Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recently brought its efforts to expand access to state parks to Ridgway, in the form of track-chairs and beach wheelchairs.
The specialized equipment will help people with disabilities enjoy trails and access the water from the designated swim beach at Ridgway State Park.
“In two words, it’s a true game changer,” said David Sussman, board president and longtime volunteer for Telluride Adaptive Sports, whose staff and clients recently tried out Ridgway’s track-chair.
The equipment will take people with disabilities to places they truly could not reach before, without significant assistance.
Sussman, who is paraplegic and an adaptive athlete, said even people who do not have use of any limbs can benefit, because the track-chair can be operated with a joystick manipulated with their mouth, or by its remote control option, by a person without disabilities walking alongside the chair.
“It’s something that will not only change the world for local people with disabilities, but also people who are visiting. It’s a piece of equipment that will change the world and change lives, and get people the opportunity to explore places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to, unless somebody carried them. We don’t like to be carried,” Sussman said.
“This is priceless. To be able to provide this opportunity not only to our local communities but to the people visiting the park from all over the world, this is just priceless,” said Ridgway State Park’s manager, Johnathon Freeborn, in a news release.
“When you see the look on a kid’s face who is getting to play on the beach or along our trails, that’s why we do the job we do at our state parks.”
Staunton State Park has had a similar track-chair program in place for a few years and seen a lot of success, CPW spokesman John Livingston said. Staunton State Park recently donated one of its Action Trackchairs to Ridgway to help launch the program, while funding for a second chair — plus a storage trailer — came via CPW’s hunting and angling outreach programs.
“It’s great to see some added access for folks in the disabled community to also be able to enjoy our parks to their full extent,” Livingston said.
“Especially on the Western Slope, we just don’t have quite as many of those opportunities as some places near the bigger cities. For folks to come together and make the chairs happen is such a great resource.”
Park Ranger Erin Vogel worked to implement a track-chair program at Ridgway State Park and recently took the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program on a trial ride on the park’s Forest Discovery Trail.
“We are so excited to be able to offer this type of access on a few of our trails and look forward to partnering with a variety of organizations,” Vogel said, also in the news release.
Telluride Adaptive Sports provides outdoor recreation opportunities to people with disabilities of all ages.
Sussman expects demand for the track-chairs to grow as the word spreads through the disabled community, which makes up the largest minority group in the world. (He said up to 25% of people fall into a category for disability).
“It’s so exciting for the Western Slope, Ridgway, the San Juans, but also for people who come here. Obviously, this is one of the great tourist destinations in the world. It’s a super exciting piece of equipment,” Sussman said.
Sussman could not overstate how the equipment is increasing accessibility and inclusion. He praised the park for making the investment in track-chairs, which are not cheap.
“It’s that forward thinking and inclusivity that is making the world a better place for people with disabilities,” he said.
The chairs at Ridgway State Park can be used for free, but reservations are required (970-626-5822) and park entry fees apply.
“This is a unique opportunity for us here on the Western Slope where there just aren’t as many opportunities for this kind of access like there are on the Front Range,” Freeborn said. “Ridgway now being able to provide this is pretty special.”
The park is planning to expand its track-chair program as new trails are added to the existing 14-mile trail system under a new trails master plan.
“As part of our master plan, we want to increase areas for the track chairs and widen some existing trails to make them more accessible,” Freeborn said. “Not every mile of the park will be track-chair accessible, but we want to do it for all the trails that make sense.”
The park gained not only track-chairs, but also a 300-foot-long beach mat and two floating beach wheelchairs, thanks to the efforts of Friends of Ridgway State Park. The nonprofit worked with park staff to snag about $19,000 from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
The grant money paid for a Mobi-Mat, which allows wheelchair users to travel down the sand at the swim beach and reach the water in a way regular wheelchairs can’t. They can then use a floating MobiChair to enter the water.
“We hope this program removes some of the barriers for individuals and families to enjoy the swim beach,” Vogel said.
Use of this equipment also is free, except for park entrance fees, and can be checked out at the swim beach (use the Dutch Charlie entrance to reach the swim beach).
“This is a huge step forward in enhancing accessibility for visitors to our state parks in the Southwest Region,” said CPW Deputy Region Manager Heath Kehm. “Ridgway State Park is our most visited park in the region and provides a wide array of recreational opportunities. Being able to expand those offerings to members of the disabled community is a priority for CPW, and we are eager to build upon these programs in the future.”
Sussman’s visit to the park to try the track-chair predated the arrival of the beach chair, so he didn’t get to test that one out. However, as an instructor, he’s been to Ridgway Reservoir before with clients and struggled to reach the water in his wheelchair.
“It was white-knuckle. It’s steep. If you lose your grip, you’re in the water. That beach chair is another game changer, especially with the water levels so low,” Sussman said.
The drought and dropping reservoir levels mean that there is more shore to traverse before reaching the water.
Livingston said he is excited to see the programs take off.
“This gives that park another opportunity to shine when it comes to providing good, equitable access for all people,” he said.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.