Goodness Report

All-terrain wheelchairs arrive at U.S. parks: ‘This is life-changing’

December 1, 2022

By Andrea Sachs and Natalie B. Compton, The Washington Post

Cory Lee has visited 40 countries on seven continents, and yet the Georgia native has never explored Cloudland Canyon State Park, about 20 minutes from his home. His wheelchair was tough enough for the trip to Antarctica but not for the rugged terrain in his backyard.

Lee’s circumstances changed in November of this year, when Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and the Aimee Copeland Foundation unveiled a fleet of all-terrain power wheelchairs for rent at 11 state parks and outdoorsy destinations, including Cloudland Canyon. The Action Trackchair models are equipped with tank-like tracks capable of traversing rocks, roots, streams and sand; clearing fallen trees; plowing through tall grass; and tackling uphill climbs.

“I’ll finally be able to go on these trails for the first time in my life,” said the 32-year-old travel blogger, who shares his adventures on Curb Free With Cory Lee. “The trails are off-limits in my regular wheelchair.”

Georgia is one of the latest states to provide the Land Rover of wheelchairs to outdoor enthusiasts with mobility issues.

In 2017, Colorado Parks and Wildlife launched its Staunton State Park Track-Chair Program, which provides free adaptive equipment, though guests must pay the $10 entrance fee. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has placed off-road track chairs in nearly a dozen parks, including Muskegon State Park. In 2018, Lee reserved a chair at the park that boasts three miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake. “It allowed me to have so much independence on the sand,” he said.

In 2019, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan became the first national park to offer a track chair, said superintendent Scott Tucker. This year, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, the nonprofit that oversees the program, added a third.

South Dakota is also expanding its squadron: On Tuesday, the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation unveils its second all-terrain chair. South Dakota resident Michael M. Samp is leading a fundraising campaign to purchase up to 30 chairs. Last year, Samp’s father packed up his fishing pole and piloted a track chair to Center Lake in Custer State Park. He reeled in trout, just as he had before he was diagnosed with spinal cerebral ataxia.

“The plan is to have the chairs spread throughout the state and available for various outdoor activities including, but not limited to, park and trail enjoyment, hunting and fishing,” said Kristina Coby, the foundation’s director.

This month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will wrap up its months-long pilot program that tested out the chairs in five parks. On Nov. 16, the agency will evaluate the success of the amenity. Early indications are positive.

“We want to create an unforgettable outdoor experience for everyone, not just for people who can walk,” said Jamie McBride, a state parks and recreation area program consultant with the Parks and Trails division of the Minnesota DNR. “People have told us this is life-changing.”

The Georgia initiative was spearheaded by Aimee Copeland Mercier, who suffered a zip-lining accident in 2012 and lost both hands, her right foot and her left leg to a flesh-eating bacterial infection. Copeland Mercier, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, tested several types of all-terrain chairs before committing to the Action Trackchair, which several other state programs also use.

The Minnesota-based company was founded by Tim and Donna Swenson, whose son, Jeff, was paralyzed in a car accident. The original design resembled a Frankenstein of sporting goods parts, with snow bike tracks and a busted boat seat. Today’s model could be an opening act at a monster truck rally.

“I was floored by what it could do,” said Copeland Mercier, whose foundation raised $200,000 to purchase the chairs at $12,500 each. “Oh my gosh! I can go over a whole tree trunk, up a steep incline and through snow, swamps and wetlands. If I took my regular wheelchair, I’d get stuck in five minutes.”

Each program has its own reservations system and requirements. For Georgia’s service, visitors must provide proof of their disability and a photo ID, plus complete an online training course available through All Terrain Georgia. Once certified, the organization will forward the rental request to the park. Copeland Mercier urges visitors to plan ahead: The certification course takes about an hour, the foundation needs 72-hour advance notice and the park requires a 48-hour head’s up.

“These are 500-pound chairs,” she said. “There are some risks involved.”

The Minnesota DNR, which owns and maintains its five chairs, advises visitors to call the park to reserve a chair.

“We have a few screening questions,” McBride said, “but we leave the eligibility up to the user.”

Since launching the program in June, McBride said, the chairs are booked three to four days a week, with heavier interest on weekends. “We haven’t turned too many people away at this point,” he said.

Track chairs can conquer a range of obstacles, but they do not work in all environments.

“You need the width. If two trees are too close together, the wheelchair can’t pass between them,” Copeland Mercier said. “And some inclines are too steep. The chair also can’t go down staircases.”

To steer visitors in the right direction, parks have created maps highlighting the trails designated for the track chairs, such as Staunton State Park’s trio of routes that range from roughly three to four miles. Visitors center staff members are also ready with recommendations. (To transfer from chair to chair, visitors will need a companion to assist.)

McBride said one goal is to erect markers that would provide detailed information about the hike, such the extent of accessibility. “We want to let people know if they can get all the way to the waterfall or halfway,” he said, using a hypothetical example.

Copeland Mercier also has a wish list. She hopes to expand the network of chairs to other parts of Georgia, such as the coastal, southern and central regions. Once the foundation acquires several vans (another aspiration), the staff could move the 30 to 40 chairs (ditto) around the state to fill fluctuating demand. She is also eyeing other states.

“North Carolina is next,” said Copeland Mercier, who divides her time between Atlanta and Asheville, N.C. But the grand plan is even bigger. “The goal is to alter the U.S.A.,” she said.