Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Canadian Rockies

The Canadian Rockies are absolutely stunning: The drive from Jasper down to Banff passes through mountains, glaciers, colorful rocks and lakes, meadows exploding with wildflowers, and wildlife.  

Lake Louise

Icefields Parkway

Bow Lake

This flower grows like a weed,
especially in areas recently
cleared by fire.
What could it be called?

Not just rocks -- marmots!

Moraine Lake

Taken from inside the car!

Wheelchair placard --
yet notice the raised entry
and loose gravel
Still, despite the glorious scenery, perhaps my most prominent memory was that of the search for an accessible restroom – pardon me, Canadians – washroom.  Actually, in the national parks, most of the washrooms are outhouses.  Based on my travels, outhouses in lower BC are very accessible; Alberta not so much.  And even those outhouses displaying accessible signs were often only teasing.

In the parks, most outhouses sat on 3-6 inch high concrete pads, but had no ramps to get up.  Many were surrounded by loose gravel, which devoured most wheelchairs.  Sometimes there was even a step up from the concrete pad to the outhouse itself.  Many of the outhouses were too small to fit a wheelchair anyway.  And seldom was an outhouse fitted with any grab bars.  Finding a truly accessible outhouse was a rare occurrence, and I often planned my day around outhouse possibilities.

Hikers at Edith Cavell Glacier
(Planning ahead would have been good)
Due to latitude and altitude, the parks are reliably snow-free only for a short period each year, so in July and August the roads are crawling with hundreds of buses and thousands of tourists every day, while the campgrounds are teeming with lucky campers who reserved ahead and the hopeful masses who had not (guess which we were).  Getting away from the people and also getting into a campsite meant, by necessity, creativity, flexibility, and luck.  For example, with the help of my wheelchair as a cart, we enjoyed three nights at walk-in campsites – keep in mind that our camping gear is NOT walk-in suitable (4-person car-camping tent, two-person cot that’s as heavy as a tank, privacy tent with commode, and other large and heavy car-camping gear).  One night the only site available was one designated wheelchair site (perhaps only in Canada would people have respected that designation and left it free).  And there was one night with absolutely nothing available, so we joined many other campers in a campground parking lot.  

Turning obstacles into adventures:
"Walk-in" camping with a wheelchair
and wheelchair -sized camping equipment
(that's our tent)!
Crowds and outhouses aside, we spent a wonderful week in the Canadian Rockies, with many happy memories.  The scenery is indeed stupendous, and there are in fact a good deal of accessible sights and activities.  We started in Jasper National Park and then drove down the Icefields Parkway to Banff.  We ended with a visit to Lake Louise and a stay in Yoho National Park, before a too long day of driving back to Seattle through the acrid smoke of the British Columbian forest fires.  As usual, I wasn’t able to compile my notes until much later, making all statements subject to a suspect memory!  Details to follow.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Larch March

We first saw the golden larches in Switzerland.  And then in the Canadian Yukon.  We were transfixed -- not only because these conifers seemingly defy nature and drop their needles in the winter, but because they first turn  a magnificent gold, glowing in the sun.  Wilderness wisdom has different dates for this spectacle -- from mid-September through mid-October, including one insistence on the exact date of October 10.  I guess, as with most things, it depends on the regional weather and weather patterns that year.  At any rate, the larches in the North Cascades are the sub-alpine variety, which means that they grow only above 6000 feet, in a state where even the tallest non-volcanic mountains are shorter than 10,000 feet.

Still, their beauty calls, and we were drawn to the famous "larch march," this year.  We drove to Rainy Pass in the Northern Cascades, where a hike to Rainy Lake took us through temperate rainforest, fall colors, chilly temperatures, and patches of snow from a recent snowstorm to a mountain lake surrounded by more fall colors, high mountains, and -- far away -- views of golden larches.

The Rainy Lake Trail is one of my favorites.  It is a mile (each way) paved trail that is accessible to all wheelchairs, as long as the wheelchair hiker is strong (or has a strong hiking companion!).  The most exciting thing about this trail is that it is an actual trail used by hundreds of able-bodied hikers, through an actual forest, and ending at an actual view destination.  All of this while being completely paved (and, mostly, in good condition).  People using a manual chair need to be very strong (or have assistance), since there are quite a few steep hills.  People using a power chair should be careful that it doesn't get stuck in one of the puddles of water or mud on the otherwise-well-mantained paved path.  All wheelchair hikers should be forewarned and careful about a common but difficult barrier to wheelchair hiking: the trail slopes significantly sideways toward the downhill side.  Finally, it is a rainforest,  so it will probably be damp.  We hit the trail in the final days before the highway closed (due to snow), so the dampness was compounded by the chilly weather (it was in the mid-thirties) and the scattered remains of recent snow.

All of those precautions aside, it is a fantastic trail, and it was a fantastic hike.  We hiked through the rain forest, with its big, beautiful trees, moss, lichen, and ferns.  We were often greeted with bursts of fall color from the deciduous trees, bushes, and vines.

At the end of the trail, we stopped to admire and photograph the distant golden larches hugging the crags of the high peaks, while bright fall colors highlighted the vines and bushes on the slopes nearer the lake.  All fronted by a beautiful mountain lake.

There are several accessible trails outside of the North Cascades visitor center in Marblemount, WA, which I would like to try in the future, so I'll definitely return after the winter passes and the low snow melts.  Candy Harrington, who has published several books on barrier-free travel, including a book about barrier-free travel in Mt Rainier and Olympic National Parks, is planning to publish a book about barrier-free travel in the North Cascades next year.  I'm looking forward to using someone else's research to find and enjoy wheelchair-accessible trails!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Mt Rainier bearings

Mt Rainier from Paradise (Mt Rainier National Park)

We recently took at trip to Paradise.  Paradise, Mt Rainier, that is -- a mile-high area in Mt Rainier National Park, complete with two large parking lots, a visitor center, a newly refurbished inn (two wheelchair accessible rooms, according to a friend!), frequent marmot sightings, the trailhead to Camp Muir (a common overnight spot for mountain climbers), and a network of trails leading to views of "The Mountain," as locals call this 14,411-foot volcano.  Several of these trails are paved, opening up possibilities for wheelchairs and wheelchair hikers brave enough to tackle steep hills.  You definitely want a power chair with a good battery, an ambitious helper, or seriously strong arms.

I've heard that Deadhorse Creek Trail, while tempting, is steep enough to kill your power wheelchair battery (though I still want to try it in my Freedom Chair -- with Ted's help, of course).  I know that several people in wheelchairs have headed up the 1 mile (round-trip) paved Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls from the north side of the visitor center parking lot (100' elevation gain). 

Instead, we headed to the Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile paved loop, with 200' elevation gain.  The trail is usually accessed at the northwest end of the lower parking lot; however that trailhead begins with about 10 steps.  So, we wound our way to join the trail from the network of paved trails leading out of the visitor center.  The listed elevation gain was minimal, but the trail was comprised of lots steep, short hills, resulting in a continuous up or down.

The first thing we noticed was the blueberries.  Fields and fields of them.  Big, ripe, juicy, and mighty tasty.

As experienced hikers, we should have made the connection right away.  Where there are big, ripe berries, there are sure to be berry-eaters.  This close to hibernation, that necessarily means bears.

However, we were not thinking that day.  Until the solo hiker ahead of us came tip-toeing in reverse back toward us, holding his arms out wide to indicate something very large.  Then, finally, it all clicked, and we went all together, making low-toned, soothing (we thought!) noises, around the corner.

Nisqually Valley, Mr Rainier

The rest of our hike was a stop for taking pictures of the bear -- who really couldn't have cared less about us, since s/he was caught up in eating as many berries as fast as possible!  The snow report and the bear knew that, as in Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming."  So, what we didn't notice is the rest of the trail; we had to run to finish it after bear photography.  I know that there were views of the mountain and the trail's namesake, the Nisqually Glacier.  I know that there were still continuous ups and downs.  And I know we made it back in time, joining our group for the final group photo just before the bus left.  However, the path itself was a bit of a blur -- except for the berries and the bear!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cruising with a Wheelchair

Alaska Cruise, July 2017
Las Vegas. Florida. Cruise ships.  What do they all have in common?  Old people!  Traditionally, at least (although some of them may be trying to shake that image).  And, probably not coincidentally, they are also quite accessible!   Some friends and I recently celebrated our 50th birthdays on a week-long Alaska cruise.   This was my first vacation without my usual helper (aka my husband), and my disability level had progressed in the past year, so despite my friends' assurances about assisting me (and despite the fact that I knew they had been working out),  I approached the journey with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  By the end of the trip, I felt only exhilaration -- from the things we'd done and seen and from friendships renewed and strengthened.  There was the added sense of accomplishment of a week away from home and husband -- asking for (and receiving) help from friends and strangers.  As it turned out, I only needed help up twice -- once on purpose, and once not so much so!  

For those of you hungry for wheelchair-related details, read on (especially the second half).  For those of you more interested in cruise-related details, check out the first part and then skim on!  For the rest of you, enjoy the pretty pictures!

Norwegian Pearl
We traveled on the Norwegian Pearl, part of the Norwegian Cruise Line's fleet.  The boat accommodates over 2000 guests and over 1000 crew members (stop a moment and consider that ratio to
The first towel creature: Mr Crabby
understand why we got daily animal creations made from folded towels).  We sailed from Seattle, WA on a seven-day, round-trip cruise, stopping at various ports in Southeast Alaska.

After the Orcas, the humpbacks performeed
Juneau: I don't know if you can see
Russia from here, but you can definitely
stock up on diamonds and tanzanite.
We started with Juneau ("We'll be stopping in You Know" said our captain in his Norwegian accent), where we avoided the jewelry stores and went on a whale-watching expedition.

Typical downtown Skagway building,
probably selling souvenirs
Skagway from the dock
We then stopped at Skagway, where we bypassed the tourist train and stocked up on souvenirs in the Gold Rush styled downtown.  The harbor and the scenery nearby were some of the most spectacular of the trip.

Skagway Harbor

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay

After cruising through Glacier Bay (yes, there are still some glaciers left, but hurry!) ...

New Eddystone Rock in Misty Fjords

... we motored down to Ketchikan, where we took a boat tour of the insane beauty of flora and fauna at Misty Fjords.

Harbor seals in Misty Fjords

Misty Fjords

Butchart Gardens near Victoria
We ended with an evening in Victoria, BC, where we visited Butchart Gardens.  Due to this last stop, we were technically on an international vacation and even needed to bring a passport!

I am not a lawyer; nor do I have much patience for obfuscated answers.  Therefore,  I can only voice the probability, rather than the absolute veracity, of the following statement: Cruise ships -- even those flying foreign flags -- that service US ports are in fact covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).  In large part due to lawsuits against two major cruise corporations, the companies running these "floating hotels" must comply with Title III of the ADA.  In addition, it seems to me that it makes good business sense for companies catering to a wide variety of ages and abilities of guests to offer the inclusivity of  universal design. Whatever the cause, and despite some inefficiencies in carry-through, cruise ships generally offer an accessible travel option for wheelchair users.  In particular, ships built or remodeled after 2010 (the first settlement) should be ADA-compliant and wheelchair accessible.  If you can survive hordes of thousands (there are some quiet spots onboard to which you can escape) and a cruise-ship mentality that would make Julie, the Cruise Director, proud, then cruising offers a wonderful savings of time and energy in planning and traveling with a wheelchair.  All of your accessible transportation, lodging, eating, and entertainment needs are covered.

Threshold at entry to non-ADA cabins

En suite ADA bathroom
No threshold in ADA cabin
All ships must offer a certain percentage of rooms meeting ADA standards (I believe the number is 3%).  The most obvious difference is that these rooms have a level threshold, allowing a wheelchair to pass through (other rooms sport a typical ship threshold at doorways of about 1 1/2 inches).  The other big difference is size -- ADA cabins are larger!  Our room included three beds and was about 300 square feet -- absolutely palatial compared to other inside cabins!  There was room for me to park the wheelchair next to my bed at night, and there were even plenty of electrical outlets nearby.  The shining gem of the ADA room was the en suite ADA bathroom.  The room itself was large enough for a wheelchair to turn around,  The shower was larger than most, with a level threshold, a shower seat, and plenty of safety bars.  The toilet also had horizontal and vertical safety bars.  The sink was a shallow, roll-under variety, and the mirror could be tilted to reflect lower images (people in wheelchairs).

Of course the ship itself was wheelchair accessible.  Our ship (and perhaps all), had a special access desk available to answer questions via phone or email before departure.  I thought there would be some sort of access desk on board, but I never saw one (instead, the guest relations staff expertly answered questions and concerns).  Hallways were wide enough for a wheelchair (though they were a bit tricky on the guest room decks when the housekeeping carts were parked alongside the walls.  The dining room tables were all high enough to fit a wheelchair.   The cafeteria had a few tables designated "disabled," and there were always plenty of staff willing to help reach food/drinks and carry trays.  The communal areas were all accessible, including lounges, bars, walk ways, outside decks, the casino, the disco, the theater, the spa, the game room, the library, the fitness room.  Rooms with multiple levels (the disco, some lounges) had ramps, the spa had massage tables low enough for wheelchair users to transfer onto, and the swimming pool had a lift (not really necessary for an Alaska cruise, since the only day nice enough to be out on the pool deck still saw adults huddled in the sun, wearing down coats).  The theater had half of a row of reserved seats for disabled guests, as well as a special wheelchair seating section.  As far as I could tell, only the hot tubs and the top-level sun deck were not accessible (no lift for the hot tubs and only stairs up to the sun deck).

Public disabled restroom

Level entry to outside decks 

Dining area
"Sunning" on the pool deck on an Alaska cruise
Pool Deck
Drinks in cafeteria were not
within reach, but cruise staff
were always there to help

Massage table in spa: wheelchair height

Theater reserved seats for disabled guests

Wheelchair space in theater
Inaccessible sun deck (not so important on Alaska cruise!)

End of (dis)embarkation ramp 
(Dis)embarkation ramp
I specifically chose an itinerary of ports that excluded tenders, since tendering can limit wheelchairs altogether or at least under certain conditions: if the weather is too stormy, if the chair is too heavy, if the person is unable to transfer him/herself without the chair.   (Dis)embarkation at port docks was no problem.  The deck and steepness of the ramp changed with the port and the tide, but there were always staff available to help the chair get on and off of the ramp.

Wheelchair lift on microbus
for whale-watching tour
The database for shore excursions allowed filtering by disability, and the descriptions included information about mobility requirements.  We chose two boat excursions and one garden tour.  One of the boat excursions began at the dock where the cruise ship parked, so there was difficulty getting there.  The other boat excursion, as well as the garden tour, required about a thirty minute bus ride.  For both excursions, the tour company provided a micro-bus with a wheelchair lift for wheelchair users and their companions.  We got our own private tour of the environs before meeting the others at the departure point or gate.  Both of the boat tours had experience with wheelchairs and had systems in place.  In both cases, I had to transfer to a company wheelchair. Boat #1 said the fire  department required all wheelchairs on board to have three inches of clearance, which mine did not.  Boat #2 claimed that no electrical wheelchairs were allowed, which mine was.  Both of the boats' wheelchairs were sub-optimal -- one had no push rims, and one had foot rests stuck at knee height and twice as long as my legs.  But they were able to get these chairs onto the boat (with the help of a rope when there was a huge difference in dock-to-boat level).  The biggest problem -- and this is a perennial problem for wheelchair users -- was that there was no accessible bathroom.  For the shorter trip this was no problem, but the longer one necessitated conscious dehydration, as well as crossed fingers and legs!

A few final thoughts and tips:

* Most boats are accessible, but "accessible" has different meanings, so before you make reservations be sure to ask specific questions about the dimensions and the things you'd need.  Boats built or remodeled more recently are more likely to have the most accessible features.

* Don't expect the crew to know anything (I waited forever for a crew member to help me unlock a designated disabled bathroom, finally calling her manager, who informed us that all we needed to do was find and press the automatic door button).

* On the other hand, the crew members are very willing to help, so don't be afraid to ask.

* As usual in hotels, the beds are too high.

* Ask about outlets before you travel, and bring an extension cord and/or splitter, if needed.

* If you were promised a swimming pool lift and don't see one, ask (it may be in onboard storage).

* Bring a bed rail
Hallway outside on main deck

* If the inside hallways are carpeted or uneven, travel outside (you may need to take an elevator to a different and even a non-desired floor).
Hallway inside on main deck

* You really need at least two wheelchairs.  Unless you are superman, you would probably want an power chair on the boat.  Distances between fore and aft are truly great, and sometimes you can't avoid traveling on carpet.  I used a portable LiteRider Envy by Golden Technologies.  However, for shore excursions -- especially for boat rides -- you would probably want a manual chair.  Ideally, you would have enough cabin space to store both -- especially if the manual chair folded up somehow.  Even more ideal would be a one-chair combination: a manual chair with some sort of power assist, like a Smart Drive.  At least I think so; I don't have one ... yet.  

Bon Voyage!