baker Lake.

The trees along this hike are amazing.  The trail through the old-growth forest frequently passes up-close single and small groups of ancient and huge Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, Silver Firs -- many estimated to be 700 years old.

The trailhead begins at a paved parking lot with an accessible outhouse.  There is a picnic table, that can be accessed from the parking lot, but it is not cut out for wheelchairs.  Parking requires a Northwest Forest Pass (people with a permanent disability are eligible for the nation-wide interagency "America the Beautiful" access pass, which is valid at all sites managed by the US Forest-Service and some other agencies).


The trail itself is a .5 mile loop, surfaced mainly with pavement and boardwalk. The path is mostly level, and I was able to push myself, except for one short but steep hill on a boardwalk, where I needed help.  The transitions between pavement and boardwalk were flat.  There were a couple spots where roots were pushing up through the pavement, but I think they could be passed by all types of wheelchairs.





Tremendous number of downed
trees in early spring
This trail is a lesson in the necessity of advanced research.  As with any trail, you can find excellent descriptions at the websites of the Washington Trails Association (WTA) and AllTrails.  Just as importantly, both trail websites show Trip Reports written by members.  Recent reports inform you of trailhead and trail conditions, alerting you to obstacles and challenges.  For example, thanks to WTA trip reports, we were somewhat prepared for the fallen trees on this trail.  (Although, honestly, nothing could adequately prepare us for the sheer magnitude of the blowdown -- the incredible number of trees that had fallen over, their size, and the damage caused by their ripped out roots.  



Damaged trail and temporary
"bridge" constructed to
go around it
Were I a good citizen with a decent amount of energy, I would create accounts with both of those organizations and add my own trip report with information especially pertinent to wheelchair hikers.  You see, part of the damage caused by the falling of these huge trees was significant trail damage.  Many sections of the paved trail were fixed with packed dirt.  And one tree's roots pulled up a small section of the trail, leaving a gaping hole that walking people could go around, but wheelchairs could not.  We passed through only because my husband built a bridge and seriously helped me cross over; others may need to go the "wrong" way around the trail (the hole is near the start if one goes the correct way), and then turn around, going back along the same loop the "right" way.

The trail is covered with snow in winter, and it is subject to fallen trees in spring, so the best time to hike in a wheelchair is probably summer to mid-fall.



Baker Lake Dam (road with a view)
The trail is relatively easy to find.  Drive east on Hwy 20 for about 17 miles, and turn left on to Baker Lake Road at Milepost 82.  Then drive north for about 15 miles.

For an stunning view, it is worth taking a short side-trip across the Baker Lake Dam between Baker Lake and Lake Shannon, 2.3 miles south-east of the trailhead.





Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Accessible Hikes in WA: March 2020 - March 2021

 

Iron Goat Trail near Steven's Pass, WA



Over a year ago, Covid19 began to dominate life in Western WA.  Daily counts of the increasing infections and deaths became a regular morning roll call, with each day bringing a new list of closures, cancellations and restrictions.  The outdoors -- always important to residents of this region -- became one of the few opportunities for escape.  Before the March 23  "Healthy at Home" lockdowns were implemented, I took a hike and jotted down some notes for a post about hiking with a wheelchair during the pandemic.  At that time, people outdoors did not wear masks and were uncertain or even unconcerned about trail etiquette during a pandemic.  My notes at the time expressed my anxiety about hiking on local trails, which were over-run by families and teenagers in the early afternoon, giving way to an endless stream of runners and dog-walkers in the evenings.  

A couple of weeks later, I went on another hike.  This time we drove over an hour outside of Seattle, hoping distance would diminish the crowds.   To our surprise, the trailhead parking lot was full, so we waited until 5 pm, when the lot was empty, and we had the trail to ourselves.

Over time, people in Western WA have settled into Covid-prevention behaviors.  Mask-wearing, even on trails, has become ubiquitous, and the majority of the hiking community seems to abide by a set of pandemic hiking protocols.  Still, because the outdoors offered one of the few safe outlets for recreation during the pandemic, many trails in Western WA suffered from over-use. The vaccination roll-out and the coming of summer bring new recreational possibilities and lists of creative and safe openings, which may lower the impact on Western WA trails.  On the other hand, the discovery of the great outdoors and the joys of hiking may be one of the lasting changes brought by the pandemic conditions.   All the more thanks and donations that are due WTA and other organizations working on trail maintenance.  

In the past year, I've been fortunate to try a variety of trail settings in Western WA.  I stuck to recommendations, and most of the trails were truly accessible (there may have been a downed tree, oversized root, or exposed bridge edge that required creative thinking or a turnaround, but hopefully those obstacles were temporary).  Here is my latest list of wheelchair hiking suggestions, which can be added to previous compilations of accessible trails (see below).  For this list, I've included trail smoothness (which considers exposed roots, rocks, and bridge edges -- mostly for power chairs) and levelness (which considers hills and side slope -- mostly for manual chairs).  As always, these descriptions are limited by my less-than-perfect memory and by Blogger's strange formatting results.  

Seattle

Trail:  Interlaken Park



Location
: Capitol Hill/Montlake, Seattle
Distance: .4 m each way
Surface: Paved road
Smoothness: Smooth road
Levelness: Minimal hills, but some side slope
View: Trees
Trailhead: One end is at E Interlaken Blvd & 19th Ave E.  One end is at E Interlaken Blvd & 21st Ave E.
Other: There is no parking lot nor facilities.  The neighborhood has winding roads, making the park difficult to find.





Salish Sea



Location
: 72 m north of Seattle on coast
Distance: 2.25 m each way
Surface: Hard- packed gravel
Smoothness: Excellent when dry
Levelness: Flat
View: Estuary with birds, Salish Sea with islands, and oil refinery.
Trailhead: South Trailhead has parking lot with (accessible) Honey Bucket and wheelchair-accessible ATV-guard
OtherBreadfarm and Farm to Market Bakery in nearby Bow and Edison







Location
: Deception Pass State Park, North-west  Whidbey Island
Distance: 1.2 m loop
Surface: Paved
Smoothness: Mostly good; one section wind-swept with a little sand; one section with 2 large upswells in pavement from roots (can be circumvented)
Levelness: Flat
View: Salish Sea with islands, beach with dunes and driftwood, stand of (big) trees
Trailhead: West Beach has a large paved parking lot with disabled parking and restrooms.
Other: Trail passes Cranberry Lake with beach, picnic tables  (1 accessible), restrooms, and concessions




Snoqualmie



Location
: Middle Fork Snoqualmie River (past Mailbox Peak)
Distance: .45 m loop
Surface: Hard-packed dirt
Smoothness: Good in good weather
Levelness: Flat, except for hills at beginning and end
View: Trees, Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, mountains
Trailhead: Paved parking lot with disabled parking and accessible outhouses.
Other: Picnic tables and areas (many accessible) with views

 










Mountain Loop Highway




Location5.4 m from Darrington T-intersection on Hwy 530 
Distance: 1 m loop
Surface: Hard-packed dirt    
Smoothness: Good (in good weather)
Levelness: Minimal hills
View: Forest, Sauk River
Trailhead: Medium-packed gravel parking lots with accessible outhouse and picnic tables. 




Location: About 25 m past Granite Falls on Hwy 530
Distance: about .8 m popsicle loop from picnic parking lot to bridge (boardwalk) and then 1/2 way back to dirt trail leading to second parking lot, and then on paved trail between parking lots
Surface: Boardwalk, paved, hard-packed gravel and dirt
Smoothness: Good
Levelness: Mostly flat
View: Mountain, forest, bog, river
Trailhead: Two entrances with paved parking lots (with disabled parking spaces and accessible outhouses) connected by paved trail. One entrance has picnic tables with mountain views; one is in forest
Other: Trail continuing up to ice caves is steep and has steps.

 

Trail: Monte Cristo



Location: Barlow Pass, 31 m east of Granite Falls on Hwy 530. 
Distance1.6 m there and back (turn-around when trail takes short but steep downhill)
Surface: Hard-packed dirt
Smoothness: Good
Levelness: Flat
View: Woods, river, mountains, berries, bears
Trailhead: Locked gate requires key from Snohomish County Dept of Public Works
Other: turn back when trail takes short but steep downhill at .8 m; otherwise, trail becomes narrow, steep, and overgrown, eventually running into river





Highway 2



Location: Index, WA
Distance: .6 m loop (+.2 m each way to get there)
Surface: Hard-packed dirt
Smoothness: Good, once on ADA trail
Levelness: Mostly flat (a few small hills)
View: Trees (especially cedars and big leaf maples), fungi, ferns
Trailhead: Small, medium-packed gravel parking lot with no facilities at Heybrook Ridge County Park on Index-Galena Road off of Hwy 2.
Other: As of fall 2020, the loop was being built to be fully ADA accessible.  There-and-back from/to parking lot was a narrow path, overgrown on the sides.





Location: FR 6710 (sharp left at junction with Old Cascade Hwy), which is found at Milepost 55 on Hwy 2, near Stevens Pass  
Distance: 3 m one-way ADA (part of 6 m loop)
Surface: Mostly hard-packed dirt; some boardwalk and bridge with boards
Smoothness: Excellent
Levelness: Railroad grade, but best if manual chair  goes downhill direction only (arrange to shuttle); minimal side slope
View: Trees, railroad tunnels & bridges, mushrooms,  mountains
Trailhead: Martin Creek trailhead (high point of ADA trail) has gravel parking lot, with disabled parking, accessible outhouse and non-accessible picnic tables
Other: Former Railroad; has interpretive signs 




Location: Rainy Pass (Exit 158) on Hwy 120
Distance: 1 mile each way
Surface: Paved
Smoothness: Excellent
Levelness: Steep, significant hills; side slope toward down-hill side
View: Through forest to overlook of lake and surrounding peaks (distant larches visible in Oct)
Trailhead: Paved parking lot at Rainy Pass (Exit 158), with disabled parking spots, picnic tables and outhouses
Other: This section of the road is closed in winter till the snow melts




Location: West of Twisp, WA, down County Rd 9114 (Twisp River Rd) for 10m, then FS Rd 43 for 8 m
Distance: .5 m each way
Surface: Paved
Smoothness: Excellent
Levelness: Very good
View: Black Pine Lake, rosehips, ponderosa pines
Trailhead: Trail begins at boat-launch at Black Pine Lake Campground -- a large, paved lot, with disabled parking spots, wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, an accessible outhouse, and an accessible pier
Other:  Lake offers swimming, fishing, and non-motorized boating.  Campground has accessible drive-up spots above lake and 1 accessible "walk-in" spot at lake level.



Saturday, March 13, 2021

North Sauk River Trail

Mountain Loop Highway


The Old Sauk River Trail is my current favorite trail.  Off of the Mountain Loop Highway (SR 530), the 1 mile ADA loop through mossy forests includes an accessible river viewpoint.


Start of the Old Sauk River trail


The medium-packed gravel parking lot in the forest hosts disabled parking, an accessible (across the gravel) outhouse, and picnic tables (one of which is wheelchair accessible).




Viewpoint for the Sauk River



The trail is a 1 mile loop through the forest, with a riverside view of the Sauk River.  One spur presents steps down to the river, while one offers a stair-free, ramped path down.  The latter is completely accessible.  

Old Sauk River Trail





The loop itself meanders through stands of Douglas fir, cedar, and various alders.  







Trail bottleneck


In general, the trail is level enough for a manual chair and wide enough for any wheelchair.   There is one point where the trail narrows significantly, but I was able to wheel through it.  


Potential weather challenges


The trail surface is dirt, except for one wooden bridge over a creek.  It might become impassable after storms (muddy path, downed trees, washed-out bridges). I don't know that for sure; it's just a precautionary warning.






















Saturday, March 6, 2021

Iron Goat

Iron Goat Trail


The Iron Goat Trail was built on the site of the former Great Northern railway.  The trail was abandoned as a railway passage when a snow slide in the early 20th century killed nearly 100 people, and a tunnel (still in use today) was built instead, turning the abandoned railway passage into a recreational trail.  Because of the obvious snow danger in these steep slopes, it's not advisable to hike the trail when there is still snow and slide danger.  


A three-mile section of the trail is officially designated as an ADA trail, with a wide path that has a level side-slope and is surfaced with hard-packed gravel and dirt (strewn with pine needles and big-leaf maple leaves in the fall).  Because the trail slope is railway grade, power chairs can traverse in either direction, but I would advise manual chairs to start at the Martin Creek trailhead and travel downhill, incorporating  some kind of shuttle to bring the car from the upper parking lot to the lower lot.




The trail runs through the forest off of Highway 2, with view of the old railway tunnels, big leaf maples, streams, fungi, and a few interpretive signs along the way.


The gravel parking lot has disabled parking, an ADA outhouse (currently closed), and a non-ADA picnic table.  The trail begins with a boardwalk, and it has some sections that travel upon bridges or boardwalks.  But most of the trail is hard-packed dirt and gravel.