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

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