Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Road Trip with a Wheelchair

2022 Road Trip
From Cape Flattery in WA state to W Quoddy Head in the state of ME, 
then up the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, following the St Lawrence River
west to the Great Lakes, crossing the border at Sault Ste Marie

This past summer, I took an epic road trip. 6 weeks and 9604 miles. 19 US states and 3 Canadian provinces.  Against the backdrop of the pandemic, we rarely ate inside restaurants, so the final count includes innumerable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, supplemented with many just-add-water meals and not nearly enough French pastries.

From the Pacific Ocean (Seattle, WA)

To the Atlantic Ocean
(Stonington, CT)
in 5 days

What all these states have in common:
Wind turbines in corn fields

The trip was inspired by insanely high plane ticket prices, the death of a much-loved cat, a progressive disease, photos of Quebec's pastry shops, the pandemic, and the inability to decide what else to do.  The six-week trip was goal-posted by medical appointments, and the time frame was held firm by two family gatherings with distinct dates.  Therefore, this was not a leisurely, "explore America" kind of road trip, but rather one in which car travel was a means of reaching the next destination.  

West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine --
Easternmost point in the contiguous US

Nevertheless, the destinations were spectacular -- family visits in CT and WI, multi-day vacations in Quebec City and Montreal, a respite in an off-the-grid Quebecois cabin, driving the upper Mississippi and the length of the St Lawrence Rivers, and exploring  Yellowstone National Park.  In addition to the multi-day destinations, we designed the trip to meet key geographical markers: the westernmost and easternmost points of the contiguous USA (Cape Flattery, WA and West Quoddy, ME). Even when traveling between destinations, we experienced amazing scenery, visited old friends, and discovered new locations and activities.

The Prius at the eastern-most
point of the trip,
in Quebec
The trip was also a victory for our 2006 Toyota Prius.  Approaching 200,000 miles and questionable operation, the car had already been driven to the Arctic Circle and beyond.  It had also been to the northernmost point of the contiguous USA -- the Northwest Angle of Minnesota.  So, we decided to see if the old car had a little more magic in her.  A mechanic checked her out and added a belt and brakes on Monday; we left on Tuesday.  With the addition of a secondary battery in NH and a new muffler (some dead animal got the old one) in CT, we were able to reach all of goals and complete the trip.

Big smiles at the start
(hopefully at the end, too)
The trip was made possible by a strong and willing husband.  He helped me transfer in/out of the car, put my wheelchair in the car, carry our luggage in/out of the motel rooms, and help me in uncountable ways in motels that were varying degrees of (in)accessible. I realize that not everyone has a "Ted" in her/his life.  For them, I still believe this type of trip is possible; it is simply more challenging and expensive -- requiring an accessible van (or else a light-weight wheelchair that can be lifted into a car) with hand controls, as well as significant and diligent planning to choose a route and lodging that are accessible.  Because of  time and money constraints, we did not have this luxury, and because of Ted we did not need it. Still, I was glad for the independence allowed by my transfer board (actually, I forgot the board, so I stopped along the way and bought an extra-large cutting board, which accomplished the same trick).  I wouldn't mind a portable Hoyer Lift for back-up security (backs do go out!) at some point.

Rain gear on the trail
at Yellowstone

I do not travel light.  Once upon a time, I traveled for a year with a backpack.  That is not now.  We wanted to bring our camping equipment in order to have a cheaper lodging option along the way, but that would have entailed a car top carrier to contain this equipment and countless additional hours of labor to set it up and take it down, so we left it at home.  We tried to take the minimal amount of luggage into the motel each night, but even minimal was a lot, and I was usually just lucky to get inside the room -- leaving one person to do all of the carrying.  Typically, this meant one personal backpack and roller suitcase for each of us, as well as one bag of medical supplies for me.  Unfortunately, because most of the motels we stayed at did not have accessible rooms, we also ended up bringing a lot of equipment to make lodging possible (see next blog). Because of the pandemic, the desire to save money, and the need to save time, we often ate in the motel room, meaning we also needed the cooler and a bag for food, dishes, all of our water bottles.  The rest was left in the car.

I dream of a van rigged out for camping, like the kids have.  Of course, mine would also be accessible, with a ramp. This van would have been ideal for this journey, providing cheap(er) and easier lodging (no search for lodging each night and no carrying luggage back and forth), a means of hauling a wheelchair, and accessible seating. 

Trails on the Gaspe Peninsula
in Quebec

Unfortunately, we still don't have this dream vehicle; but we do have the trusty Prius and a Fold N Go power wheelchair.  This wheelchair is great at handling distances and hills, drives by a joystick, folds up easily, has rugged tires with big casters, and is waterproof; however, it is heavy, doesn't fit me well without an extra seat cushion, and is dangerous when fighting slope and cross-slope simultaneously.  The jury is still out on their -- maybe fantastic, maybe horrible -- customer service.

Here is a list of some of the (accidentally brilliant) items we packed to make the road trip possible (For motel items, see the list in the following blog):

  • Roho MiniMax inflatable seat cushion (to sit on in the car)
  • Pillow and blanket (for the car and for cheap motels)
  • Phone charger for cigarette lighter
  • Folding metal ramp
  • Wooden transfer board 
  • Compression socks
  • Tablet for all e-books
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Therabands and TENS/NMES kit for exercise
  • Cooler
  • Electric kettle to boil water
  • Spoons, forks, and cups
  • Dish soap
  • Wheelchair and cushion repair kit
  • Rain poncho, rain hat, and stadium blanket
  • Pee bottle, for car
  • Phone apps:
    • Gaia (fee)
    • NPS
    • Accessiblego
    • Booking
    • AirBnB
    • Yelp
    • Libby
    • Spotiify (fee)
    • Kindle
The trip gave me fodder for several topics and posts.  The photos gave me all sorts of memories (thanks to Ted for taking most of the photos and for editing all of them)!

Monday, June 12, 2023

Seattle Arboretum Waterfront


Last year, the WA Trails Association (WTA) rolled-out a filter for “wheelchair friendly” trails on its online hiking guide. My friends and I participated in this project – hiking the trails, collecting and refining data, and publicizing results.

One of the biggest challenges was simply defining what was meant by “wheelchair friendly.” Usually taken as obvious and standardized, it is actually neither. For the WTA database, a “wheelchair friendly” trail was defined as a trail that any wheelchair (no matter what the type) is able to complete. In general, the starting point for guessing whether or not a trail is “wheelchair friendly” is based on the following criteria.

  1. Is the trail – including the entrance and exit – barrier-free (no gates, stairs, or steps/rocks/roots over 3” high)?
  2. Is the trail wide enough for a wheelchair (generally, at least 30 - 36”)?
  3. Is the trail surface firm (not loose sand, dirt, or gravel) and comfortable (not too rocky or rutted) enough for a wheelchair and its seated hiker?
  4. Is the cross-slope minimal enough for the comfort of a seated hiker?

The final answer, of course, is whether or not a wheelchair – any wheelchair – has actually hiked the trail.

This definition of “wheelchair friendly” means that any given trail will NOT be accessible to all wheelchairs, and it relies heavily on enough pertinent detail in each trail description to allow each individual hiker to decide whether or not this trail is feasible for them. This decision depends not only upon the trail and its features, but also on the individual hiker and their wheelchair. In addition, the accessibility of a trail can change over time, depending on weather and trail conditions and the hiker’s own energy. So, the final definition of whether or not a trail is truly “wheelchair friendly” is neither obvious nor standardized.

Since I am lucky enough to hike with a strong and spirited pusher, I can hike on some trails that can not be classified as wheelchair friendly by reason of some impediments, such as barriers or steps. This expands my hiking options, but I am mindful of the reality that my hikes are not always on technically "wheelchair-friendly" trails.

That was the case recently when we hiked the Foster and Marsh Island Loop of the waterfront trail between Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum and East Montlake Park.

Waterfowl along 520 bridge

Inspired by a photo of an otter feeding in the water along this path, we set off on this trail in search of otters. We didn’t find any otters, but we did see waterfowl and wonderful views.

Designated parking at
E Montlake Park

The good news is that both ends of the trail have good parking and excellent views: East Montlake Park and the Washington Park Arboretum. At East Montlake Park, there is street, parking with a disabled spot and a ramp up to the sidewalk.

Path to water at
E Montlake Park

On the western edge of East Montlake Park is a short and mostly level path to the water 

Platform overlooking Montlake Cut at E Montlake Park

and a platform overlooking the spot where the Montlake Cut joins Lake Washington. (The trail continues along the cut for a little way, eventually running into the steps at the University Bridge.)

Bald eagle and nest at E Montlake Park

Near this platform is a tall tree with a large nest, above which we saw a pair of bald eagles.

Entrance to Marsh Island trail
at E Montlake Park

To the north and east, you can reach the trail to Marsh Island, either by the paved sidewalk above or by the dirt path below.

Foster Island

At the other end, at the Arboretum, you could either park in the paved lot up the hill or in lot #14 down by the entrance and the water.   A short traverse leads over a bridge from the mainland to Foster Island, which has mostly level, wide trails with firm surfaces.  

Construction under 520 Bridge

The only exception is the area underneath the 520 bridge, which is (hopefully temporarily) under construction and more difficult to maneuver.  

View from Foster Island

On the other side of the bridge, Foster Island boasts well-maintained trails, picnic tables, a small beach, and a view of Husky Stadium and surroundings.

The bad news is that the loop between the two parks is not truly accessible, requiring back-and-forth travel on city sidewalks, or perhaps 2 separate car trips, to see the views.  

Trail from E Montlake Park
to Marsh Island

The “boardwalk” bridge between East Montlake Park and Marsh Island is technically accessible, but there are 2 significant up-and-down steep points to allow canoes and kayaks below to pass through the bridge.  

Trail on Marsh Island

The well-marked nature trail on Marsh Island is also accessible, but the island itself is so close to the water that the trail can be wet and muddy.  Worst of all is the bridge between Marsh Island and Foster Island.  

Steps on trail between 
Marsh and Foster Islands

Along with the expected upward points to allow boat access below are unexpected steps, rendering this part of the journey inaccessible.

The views and proximity to the water are worth the trip, in my mind. But hikers with wheelchairs will probably want to make 2 trips with short hikes. The first trip would be to East Montlake Park (and maybe across the pointy bridge to Marsh Island and back) to see the Montlake Cut, the eagle pair, the waterfowl, and the views. The second trip would be to the Washington Park Arboretum at Foster Island to see the beach and views.

Is the loop wheelchair-friendly? I don’t think so – because of the steps on the bridge between Foster and Marsh Islands. Is the loop feasible for wheelchairs? Only with a lot of attitude and assistance. Is it worth it? Yes!

As an added bonus, we finished just before sunset, when hundreds (thousands?) of crows gathered in the trees.  Perhaps they were nesting there for the night, but Google seemed to indicate that this was a meeting point before migrating to the nightly resting spot.  We didn't stay long enough to confirm which was the true meaning of this gathering; either way, it was spectacular!

Crows nesting at East Montlake Park in trees before sunset

** Since that time, I have seen that the floating bridge connecting the trail to the land at East Montlake Park is a few inches underwater, necessitating getting muddy and wet.  However, I have also seen online reports that the trail is scheduled to undergo re-strengthening and rebuilding in the summer of 2023.