Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Snapshot: Family Fun at Wendell State Forest

Meet the Harris Family! Steve and Lisa are the devoted parents of Nathan and Autumn. They reside in Greenfield, Massachusetts and came out for a day of winter fun at Wendell State Forest.

"Our son Nathan," says Lisa, "has autism and severe sensory issues, so we thought we'd just expose him and work up to making it fun for him and the family over time. The outcome was quite unexpectedly the best day that our family has had playing together as a real family unit."

"Not in my wildest dreams," she continues, "would I have thought we could have done anything on the ice as a group. However we were all able to get on the ice, sled skate, and play hockey together!!!! We had a great time! We were even able to have some rare family photos taken with all smiles! "

"Another activity I never thought we'd be able to do as a group was snowmobiling. Nathan enjoys all things motorized, so I thought we had a good shot at this. Once loaded and on the trails, I looked back to see everyone smiling and Nathan, looking with saucer-shaped eyes, putting his two little mittens together signing 'more'. "

Your family can enjoy winter fun in the outdoor too, in a supported recreation program if needed. DCR's Universal Access Program offers three dates in 2010 at Wendell State Forest: January 30, February 13, and March 13 from 11am - 3pm. Call All Out Adventures at 413-527-8980 to register for a day of fun that will include snowmobile rides, ice skating, sled hockey, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and kicksledding as conditions permit. Other outdoor winter programs will take place at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, but if you really want to snowmobile, plan on coming to Wendell!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Weston Ski Track Accommodations

The Weston Ski Track is located at 200 Park Road in Weston, near where I-90 and I-95 cross. It is the only cross country ski center in Massachusetts that makes its own snow! If you live in the greater Boston area, winter is ready made for you here, even if the rest of the landscape is snowless.

While cross country skiing is the main highlight on 2 kilometers of trails over moderate terrain, snowshoes as well as skis can be rented. Races and events occur regularly in January and February. It was at one such race that I learned the importance of accommodations for spectators.

In order to get a good view of the race finish, most people walk across the snow. There are no seats or sidelines designated for viewing off the snow. As I watched a race of youngsters during the annual classic Vasalop nordic ski event, I noticed an older man standing at a distance, reluctant or unable to traverse the white expanse. I grabbed a kicksled and approached him and his adult son. "Here," I offered, "Please use this to get closer!" They did so, and this gentleman was able to sit and view his grandson crossing the finish line.

As a result of this spontaneous moment, the Weston Ski Track now offers the use of kicksleds for just such accommodations. They also have an adult sit-ski available for skiers with lower body limitations who are able to ski on their own. For those needing more support to ski, sit-ski, snowshoe, or kicksled, DCR's Universal Access Program offers three programs at the Weston Ski Track this winter on Sundays: January 31, February 7, and February 14. Come on out and join the fun!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Disability Evaporates in Sled Hockey

One of my favorite things about sled hockey is that while chasing the puck people get so caught up in the game, disabilities fall to the wayside of awareness. I see and experience this in our Universal Access skating programs whenever a pickup game gets underway.

People with and without disabilities pile into ice skating sleds and learn to propel themselves with the two shortened hockey sticks. These sticks have picks on one end used to dig into the ice. Flip the stick to move the puck towards any make shift goal or hockey net. If this level of coordination or strength is not possible, a stroller bar handle can be inserted into the back of the sled for assistance, leaving the sled skater to fully attend to the puck if they are able. Those players who can engage in either level of play may find themselves forgetting about the cold too!

This is a great activity for kids, young adults, and families, but anyone can enjoy it. Come try it out this winter at Wendell State Forest, Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, or the Asiaf Arena in Brockton. Click here for more details!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Mental Health Through Skiing

We might have been any two women on cross country skis, but if you could hear our conversation, you would you would have witnessed the transformational power outdoor recreation can have in the lives of people with disabilities.

"I used to be incredibly phobic," offered Ginny, as we shushed through the soft snow. "The Universal Access Program has helped me so much. I couldn't have recovered anywhere near as much as I have without it. I've spent years in outpatient clinics. Would you believe I used to weigh 210 pounds?"

We skied along a frozen pond with a beaver lodge and entered the snow covered forest. She took in my look of amazement and continued. " A lot of people on medication are overweight. So much of it is depression you know? And the drugs. You can't feel your feelings or any drive to get out and do things. But one day, I came with a group to kayak. At first I was terrified. Then, I had a great time! I was so isolated in my life I couldn't make connections with people very well, until I started coming to Universal Access programs. I got to know the staff and soon was talking to more people than just those with psychiatric disabilities."

As we passed under towering white pines, Ginny freely shared her story. I realized I was getting a rare view into a life experience few people get to see unless it is their own. She spoke of her misdiagnosis as a child, how the adult stresses of making ends meet led to a clearer psychiatric diagnosis, followed by years of poor treatment in an over-medicated fog. Somehow the tranquil beauty of the forest with its blanket of snow offered her easy access through her story.

"I was fortunate to have my own car. I kept coming. The exercise felt so good. The fresh air. Everything. I tried cycling, hiking, winter activities....each time I struggled through being around more new people, yet there were always the familiar friendly staff and volunteers to help me. I got to know some of the other participants who came regularly. Some of us even talk on the phone now between programs. Gradually I acclimated to people. I still have trouble being in rooms with people talking loudly or in crowds."

I found common ground with Ginny in this last comment, and we skied silently down a series of curving hills. "I really love speed!", she continued when we caught up with each other. "It makes me feel so alive. The release of endorphins actually breaks through the flat line of my emotional life. My medications prevent me from feeling much range."

Ginny had moved beyond the limitations of others managing her disability and was clearly finding her own methods of blazing new trails. We stopped to admire some tracks where a bobcat had crossed the ski trail, then swapped wild animal stories all the way back to the lodge.

Still I wonder, for every Ginny finding a new way in life, how many people are still caught in the fog of medication? Who else out there has improved their mental health through recreation?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Power Soccer - A fun indoor option

What to do on the first Saturday of shotgun season for deer, when the woods are full of hunters? Sometimes you have to escape indoors! I took a trip with my partner Maribeth to Durham, NH to observe power soccer in action. We were in advance of the first snowstorm of the season, so our return ride home turned out to be an outdoor adventure of slow driving in snow and icy conditions, but it was worth it!

We arrived at the Wittmore Center on the University of New Hampshire Campus in time for a skills clinic, in which the Northeast Passage team, the Wildcats, were practicing their skills with the oversized soccer ball that is officially used in power soccer. Five team members in their power wheelchairs took turns at 3 stations. There was a goal shooting station, with 3 soccer balls placed at three shooting points per person. A slalom of seven orange cones ran the length of the basketball court, in which each person had to travel and tightly circle the cones without bumping them. The final station was an identical slalom that was navigated with the soccer ball in traditional weave around alternating cones. Watching this warmup activity gave us a good sense of each player's ball handling skills.

Before the skills clinic was over, the team from Mass Hospital School rolled in, also in blue uniform shirts. These two teams are the only ones in the area, so they have played before and, prior to this scrimmage game, they too warmed up by running through the 3 stations. We could see right away they had some killer players. As residents at their school, they have easy access to regular practice and play among their schoolmates, whereas NEP team members must travel independently to a gym to practice during a 12 week season twice a year.

Power soccer has been around for some twenty years, though it is new to me. The game has its own standards and rules. Two twenty minute halves are played with a ten minute break in between. Each team has 3 players, plus the goalie, on the court at any one time. Power chairs are fit with a plastic guard on the front end, which is used to protect the players' feet and aids in working the ball. For the rest of the official picture, visit

Disabilities represented on the power soccer court this day included cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. A mother of one of the players sitting behind us in the bleachers, told us that typically the players with MD were often quite calculating in their moves and the players with CP had more difficulty getting their bearings in the middle of the game. Yet as far as we could see, one of the most active players on the NEP team had CP. Though he moved his chair jerkily and was non-verbal, he had a clear grasp of the action, was a quick responder and played some great defense. Two young women on the Wildcat team showed definite prowess at being in the right place to turn the ball back towards their opponent's goal. One of these women alternated playing goalie with a young man who was prone to hamming it up with the audience while the action was happening on the opposite end of the court. They were a fun and likable team, but alas they were no match for the Mass Hospital School!

We marveled at one player, whom Maribeth dubbed "the Pele of power soccer", who was always in the right place at the right time to stop most attacks from the Wildcats. The female player of the MHS team was barracuda-like in her ability to sneak up and steal the ball. Another player was a veritable wall of defense all by himself. Their goalie saw less action on his end of the court. The final score was 5 to 2. Everyone got a medal and enjoyed the outing and the pizza party afterwards. We beat it back home just before dark.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Enjoy Nature at Mass Audubon Sanctuaries

If you are looking for access to nature, visit a Massachusetts Audubon sanctuary. Several of Mass Audubon's nature sanctuaries have wheelchair accessible trails and they are well worth visiting. Nature centers at selected properties feature a visitor center which serves as a hub of community activity, offering classes to the public and a trail system through a protected property. The All Person's Trails are typically an accessible loop at the start of a larger trail system.

I recently visited Broadmoor Sanctuary in Natick to experience the All Person's Trail there, a quarter mile loop that includes a boardwalk through the edge of a swampy marsh. It was a warm and sunny November day. The trees were mostly leafless and I was eager myself to have a little time outdoors after a long drive. I stopped in at the visitors center and spoke with a staff person to get an orientation. She pulled out a trail map and as we talked, pointed out that it isn't easy for people in wheelchairs to access quiet and beautiful natural places. Mass Audubon has been working hard to offer accessibility at their sanctuaries and she was pleased to be able to offer the trail at Broadmoor.

Soon I was out in the low sunshine of the afternoon, exploring a new place. A variety of small birds were active around a bird feeder in the yard. I could hear ducks and geese calling from the marsh. The trail beckoned right outside the doors of the visitor center. It's wide stone dust path starts at the edge of a field, travels downwards through a wooded edge of forest, then onto a boardwalk over the water. The scene before me was lit in golden light. I moved quietly down the trail and took in the beauty of the place and season for an hour or so, and by the time I had returned to my car, I felt recharged by this contact with nature.

You can find All Person's Trails around Massachusetts at several Mass Audubon Sanctuaries. I have been to the trails at Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester, Stony Brook in Norfolk, Pleasant Valley in Lenox, Arcadia in Easthampton, and Wellfleet Bay on Cape Cod. Each one offers something different, and all provide access into a variety of habitats, including wetlands, which makes for the best chance to observe an array of plants and wildlife.

Mass Audubon has also begun to develop sensory tours along these All Persons Trails. Stony Brook and Broadmoor have self-guided tours designed for people with visual impairments in particular are easy to use for anyone interested in this alternate format. These sensory tours emphasize tactile and audio elements of the place as well as provide an orientation. The sensory trail at Stony Brook has a cable for navigation, with signs in Braille and large print. At Broadmoor, the All Person's Trail has audio tour stops marked by yellow diamonds and verbal cues. Access to the tour is easy - just bring your cellphone and dial the number provided on site. I recommend using a blue tooth if you have one.

There is an admission fee of a few dollars for those who aren't members of Mass Audubon. Visitor centers have varying hours of operation and trail systems are usually open dawn until dusk. You can find out more using by looking up the sanctuary you wish to visit at Feel free to post comments here about your experiences using the All Person's Trails and sensory tours!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Scandinavian Kicksled

Kicksledding is common in Scandinavia as practical transport, recreational fun and a competitive sport, yet it is little known in the United States. Having used kicksleds as part of accessible winter recreation activities for many years now, I recommend it for anyone looking for a unique inclusion item. They are relatively inexpensive compared to most adaptive recreation equipment and can be purchased for around $300 each. Two sources are Kicksled Canada ( and the Vermont Kicksled Company (

The basic idea is a wooden chair mounted on long runners, pushed by one person who provides the ride for another. The runners have footplates which allow the pusher to ride behind on gentle downhills. Steering is accomplished by pulling one side of the sled - the kicksled frame is flexible and can be torqued by hand to direct the sled. Dragging one foot or both heels allows the pusher to slow down and brake. Kicksleds offer another form of exercise for winter enthusiasts, a convenient device for ice fishermen, and can be converted into dogsleds for those with willing canine companions.

Kicksleds are great for transporting kids and seniors on moderate snow covered terrain, especially with wide groomed trails. The seat may appear small but they are capable of supporting up to 200 pounds or more, depending on the style and design. Some children's adaptive seating devices can be strapped right onto the wooden seat for customized comfort and support. I've seen people of all ages enjoy being included on nature walks and other winter outings. Kicksleds can also be used without a passenger. A bag or crate of supplies can easily be strapped onto the seat. Some kicksled designs allow for a separate ice runner to be added for use on frozen lakes. The kicksled is a versatile device that makes a great gift for a family or purchase for any organization seeking greater inclusion in the winter outdoors.

A few recommendations for kicksled use:

  • Avoid steep terrain. This will keep your speed manageable and your ride safest. The kicksled is designed for flat and moderate terrain.
  • Practice braking and steering on moderate terrain before trying any significant hills. Steering and braking take some time to accomplish. Wide trails and open terrain offer the best learning opportunity to minimize collisions.
  • Consider adding a seat belt. They don't necessarily come with the sled but can be easily added with webbing and buckles. Not having a seat belt allows for easy bailing by the rider if the kicksled is out of control. Having a seatbelt may help contain some passengers better and keep their weight centered.
  • Balance the weight and abilities of pusher and rider. The smaller the rider the easier the sled is to push. The bigger the rider the more potential to pick up speed on a downhill. Pushers with good reflexes and physical strength will be able to safely handle most situations. Riders should be able to keep their feet in position resting on the footbar independently or additional straps will need to be added.
With these tips in mind, consider trying out a kicksled this winter!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Take a Walk at Webb Memorial Park

I visited Webb Memorial Park in Weymouth for the first time a few weeks ago and highly recommend it as an accessible outing for everyone. The park is located at the tip of a peninsula on the South Shore with lovely views of harbor islands and Boston and is maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). A wide stonedust path loops for almost a mile, with options to shorten the loop hike and avoid the few gentle hills to remain on level terrain if needed. There is even a bathroom there, not always the case at DCR's urban parks. If you use a wheelchair you'll be able to access the restrooms. The grab bars in the accessible stalls are not positioned to code which may be a factor for some. Otherwise, Webb Park offers a wonderful taste of nature and history!

My excuse to finally visit this lovely natural setting was to assist on a guided walk offered by DCR's Universal Access Program. I was to be a sighted guide for a blind man on an accessible outing for a group of people with visual impairments. It was a beautiful warm mid-October day when I arrived with Brenda Davies, the program leader.

Brenda has been facilitating outdoor recreation outings for people with disabilities in state parks as part of the Universal Access Program for at least 12 years. She combines her professional skills as an outdoor leader and and occupational therapist to provide exceptional guidance and accommodations on the spot for anyone who ventures out in her programs. In the warmer months she leads a hiking program - of which this outing was one - that visits numerous parks around Massachusetts from the Berkshires to the Boston Harbor islands. In the winter she can be found at the Weston Ski Track sharing her love of cross country skiing, snowshoeing and kicksledding. Brenda's playful personality and her community spirit inevitably lead to an enjoyable day for everyone. To find out more about program opportunities in state and urban parks, including those facilitated by Brenda (Stavros Outdoor Access), visit

As we waited for our six participants to arrive via personal transportation or The Ride, I met Jessica and Eva, our park interpreters, who were collecting items from the nearby beach to share. Different types of shells and plants were placed in a bag for people to pull out and describe as part of the introductions to come and to stimulate our interest in learning more about the place. Jessica's role was to share with us some of the history associated with the islands and Eva was soon to captivate our attention with her love of wild plants and plenty of tactile and olfactory opportunities.

Soon we were gathered in a circle, sharing our impressions and introductions. Our five participants were individuals who had met a few years before while learning how to adjust to their loss of vision at the Carroll Center for the Blind. Two women had seeing eye dogs, two men used canes, and two other women were able to travel without these, making for a complete mix of navigational styles. I was matched with David who preferred a person to be his sighted guide so he could focus more fully on the experience. After learning about salt marsh grass, crabs, and other natural life in the area through our objects and interpreter comments, we started our walk.

A moderate breeze was felt by all as we departed the picnic area and strolled northward on the east side of the peninsula. We could smell the salt water and hear waves gently lapping a small rocky beach to our right. Soon we passed a memorial - there are several on this walk and it was a treat to get a dose of some local history as I have not spent much time on the South Shore. The first memorial was to a Weymouth resident who had given up his spot on the lifeboat to a younger man when the ship he was on sank in the Arctic ocean during WWII. Even those of us who weren't interested in history were impressed by this!

As we continued on, Eva collected plant samples and introduced us to sumac, rose hips, tansy, mugwort, mullein, and many other herbs growing wild on site. Her love of medicinal plants showed in the knowledge and perspective she shared. I was particularly impressed with her appreciation of poison ivy, which runs rampant on the Boston Harbor islands, allowing wildlife a safer haven from human activities. Even without an interpreter, those with sight will especially enjoy the colors and visual textures of the vegetation growing at Webb.
Jessica shared with us the story of the Grape Island Rebellion at the next memorial, an interesting configuration of circular brick with granite projections on a slight knoll with a view of the island just beyond a stone's throw to our north. Picture a huge bonfire lit to prevent the British from claiming a barn full of salt marsh hay during the Revolutionary War and you have another hint of the historical opportunities to learn more about in association with Webb Memorial Park.

We rounded the peninsula moving through diverse and protective sections of trees and shrubs alternating with open field habitat. Being a natural environment on the coast, birds were abundant and some could be heard calling softly in the underbrush out of the wind. Mockingbirds cavorted and sparrows in migration slipped across the path before us as we walked. At yet another memorial overlook, our group paused to enjoy the day further, with more stories and smaller conversations.

David asked me for a description of the clouds in the sky, which were thick to the west and approaching. It was the kind of sky that is clear and blue overhead, with just a cloud or two arriving like sheep, ahead of an incoming front. I knew as the afternoon progressed the clouds would eventually blanket the sky. Everyone was enjoying the sun's warmth before the end of the season, even though we were bundled up in defense of the cool wind.

We were standing in a high spot where the ocean had eroded the soil, so that there was a 50 foot drop off before us overlooking another rocky beach. I began to describe the antics of gulls to David and another woman named DeAnn who had joined us with her dog. A few herring gulls were walking on the rocks below us, picking at things with their beaks. As one flew upward with an object, I began a verbal report of its feeding behavior and paused in a timely fashion so that David and DeAnn could hear the gulls' age old repeated endeavor of dropping mussels, crabs and other hard shelled items to the beach to break them open. Each drop offered a different sound as the desired food items struck the rocks in various ways with or without success. David and DeAnn were delighted at this live listening opportunity and for several minutes we tallied the dining experience of these birds before rejoining our group and finishing our hike.

Back near the entrance, we pulled out our lunches and enjoyed conversation under a beautiful pavilion overlooking a small cove. Farewells were exchanged as transportation arrived and our brief exploration was soon over, leaving me wanting more. I would soon be back to this natural gem located at the end of River Street in Weymouth.

Other attractions nearby include the DCR parks of Stoddard's Neck and Abigail Adams Park easily found off the main road following the coastline. If the gate is unlocked and pushed open at Stoddard's Neck you can access this extremely popular park for another loop path that is level and much wider than at Webb, however you must be a dog lover to appreciate this location where canines often outnumber people. There are no restrooms here or at the much quieter Abigail Adams Park, where another shorter loop walk offers a trail of plaques with quote from Abigail's famous letters to her husband John. And if you are so inspired, as we were, to drive by Abigail's birthplace in Weymouth, it is just a few miles away at 180 Norton Street. It is only open in summer and not wheelchair accessible, but you can get a good view of the structure from your car as a nice finishing touch to an outing a Webb.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Power Chairs in the Outdoors

In nearly fifteen years as an adaptive recreation program coordinator, I've helped to make outdoor recreation more accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities. I've met many people who use power wheelchairs, some of whom have been able and willing to transfer out of their chairs to experience using a beach wheelchair on the beach, kayaking, rowing, sailing, ice sled skating, cycling, horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiling. In many cases, a person with a severe disability is able to be situated well enough with modifications for comfort, stability and function, to enjoy being on the water, snow, ice, a horse or some type of recreation equipment, whether they are active or inactive. Still there are many power chair users for whom this is simply not a comfortable or realistic option.

Outdoor recreation possibilities for this niche of people with more severe disabilities seem quite limited. Nonetheless some of the individuals I know do whatever they can to explore, try new activities and have fun. Some examples I've seen are spinning and sliding on the ice, fishing, birding, traveling along the smoother pavement of rail trails or waterfront promenades, the use of accessible trails in parks and attending outdoor fairs and events. Remote control devices, which typically require movement from just a couple of fingers, can open up enjoyment of outdoor environments as well. Remote control sailing, also known as model sailing, offers a gentle eye-pleasing experience and the chance to learn the basics of sailing and even compete.

Indoor recreation options are more prevalent, likely to be more wheelchair accessible and on public transportation. Visiting museums, attending concerts and performances, and going to the movies are viable options for those who can get out of the house. Using the internet for games and blogging offers opportunities for social engagement for those who can use a computer. Power soccer, a sport designed for power chair players, takes place on basketball courts and offers the opportunity for team play and competition.

If you use a power chair, or know someone who does, please submit a post here and share what you enjoy doing in the outdoors from the perspective of a power chair user. I'm gathering information in order to be able to better serve people with severe disabilities. Your needs, input, preferences and requirements would be most appreciated! Please do a quick click on the poll too!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

In A Wheelchair, Up A Mountain

This fall I took a hike with Northeast Passage, a non-profit barrier-free recreation organization based in New Hampshire. Northeast Passage addresses the recreation needs of people with disabilities, especially those who have had spinal cord injuries. Affiliated with the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Northeast Passage celebrated it's 20th anniversary in 2009.

Jill Gravink and David Lee, our leaders for the dayhike on Blue Job Mountain, are both certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists. Jill is the founder of NEP and Dave has been on hand for at least 10 years. Both radiate an easy and expert confidence. Their can-do attitude ensures no one who wants to attain a summit or try a new sport is left behind. Other activities offered by NEP include handcycling, hiking, sled hockey, skiing and power soccer.

At the moderately remote trailhead on this breezy and clear early autumn day, we chatted and waited for the four pre-registered hikers for the day to arrive. While the parking lot filled fast, only two participants showed up. Debbie, from New Hampshire, was our focal person for the day, as she was using a manual wheelchair. Accompanied by an ambulatory friend from Massachusetts, this was their first time out with Northeast Passage. They were about to experience a perfect mountain for such an endeavor.

Three volunteers were present to assist as Jill and Dave discussed options with Debbie. Out of their pickup truck they pulled a rugged wheelchair called a Terra Trek, it's knobbly tires muddy from previous adventures, it's front castors missing. "They just get in the way," explained Jill, and the chair was used with just it's two main wheels for the entire hike.A rickshaw pole was quickly slid into one side of the front end of the chair, allowing Dave to hold up the chair while Debbie transferred in. A second pole was attached and without much more discussion, we were on our way through a low forest. Two volunteers pulled the chair, one at each pole. Dave handled the back of the chair, providing additional stability via a backbar he had added to the basic chair design for better leverage. Modification of existing equipment is one of Dave's specialties.

We were a noisy conversational bunch, trooping along a trail that traversed tree roots, a narrow (but not too narrow!) wooden bridge, and an increasing array of granite boulders. The summit was just a half a mile away, a bald dome of rock with views of the White Mountains to the north and a glimmer of ocean to the east. A light trip for any dedicated hiker, Blue Job offers a condensed rugged experience for those who require short distances or have less time. It is a great choice for families, even a wedding, which accounted for the full parking lot on this particular day.

Soon we were climbing, Dave and his helpers skillfully maneuvering the chair and it's occupant up and over obstacles. We kept up a steady pace, indeed, bringing up the rear as I was, I wondered how Debbie was enjoying the experience. As we emerged from the forest into a more level area, we paused net to a small pond amidst aspens to make an accommodation for her. Here I witnessed "innovation in action" as Jill dubbed it, a hallmark of Northeast Passage's style.
Dave worked a length of climbing webbing through the chair frame and fashioned loop handles on either side of Debbie's knees to provide her with handholds. This gave her better comfort and stability within the wheelchair during the bumpier stretches. Though it might appear to the casual observer that Debbie was being carried along the trail, in fact she was getting quite an abdominal workout as she continually balanced her body in the chair over tilting terrain.

The final ascent over rounded granite to the top offered longer spans of angled curving rock, making for a smoother ride. The view was opening up around us as we passed through fewer and shorter trees, a sea of blue mountains all around. The wind took over, blowing with consistent gusto, cooling the sun's warmth, making me glad for the layers of clothing I wore. We approached the highest rock, already peopled by two birdwatchers with scopes. Thankfully the wedding party picked a less windy area for their event. We stayed up top for 20 minutes or so, taking pictures and sorting out the surrounding mountains. Debbie was easily propped into a level position on the rocks, but the fierce wind prevented any kind of picnic. It was a fine day for hawks in migration and I was pleased to see a kestrel hurtle by in close view before we began our descent.

On the downward trip we met various members of the wedding making their way up for the view. Members of our own party swapped out support roles with the wheelchair. Moving ahead of the line to take photos, I could see Debbie frequently smiling as we retraced our path. She had tried a new experience and met a goal of attaining a summit in her wheelchair. No doubt this day would stand out in her memory for quite some time.

Back in the forest again, I fell into step with the third volunteer and soon learned much to my surprise, that he had recovered from a spinal cord injury that had left him quadriplegic almost a decade ago. Now he was as physically fit as ever it seemed, though he acknowledged that he still managed symptoms. Only recently had he become involved with Northeast Passage, though Dave had visited him in rehabilitation. He came to volunteer, without having even benefited from Northeast Passage's tremendous programs in the course of his recovery! I left Blue Job inspired by the dedication and unique journeys of individuals to make a difference for others and to bring anyone who wants to go to the top of the mountain.

For more information on Northeast Passage, visit them at

Outdoor Recreation and Aging

The experience of one woman who reclaimed adventure in her later years -
I first met Cynthia when she was in her mid-seventies, at Nickerson State Park, where she was part of a camping program that had decided to cook breakfast on the beach. The water was gently washing the shoreline of the bay side of Cape Cod and the morning light was spectacular. Sea birds called overhead and calm water extended to the horizon in a glorious view. The program staff was struggling to get a temperamental camp stove lit and Cynthia was making no bones about it - she was hungry.

Cynthia is an avid outdoors woman despite severe arthritis. The camping program was her first since the disease changed her ability to recreate independently many years before. Here she received assistance as needed with tasks her swollen hands couldn’t finesse, kayaked on freshwater ponds, and rode a hand-propelled bike on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Her first experience with the Universal Access Program was a success, despite the cranky camp stove.

Over the next several years, Cynthia popped up all over Massachusetts. I saw her snowshoeing in Holyoke and near Concord. I hiked with her on Mt. Greylock and we canoed together in Sturbridge at Wells State Park. Over time Cynthia became well-known for her cheerful presence and good humor. It was always a thrill for her to get out of the house and have an outdoor adventure. After canoeing one day, I invited Cynthia to look a little deeper into her experience. "Cynthia, tell me what it is you are getting from the Universal Access Program that keeps you coming back for more and traveling all over the state?"

She looked at me and considered this for a minute or two, which seemed like a long time so I wondered if she had heard me. Then she looked up with an enormous smile and said "You know what? I just realized this. The Universal Access Program cured my depression!"

"I used to do all kinds of outdoors activities", she continued. "When I got arthritis it seemed like that life was over. I became very depressed. I could no longer do the things I loved. When I discovered this program and met all these nice people, after awhile I started feeling better. Now I don’t feel depressed anymore!"

The Universal Access Program is part of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is a nationally unique state park program that makes outdoor recreation accessible to people with disabilities in Massachusetts. Through site improvements and equipment placement that allows for independent access, as well as structured recreation programs year round, the DCR offers numerous choices for those who want to get outdoors. Program activities include kayaking, rowing, cross country skiing, ice skating, snowmobiling, horseback riding, birding, and bicycling. Many programs are free and some have minimal fees. Individuals, families, and groups have gained greater access to the outdoors through this program since 1995. Cynthia is among many who have discovered that they can do something they thought wasn’t possible or who have reclaimed a seemingly lost part of their life.

Like Cynthia, many participants come back for more, using the program to get outside regularly, exercise, and connect with nature and other people. Some even end up buying their own kayak, sitski, or adaptive bicycle to recreate on their own. The beauty of the Universal Access Program though, is that it offers leadership, skilled support, safety, and adaptive equipment that may not be affordable for everyone to purchase on their own. For those who become regulars of the program, opportunities abound to explore new places and new activities, and develop personal goals.

It was a hot summer day in Hadley when I stopped in on a weekly adaptive cycling program on the Norwottuck Rail Trail. There was Cynthia , sitting at an outdoor table, enjoying an ice cream cone. "Marcy, Marcy!," she called out. "I did it! I biked the whole rail trail! Sixteen miles!" It was a triumphant moment. Cynthia had been working toward that goal for year or so.

Since then, Cynthia biked the entire trail many times on a weekly basis each summer, and still comes out occasionally. Now in her mid-eighties, she uses ski poles to balance her walking on snowshoes in winter and trails in summer. While health challenges in our later years can diminish our sense of adventure and limit opportunities, re-defining adventure for ourselves can feed our soul. Reclaiming what we can and still being able to try new things is a powerful re-creation of ourselves. Celebrating and assisting the outdoor adventures of those ahead of us in years offers a beacon of inspiration and a sense of wholeness that can transcend limitation. Don't hesitate to research local options and test new waters!

To find out more about DCR’s Universal Access Program, call 413-545-5353 or go online at

Birding with Jerry - A Blind Date

A glorious May morning after 10 days of rainy weather matched the calendar date I had made with a friend to go birding. We met at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, a long drive for me but the ideal meeting spot for Jerry, who is blind and lives nearby. Jerry arrived by taxi cab and after a brief discussion about the catbird singing near the parking lot, he took my arm and we ventured onto the sanctuary trails.

Leaves were popping out in the tall trees all around us, about halfway to full canopy, so I still had a chance to see many birds. Almost immediately as we headed down trail a scarlet tanager began to sing. We stopped to listen. "Have you heard the scarlet tanager before?" I asked Jerry. "Just on recordings’, he replied. "I think of it as a robin with a sore throat. It also has a ‘chip - bur’ call too, doesn’t it?"

"Yes," I answered, and within a few minutes, the distinctive chip-bur call began high overhead. As we continued our walk, we heard several scarlet tanagers singing and calling throughout the riverside forest. We also heard rose-breasted grosbeaks and robins. All three birds have similar songs and offered us the chance to compare and contrast. Jerry hadn’t heard the rose-breasted grosbeak live before either. "This one," he said, "I think of as a robin who has taken singing lessons." His references come straight out of Peterson’s field guide text, which provides handy ways to identify and remember some bird songs. As we stood and listened, a scarlet tanager flew down to eye level and dazzled me with a view of its electric red body and black wings. I had to remember to keep breathing.

Several other birds began to make themselves known. An ovenbird pumped out its "teacher teacher teacher" song. This was a warbler that Jerry had encountered before. As we passed near it, we stopped so Jerry could make a recording. He had brought a large microphone designed for capturing bird sounds which fit easily into his jacket. He also wore to microphones clipped to his cap, each one near an ear, for a more dimensional sound effect.

The sun filtered through the tree tops and we navigated a rocky stream crossing. Jerry held my arm just above the elbow and followed a half a step behind me, feeling how I was moving and following suit. I offered occasional comments on the level of rocks along the rocky passage, the mud puddles we were side stepping, and low hanging branches. It turned out to be quite easy to be Jerry’s sighted guide even on complicated terrain. Having been blind since birth, Jerry is adept at moving through his environment with guide dog, cane, or human support.
Orioles were calling throughout the forest too. Although we were hoping to hear a great crested flycatcher, we only heard orioles giving short phrases that sounded similar to the flycatcher’s voice. We stood still a few times, trying to decide who the real singer was, until the oriole would sing a longer phrase or move into view and reveal its identity.

Deciphering mystery singers on the spot can be difficult. Being able to find the singer visually and observe it singing is the ultimate clear identification. Relying on memory can be misleading. Some birds sing a consistent phrase or have a truly distinctive voice that can be remembered from year to year. Others have such a wide variety of vocalizations that it may take awhile to sort out and some songs may never move beyond mystery status.

An American redstart, a showy orange and black warbler, landed on a branch above and peered down at us. I let Jerry know the bird was there, but its silence gave him no way to perceive it. We continued along the trail a short way and were riveted by a mystery bird that was singing from one hidden spot high up in the half leafed trees. No matter how I repositioned myself along the trail I could not find the bird in my binoculars. The song varied a lot but we both agreed it had to be a warbler. One phrase was an ascending burry emphatic trill, another was a choppy series of notes with the same tone. Was it a blackburnian warbler, cerulean warbler, or the American redstart? In migration many birds are possible even outside of their breeding habitat. Jerry recorded the singer to compare to recordings on CD at home and we continued uphill to some power lines. Here we had the satisfaction of hearing the blessedly consistent and easy-to-identify trill of the prairie warbler, a new bird for Jerry.

All around us on this May morning birds were singing and calling. Wood thrushes, American goldfinches, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, tufted titmice, grackles, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds could also be heard. After awhile the brain rebels against focusing intently on so much audio input. "I know we heard that earlier. What was that?" I asked Jerry."I don’t know," he admitted. "All these songs are suddenly cancelling each other out." "Yeah," I answered, "I think we’ve reached overload." "I’m glad I’m not the only one!" laughed Jerry, as we headed back to the visitor center.

Jerry can often be found at the Broad Meadow Brook visitor center on Saturday mornings. He birds from the deck and talks with visitors, sometimes confirming identifications through their eyesight. He welcomes the chance to walk with others on the trails of the sanctuary, whether you are an experienced birder-by-ear or want to get started. Jerry posts recordings on line at

A few days after our walk, Jerry emailed me with his identification of our mystery singer. In his email he attached a brief recording from our outing plus a clip from a bird song CD. There was no doubt about it. We had heard a northern parula warbler singing a joyous solo on that spectacular day.

Location: Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, 414 Massasoit Ave, Worcester, MA

Fees: Massachusetts Audubon members, free; non-members $4 adults, $3 children/seniors.
Wheelchair accessibility: Visitor Center is wheelchair accessible. Trails from the visitor center head downhill and are challenging and not advised without support. The North Link trail nearby is wheelchair accessible and offers views of the brook. A bird blind near the visitor center is in progress towards complete accessibility and plans are in the works to make more of the trail system accessible.