The accessible cabin at Mirror Lake State Park was the first one built in the Wisconsin State Park System.
Available to all
State parks open the outdoors with accessible opportunities.
Sherry Gudgeon from Viroqua is a nature enthusiast who does not let her need of accessible options get in the way of family fun in the outdoors.
Just like other campers, she enjoys "the charcoal grill to make hamburgers for supper" and toasting marshmallows for s'mores in the state parks. As Gudgeon puts it, "Life changes sometimes and you can either accept and adapt, or feel sorry for yourself and drown in self-pity. I choose the first choice."
Wisconsin's state parks offer activities and recreation for all kinds of interests, and are trying to make those same activities available to people of all abilities.
"We work hard to ensure that newly developed buildings and recreation facilities at state parks are accessible," explains Missy VanLanduyt, capital development specialist with the Wisconsin State Park System. "Everything from beach redevelopment to trails and fishing piers, shower buildings, vault toilets and nature centers. Itís more than just building something to construction codes — itís about helping to create a positive recreation experience for all people."
In 1989, even before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, the Department of Natural Resources audited the state parks, looking at everything from entrance stations and visitor offices, to campsites and drinking fountains. The department then put a budget together and "began breaking down those barriers for persons with disabilities," explains Anthonette Gilpatrick, the accessibility coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.
State parks currently offer everything from accessible cabins, fishing piers, adaptive kayaks, trails, beach wheelchairs, hunting blinds and more.
The Department of Natural Resources and the Telephone Pioneers of America, with the helpful advice from many people with disabilities, built the first accessible cabin in the Wisconsin State Park System at Mirror Lake State Park. To this day, Gilpatrick expresses great pride in Wisconsin being one of the leaders of accessible cabins.
Wisconsin state parks currently offer nine accessible cabins, seven larger cabins with more amenities and two smaller, rustic cabins. The larger cabins are located at Mirror Lake, Buckhorn, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, and Potowatami state parks, the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and Richard Bong State Recreation Area. The two rustic cabins are at Copper Falls and Blue Mound state parks.
These cabins offer great camping experiences for people like Gudgeon and her family, who every year enjoy the accessible cabin at Mirror Lake. "I would have to say that the cabin is the best thing about the park for our family," says Gudgeon.
"I like the accessibility to motor around with my power chair and to pull up close to wash the dishes in the kitchen area, or pull up to the vanity in the bathroom area to wash and brush my teeth. And the shower chair is equally fabulous," says Gudgeon.
"The Hoyer lift (a hydraulic device that assists in moving a person from a chair to a bed or other resting place) adds to the conveniences of home. I would not be able to camp or visit a state park if it werenít for the accessible cabins and other accessible options," says Gudgeon. "I wish there were more cabins in southwest Wisconsin to choose from."
These accessible cabins ensure that anyone can have a wonderful camping experience and connect to nature despite physical limitations, and best of all "the cabins are full all of the time," says Gilpatrick.
"Cabins are very popular," says Gilpatrick, "but so is fishing. Since ADA, every fishing pier the Department of Natural Resources builds is accessible to people with disabilities. Weíve also heard from anglers who want to shore fish."
The accessible fishing piers are designed to accommodate wheelchairs, are wider to offer enough room for turning around, and have lower railings and rod holders so that anglers can cast out and fish.
Wisconsin state parks offer accessible fishing piers across the state, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy this favorite American pastime.
Wisconsin has over 650 miles of accessible trails. Accessible trails are one of Gudgeonís favorite things to enjoy while camping. "I enjoy going on strolls around Mirror Lake State Park and taking in the beautiful scenery of the lake," she says. Gudgeon happily exclaims that sometimes she was lucky enough to see a deer, squirrel or rabbit in their natural habitat just out and about on the trails.
The accessible trails also provide people with disabilities access to picnic areas and day-use areas and to other accessible facilities.
"I am able to motor around the whole park on the paved trails and ramps. That really does empower me to believe, 'Yes, I can!'" exclaims Gudgeon.
With these enjoyable trails accessible to everyone, individuals and families can explore the parks regardless of their ability.
Making kayaking more accessible for people with disabilities is another area the Department of Natural Resources has been working on for the state parks.
"With all the advances in technology since ADA, we are able to offer people better equipment so they can experience all the different recreation activities that may not have been available to them before," says Gilpatrick.
Buckhorn, Council Grounds, Devil's Lake, Mirror Lake and Perrot state parks all have kayaks available that are equipped with adaptive devices for people with disabilities.
One of the adaptations to the kayak is the adjustable outriggers near the back of the kayak that provide greater stability on the water. The kayaks also have a raised back with side supports to offer more comfortable and secure seating. The raised back is adjustable to accommodate individuals with greater upper body mobility. The kayaks can be rented from the parks for use for the day.
Five state parks also offer beach wheelchairs. The beach wheelchairs have large inflatable tires that make rolling on sand easier and allow for better entry into the water. Some of the parks also offer accessible beach trails that provide a solid surface for wheelchairs or for those who have difficulty walking.
"Our trails and other accessible features are constructed with the idea of 'Universal Design' so that they are accessible and usable not only to people with disabilities, but to everyone at the parks," explains Gilpatrick. "The beach trails, for example, are popular among parents with strollers, who prefer not to have to walk on the sand."
Big Bay, Buckhorn and Harrington Beach state parks offer a beach wheelchair. Kohler-Andrae State Park has two beach wheelchairs (one for general use and the other available at the accessible cabin) and a beach trail. Whitefish Dunes State Park has a beach trail and a beach wheelchair.
State park visitors enjoy the outdoors year-round, and cross-country skiing is a favorite among fervent winter recreationists.
"Wisconsin state parks offer opportunities for everyone," explains Gilpatrick. The State Park System wanted to have skiing opportunities for people with disabilities and this was made accessible through sit skis.
Sit skis include a chair on top of the skis which provides more control and balance for skiers with mobility impairments. The sit skis are available for free at Buckhorn, Governor Nelson, Harrington Beach and Mirror Lake state parks, at the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and at Richard Bong State Recreation Area. All of the properties where the sit skis are available also offer easier, groomed trails.
Wisconsin state parks also provide hunting opportunities for people with disabilities. Several parks offer accessible wildlife blinds. These blinds are not only popular for hunting, but also for bird and wildlife watching.
The blinds, like the fishing piers, are offered in more than just state parks. Wildlife areas, fisheries and other DNR properties have these accessible features available as well. Buckhorn State Park and Wildlife Area is a good example.
"I recently received an email from a visitor who was brought to tears with excitement that he could take his son with disabilities camping, hunting, fishing and hiking at Buckhorn because we offered amenities that would work for his son who uses a wheelchair," says VanLanduyt. "It is so rewarding to know that people of all ages and abilities can enjoy the outdoors."
Opening the outdoors
"We still need to continue to do outreach so that people with disabilities are aware of everything that is available to them," says Gilpatrick. "We also need to talk to people to learn about what other opportunities they would like to see. Wisconsin has been a leader in accessibility options and we will continue to do that. Today people with disabilities have higher expectations for recreating in the outdoors. Just when you think something may be too difficult, some new equipment comes along making it possible. We canít even imagine all the possibilities moving forward."
Karely Mendez is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an editorial intern with Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.