Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Wheelchair Hiking in the Time of Covid-19

Social-distancing on Azalea Way at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle

I often think that residents of Washington state have a special relationship with nature.  I live in the middle of a dense and thriving metropolis, yet I am fortunate to be surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, mountains, and ocean.

Peaceful respite on Lake Washington in Seattle
When Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, issued the state's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order on March 23, he made a special exception for getting outside, recognizing the psychological as well as the physical benefits.  This recognition was echoed by the mayor of Seattle.  As it became obvious that social distancing was working and the infection rate was declining (the curve was flattening), the multi-phase WA state plan for re-opening  businesses and activities placed outdoor recreation prominently in the first phase. 

Free chalk and encouragement to draw
While debate as to the ultimate intent of the outdoor component raged in the more established backcountry communities, most outdoor enthusiasts based their activities on the practicalities of the closure and then opening of public lands and facilities.  Beginning May 5, the opening of outdoor recreation under Phase 1 has already seen the re-opening of most state and county parks, most DNR, DFW, and BLM lands, and many national forest trailheads.  The WTA website documents the continuous opening of more outdoor possibilities.

Closed road in greenway in central Seattle

It is likely that most of us using wheelchairs have underlying concerns that necessitate extra caution during this pandemic.  I am guessing that we will have to live with this caution for at least another year.  Given the unknowns and extremes of Covid-19, many able-bodied people will also be living with this caution as the New Normal sinks in and new social norms develop, even in the outdoors.   In my experience, most people are aware of the need for social distancing and follow proper etiquette, such as maintaining distance, giving way, wearing masks, and being extra-considerate.  Of course, there are a few renegades on the trail, so one must prepare for them; but don't focus on them! 

There are really good suggestions in several mainstream publications:

Closed road in greenway in central Seattle
However, there are special concerns for wheelchair hikers. Primarily, it is difficult to move aside, and often it is impossible to move off of the trail.   It is always tricky to find accessible trails, but now you must also find hikes with wider paths and/or fewer people -- all during a time when more people are at home and using the outdoors as an escape for themselves and their children.  You can look for less popular hikes or less developed trails.  It is also important to go at odd hours that avoid morning and evening runners and afternoon walkers and kids.  At the same time, you might focus on finding a wide path, such as a closed-off road.  In addition, for those with impaired hands and arms, it is difficult to put on and take off a mask as other people come and go, so you may need to hike with a safe companion or simply keep your mask on at all times.  Finally, even when land and trails are open, facilities such as restrooms and parking lots are often closed. This means you may want to stay close to home. We have discovered some neighborhood hide-aways that we never would have found otherwise. As always, recommendations from other wheelchair hikers are gold.

As my neurologist said, Covid-19 is a "preventable" disease.  But steps must be taken and procedures followed.  It's probably going to be like this for a long time, so we all have to get used to the new normal and develop a practice that feels safe, while allowing us to get out of the house and live life.