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From Sit-Skiing to Alligator Watching: Finding Wheelchair-Accessible Recreation in National

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Published in Winter/Spring 2021 Issue
By Jodi Hausen

Before Dave “Madman” Poole broke his back in 2006, he was an avid hunter, angler, cyclist, and skier. “That was my passion,” said 35-year-old Poole, who lives in Bozeman, Montana. He says spending time outdoors, particularly in National Forests, shaped his life.

Desperate to get back outdoors, Poole signed up with Eagle Mount, a Bozeman-based nonprofit offering programs for people with physical or intellectual challenges. While downhill skiing with its Bridger Bowl program, he rediscovered the independence he thought he’d lost.

Six years after the accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Poole embarked on a game-changing backcountry trip. His friends were planning their annual hike to Hidden Lake in the Big Belt Mountains in Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Having spent the summer mountain biking, Poole’s resolve was as strong as his arms and, with help from his friends, he wheeled to the mountain lake, camping gear strapped to his handcycle. “That experience just made everything possible,” Poole said. “It was like, ‘Wow, we made it back here, you guys. I want to go more places now. I want to find out where else I can go.’”

Photo by Jodi Hausen

Fish and Birdwatch on the Au Sable River, Michigan

Located on the Lower Peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, Huron-Manistee National Forests feature hardwood forests, pristine rivers, and thousands of lakes, providing habitat to more than 600 wildlife species.

Don’t miss the 22-mile River Road National Scenic Byway along the magnificent Au Sable River. If you’ve come for the famed steelhead or salmon runs, you can fish from several accessible piers at Whirlpool River Access, Foote Dam, or Cooke Dam Hydroelectric Plant.

Discover area history at wheelchair-accessible interpretive sites portraying stories of logging, river rats, hydroelectric power, canoe racing, local geology, and wildlife. Or take the self-guided Jack Pine Wildlife Viewing Tour, which passes through areas managed for rare Kirtland’s warblers.

(St)roll and Swim at Juniper and Alexander Springs, Florida

Ocala National Forest is the remains of a 25-million-year-old island chain that existed before the ocean retreated. Today, this sand pine scrub ecosystem has more than 600 lakes, rivers, and springs. Two of its freshwater springs, Alexander and Juniper, have accessible facilities including paved trails, swimming, and camping.

Wheel from the parking area at Juniper Springs to the bathhouse or crystalline waters of the swimming area. Or follow the accessible interpretive Nature Trail, which parallels the spring outflows and winds through lush, sub-tropical forest. Keep your eyes peeled for turtles, alligators, snakes, lizards, wading birds, and deer.

The accessible Timucuan Trail boardwalk at Alexander Springs follows the creek where interpretive signs depict the Indigenous people who once lived there. A paved sidewalk leads to a sandy beach and the springs, which remain a constant 72 degrees. The more courageous can snorkel, scuba dive, or even explore an underwater cavern.

Hunt the Talladega Mountains, Alabama

Set in mountains and grassy meadows about an hour from Birmingham, Talladega National Forest is home to a unique wheelchair-accessible area.

In the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area, Big Oak Hunting Camp offers backcountry experiences for hunters with limited mobility. The 1,700-acre facility has accommodations for primitive camping and hunting, and is known for its whitetail deer, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, and other small game. The camp is part of Alabama’s Hunting and Fishing Trail for

People with Disabilities, a statewide network of around 50 camps with accessible fishing, hunting, shooting, and archery.

Kancamagus Scenic Byway, White Mountain National Forest. Photo by Patrick Hummel

Ski or Paddle the San Bernardino Mountains, California

Only an hour or two from Los Angeles, the San Bernardino National Forest abounds with adaptive activities. Take the 110-mile Rim of the World Scenic Byway through dazzling high-mountain passes to Big Bear Lake or Lake Arrowhead, where you’ll find a host of outdoor activities.

In winter, the United States Adaptive Recreation Center offers adaptive ski and snowboard instruction at Big Bear Mountain Ski Resort, while Rim of the World Special Athletes Foundation does the same at Snow Valley Mountain Resort.

Both organizations provide warm weather activities including water skiing, kayaking, sailing, water biking, fishing, and paddle boarding on nearby lakes. USARC also offers backcountry downhill cycling using "chariots" outfitted with four-wheel suspension and disc brakes, and RSA's other activities include golf, hiking, and biking.

Cruise to Covered Bridges and High Mountain Peaks, New Hampshire/Maine

The 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest is renowned for its fall foliage, when the brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows of maple, oak, birch paint the region’s rugged mountains. But the scenery is breathtaking any time of year.

Spend a day cruising the 27-mile Kancamagus Scenic Byway and choose from accessible hiking, camping, fishing, or picnicking at sites like Albany Covered Bridge and adjacent Covered Bridge Campground.

For alpine adventurers, drive to Mount Washington’s 6,288-foot summit, the highest peak in Northeastern U.S. where you’ll find expansive views and a well-appointed wheelchair-accessible visitor center. Be prepared for the mountain’s fickle weather with record-breaking winds and where 70-degree days can deteriorate quickly into raging winter whiteouts.

Fish and Drive to 10,947 Feet on the Beartooth Highway, Montana/Wyoming

A few miles from the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the Clarks Fork Picnic Area has accessible accommodations including an interpretive trail, picnic site, and fishing platform over the Broadwater River.

Spend the morning angling for arctic grayling and brook trout, then prepare for a thrilling drive along the Beartooth Highway, the spectacular 68-mile All American Road that reaches 10,947 feet between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana. Skirting the 950,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, you’ll pass through both the Custer Gallatin and the Shoshone National Forests, prime habitat for elk, moose, bear, wolves, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.

About the Author

Jodi Hausen is a Bozeman-based freelance writer and photographer whose award-winning work has appeared in national and regional publications. Jodi is working on several book projects, including one about people with so-called disabilities. Find more of her work at potentportrayals.com.


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