Slowly but surely, Northern Michigan is improving its adaptive recreation scope. Miles of trails, adaptive skiing and sailing, and more mobility mats at beaches are giving people of all abilities access to outdoor fun.
Barb Hutchens is a member of the board of Disability Network Northern Michigan and a volunteer at Traverse Area Community Sailing (TACS). For years, she’s been instrumental in developing adaptive sailing programs for enthusiastic sailors of all ages.
“The challenges are community awareness, to help people understand that we all don’t have access that able-bodied persons do,” said Hutchens.
TACS’ equipment is specially designed with a joystick, accessible dock, and a lift to help put people in the boat.
Hutchens said adaptive sailing helps persons with nearly any type of disability, whether cognitive or physical.
“We had a woman with a brain injury, and [after sailing] it was the first time she could remember anything about her past. She had sailed before her accident,” she said. “Children with autism find it soothing – there’s a therapeutic effect to being on the water.”
‘WHO THE HELL AM I TO TELL YOU THAT YOU CAN’T SKI?’
Paul Derby of Cadillac suffers from spina bifida, a birth defect in which vertebrae around the spinal cord do not fully form. Typically it leads to leg weakness, paralysis, and/or hip dislocation or scoliosis.
He grew up skiing, but as his condition worsened he was unable to join his family on the slopes.
“I can’t describe what it was like, watching my family ski without me,” he said.
His parents then took him to the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Colorado.
“They said, ‘You will take lessons.’ I said, ‘Yes, I will,’” he said with a laugh.
He worked out to build up his muscles, then visited his neurosurgeon, who suffered from the same affliction, to get permission for the trip.
“She said, ‘They said I’d never be a neurosurgeon.
Who the hell am I to tell you that you can’t ski?’” he said.
Derby is now comfortable on the slopes, as well as being an advocate for others with disabilities.
“Every time I’m out there it means something to me,” he said. “People come up to me, ask me about my equipment. They say thanks for being out here.
“I ski because I enjoy it. But I also ski to show everyone it can be done.”
Derby is also active on the water in the summer. “Another passion of mine is sailing,” he said. But unlike the specially equipped boats used at TACS, he still sails on his family’s boat.
“I’ve found different ways to get around,” he said.
“The adaptation there is in my mind, finding different ways to safely do things on the boat.”
MORE MOBILITY MATS COMING
Mobility mats and beach pathways are solid surfaces installed on beaches. They are designed to enable people in wheelchairs or using walkers and baby strollers to get close to the water.
There are several mobi mats in the region, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Clinch Park in Traverse City, Traverse City State Park, Whiting Park in Boyne City, and Petoskey State Park.
Annie Campbell, the director of development of Disability Network Northern Michigan, said those efforts are continuing.
“We hope to raise money by the end of spring to have Bryant Park in Traverse City and Camp Petosega in Alanson accessible through the purchase of beach pathways,” she said.
The success of the program has other parks planning their own, Campbell said.
“A number of different parks have contacted us asking for our input,” she said. “They’re planning on putting in accessible beach and kayak launches.”
Solid surface hiking trails also enable everyone to enjoy the outdoors together. The TART trail, Little Traverse Wheelway, and the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail all provide access for those who wish to walk, run, or use wheeled conveyances.
“TART allows walking, wheelchairs, and hand cycling,” Campbell said. “[It] is one of my favorite parts of Grand Traverse County.”
Programs through schools, at the YMCA, and Northern Michigan Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program through Munson Healthcare’s Physical Rehabilitation Services also offer additional opportunities.
Though advocates say more can be done and needs to be done, improvements continue to be made. Northern Michigan is becoming an accessible vacation and recreation destination, whatever the season.
Petoskey’s Challenge Mountain Offers Year-Round Programs
In 1982, founder Darla Evans took her daughter Chrisi to the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo. Chrisi had been confined to a wheelchair due to numerous birth defects.
By the end of the week, the five-year-old was skiing with special equipment adapted to her needs. Rather than accepting payment, the director of the program elicited a promise from Darla that she return to Michigan and begin a similar program.
And she did. Today Challenge Mountain offers year-round programs in sailing, kayaking, fishing, biking, and maple sap gathering.
“It’s a safe, comfortable environment for families,” said Elizabeth Gertz Looze, the executive director.