Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Man and two boys looking at interpretive sign © Julie Hein-Frank

Hikers on the Fern Trail in Newport State Park hear habitat descriptions through Discovery Pens.
© Julie Hein-Frank

August 2012

State parks get innovative accessibility upgrades

There's an app and more for that.

Barbara Janesh

An innovative audio pen, hand-cranked boxes and a digital trail map application are helping visitors to some Wisconsin state parks and the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest better understand and enjoy the natural surroundings.

It's all part of finding innovative ways to reach out to visitors, increase their access to the parks and enhance their learning experience while there.

Heading to Newport State Park in Door County? Check out a Discovery Pen from the nature center and use it to experience the 1.2-mile Fern Trail. Touch the end of the pen to a green dot on an interpretive sign and a pileated woodpecker responds with its distinctive "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" call. Or learn just how tiny a hummingbird egg is by touching a life-size clay replica.

These are just two examples of auditory and tactile interpretive messages that visitors can experience at Newport. That's where naturalist Julie Hein-Frank has taken accessibility to a new level by linking a hand-held audio-playing Discovery Pen to seven visual and tactile interpretive exhibits along the Fern Trail.

The 4- to 5-foot-wide trail at Wisconsin's only designated wilderness park starts through a woodland environment and ends at a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan and the beach, Hein-Frank says.

Through the years, park staff worked to make it accessible to people with mobility impairments, adding "a real nice firm stable surface of small aggregate crushed limestone. It's really easy to get around," says Andrew Janicki, accessibility coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.

A little over three years ago, park staff asked Hein-Frank if she wanted to take on the task of adding interpretive displays to Fern Trail.

One of her initial thoughts: "Why does it have to be accessible with just crushed limestone?" Hein-Frank realized that people have other impairments, hearing and vision, for example. Plus, they differ in how they take in and process information. She also wanted to take age differences into account. Reading information on a sign just didn't seem to be enough.

"Our visitors run the gamut of people from kindergartners to 85-year-olds," Hein-Frank says. "The (interpretive) message needs to reach the broadest audience."

So Hein-Frank set out to make Fern Trail accessible in the broadest sense of the word.

She wrote the content and designed the trail's seven interpretive signs, each with a different theme. Hein-Frank then worked with local artists to create the panels. Portions of the messages are what Hein-Frank describes as "guided imagery." They are very descriptive and help people to see and understand the subtleties of the environment around them.

For example, a panel titled "It's different here" describes "the microhabitats in this little microclimate. A pocket along the trail a little lower is filled with ostrich ferns. It's the only place in the park where they grow. It's so subtle that you don't know that you've gone down a slope." So the words and artistry help visitors to realize and experience the changes.

Next up: tactile displays to add to the experience. Five of the seven signs include sculptured clay elements that invite trail users to touch them.

Visitors to the panel that focuses on the ostrich fern, for example, can reach out and touch a clay fern, feeling the shape, size and texture.

Another panel on bird migration and the Door Peninsula includes five touchable clay bird eggs of different sizes. The largest is a raven; the smallest is a hummingbird. It's like a pea. They are all birds you'd find in the park.

Even with the addition of the tactile elements, Hein-Frank wasn't satisfied.

"I really felt strongly about adding audio. I wanted to provide audio for visitors with visual impairments and auditory learners who don't want to read the whole panel."

She knew that some people will only spend three seconds reading a sign, others only 30 seconds, while others will spend three minutes or more. She didn't want people with a shorter reading span – or those who are visually impaired – to miss out on the interpretive messages.

The problem with adding audio is that it can be expensive. It can also detract from the visual experience (push buttons with batteries that can't be hidden), or create maintenance problems (equipment that breaks down easily).

It took several months, but through some extensive research and late-night Internet searches, Hein-Frank discovered what she described as a "pen reader." Created by a company in the United Kingdom it's used for a variety of purposes including enabling sound on food labels for people with visual impairments. Hein-Frank thought, "Why can't we use this technology here too, to bring accessibility and auditory learning to parks and trails?"

So she did.

Hand holding Discovery Pen © Barbara Janesh
Discovery Pen.
© Barbara Janesh

Simply put, the battery powered Discovery Pen includes a microchip and a speaker. It reads unique digital audio description codes and responds by playing a message that matches the code.

On each of the Fern Trail interpretive signs, the digital code appears as a green dot that's a little smaller than a quarter. Visitors can check out a Discovery Pen from the park's nature center. When they reach an interpretive sign along the trail, they touch the end of the pen to the green dot and the message that's keyed to that particular dot plays through the pen's speaker.

Most of the signs have more than one green dot and more than one audio message, called Audio Description. The Audio Description dots provide a verbal description of the printed word, the illustrations and tactile elements. You can use the Discovery Pen to hear an animal sound, music, a fact or two, or to hear a quote from history. All of the panels at Newport on the Fern Trail provide professional audio descriptions, which were produced by a professional who works with the blind.

Audio Description is available at Newport for people with visual impairments and everyone who enjoys learning and listening.

Learn more

To learn more about using the Discovery Pen audio technology to make a site accessible, contact Julie Hein-Frank, call (920) 743-6465 or visit Discovery PEN.

The Fern Trail interpretive project was funded in part by a $12,000 accessibility grant from the Department of Natural Resources. Several Door County organizations also contributed to the project, generating another $25,000. The Discovery Pen devices made up $2,000 of the total budget. The official dedication of the interpretive project took place in September 2011 and trail users continue to enjoy the messages.

If you'd rather listen to those messages while sitting on the beach, you can pick up a two-sided 4-inch by 9-inch card at the nature center that includes the Audio Description messages. You can use the Discovery Pen to read the green dots and hear the messages.

Fern Trail is likely something you won't want to miss.

"This trail is pretty state of the art," Janicki says. "This is probably the most accessible trail for people of all kinds of disabilities in the entire state. Julie's vision has been amazing and is really a great opportunity for anyone with a disability in the state or anyone visiting from around the country. I really hope it spreads to other parts of the state."

Crank it up

At other Wisconsin state parks, Eco-Boxes are helping spread interpretive messages.

AT&T Pioneers, a non-profit consisting of current and retired AT&T employees and their families, purchased and helped install 10 of the hand-cranked TourMate Eco-Boxes last year. A friends group at Buckhorn State Park purchased an eleventh box.

The boxes produce sound – in this case, interpretive information – when a visitor turns the handle, creating the power needed to play the message.

"It's just like those cranking flashlights you buy," says Sherry Klosiewski, a DNR natural resources educator.

The Eco-Boxes are especially helpful in increasing the experience of visitors with visual impairments, who might not be able to read an interpretive sign. They also appeal to people with varying learning styles, Klosiewski says. "Some people are just kinesthetic learners and they like having to (turn the crank) – kids especially."

Eco-Box © TourMate.com
Eco-Box.
© TourMate.com

Eco-Boxes also are especially useful for remote park locations, where naturalists are less frequently available to provide interpretive information. Those areas also don't have electricity. So, park managers needed an audio device that was self-powering – and one that couldn't be easily damaged by vandals.

TourMate, the maker of the Eco-Boxes, calls them "a sustainable interpretive solution for ‘uncontrolled' outdoor environments." They are designed, according to the company, "with a ‘set it and forget' approach to design."

"You basically install it and you don't look at it for a long time," Klosiewski says. Mounted on 4-inch by 4-inch posts, the boxes are made of heavy metal with no protruding parts. Even the crank is low-profile.

"All of the guts are inside the metal case," Klosiewski says, making the boxes "kind of indestructible."

"They kind of look like a bird house, but you see the crank," says Daniel Schuller, director of the Bureau of Parks and Recreation.

Interpretive messages are recorded on a small FM card. Each box can play up to four different messages. Most are one to two minutes and each is tailored to the park property where it is installed. Some focus on cultural and natural history, others on human history, still others provide information about park flora and fauna (prairies, foxes, birds), or threats, such as invasive species.

High Cliff State Park has recordings that focus on "The Ledge" and Lake Winnebago. Aztalan State Park's recordings include the people of Aztalan and information on the area's archaeology.

At Devil's Lake, the Eco-Box is at a scenic overlook in a rocky location. Its recordings include interpretive messages about wilderness hotels and glacial impacts on the landscape.

The boxes have proven to be very popular with visitors.

"We would have people cranking on these things before we even got them on the post," says Kimberly Currie, DNR property services section chief.

The Wisconsin Chapter of the AT&T Pioneers wanted to do something for the state parks as part of the Pioneers' centennial celebration in 2011.

"We went to the DNR and asked, ‘What do you want?'" says Karen Schilling, president of the Wisconsin chapter.

The AT&T Foundation provided the chapter with a $33,600 grant, which it used to purchase the Eco-Boxes and pay for construction, cleaning and repair projects undertaken by members at parks throughout the state. The chapter also held fundraisers to help pay for their efforts. It was all part of the centennial project called "Sparking a Change in Community Parks."

The boxes themselves are valued at approximately $25,000.

"They're very popular with visitors. I think it's something that is different enough that people are attracted to them," Schuller says.

The state has plans to install four more, Schuller says. "This is part of our efforts to be green in the parks and to also provide accessibility."

In addition to Aztalan, Buckhorn, Devil's Lake and High Cliff State Parks, Eco-Boxes can also be found at Roche-a-Cri, Council Grounds, Kohler-Andrae, Lake Wissota, Lakeshore state parks, Kettle Moraine State Forest-Pike Lake and Richard Bong State Recreation Area.

Navigating the forest

Wisconsin teenagers are the inspiration behind an iPhone-iPad-iPod application that helps visitors find their way in the 225,000-acre Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest in northern Wisconsin. But people of all ages are benefitting.

"Thirty percent of kids between 14 and 18 have some sort of smart phone," says Teague Prichard, state forest specialist with the Division of Forestry. "We want to put the tools in their hands to engage them. We want to get media in their hands in a different way so they can get out and explore."

So, the Forestry Division partnered with the North Lakeland Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters and contracted with Code Mill Technologies to develop a trail map application for the Apple platform.

"It's really a basic app. It's self-contained. You don't need to be connected by cell phone," Prichard says. Users can find 13 Northern Highland trails with the app. "These are the designated high profile trails. We call them the gems of the Northern Highland."

When you first launch the application, you'll see all the featured trails and where they are located. For more details, click on an individual trail. You'll get a description that includes unique features, and information about whether pets are allowed, if the trail has a special use (such as skiing), and the degree of difficulty it offers users (easy, moderate, difficult).

With another click, you can pull up a more detailed map of the trail.

The trail map app was launched around Memorial Day 2011. Within just a few months, 700 users had downloaded it – users from nearby Boulder Junction to France!

People on nature trail, one in wheelchair © Melody Walsh
Visitors enjoy the grand opening of Fern Trail at Newport State Park.
© Melody Walsh

Prichard expects that number to continue to grow as more of the two million people who visit the state forest become aware of the application. The Discovery Center markets and advertises the app which also includes the center's Statehouse Lake Trail.

The app is available for free at Discovery Center.

In addition to making information on the forest's trails more readily available electronically, the trail map app also has the potential to save the state money in printing costs.

The app cost about $2,000 to develop, Prichard says. Creating content for an application is normally the biggest cost. In this case, the content was readily available through existing Northern Highland-American Legion maps.

"We gave them our trail map booklet and said ‘map it.'"

Now, for every person who accesses a map electronically, the need for printed hard copy trail brochures decreases by one. Prichard estimates that 3,000 downloads is the break-even point and "anything after that figure saves the citizens and the department money when compared to hard copy printing costs."

But don't worry: Trail maps are still available at no cost at DNR Service Centers, at Wisconsin DNR (search "Northern Highland-American Legion"), or at Northern Highland-American Legion ranger stations.

The future could bring even more applications to help visitors to the forest. Visitors have asked about the possibility of having an app for campgrounds, or an app to help them navigate rivers in the forest.

Barbara Janesh works out of DNR's Northeast Region.