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.