A Colorado state park's 'mini tanks' get people with disabilities back on the trail
It’s a sunny morning at Staunton State Park – perfect weather for Lisa Willman to take a hike. She heads out along the Dines Meadow Trail with a few park volunteers. It snowed the night before, so it’s not the easiest terrain.
“Well, I have my traction devices, are you guys good?” Willman said to the volunteers, laughing.
She’s undaunted by snow piles. She’d much rather go through them than around.
“You know what I’m looking at? Where they plowed to get to the trails,” Willman said, pointing at the big snow pile by the walkway.
“I had a feeling you were going to try to do those,” Park Manager Zach Taylor said as he accompanied Willman.
But Willman is ready for it, thanks to the burly, all-terrain wheelchair the park provided her.
“Come on!,” Willman said, kicking her chair into high gear as the volunteers help push her chair over the snow pile. "Oh, awesome!"
But this is not your average wheelchair. Willman is piloting an Action Trackchair, which looks like a heavy duty version of Disney's beloved robot WALL-E. With triangular treads, an all-black exterior with stabilizing hydraulics and a weight over 400 pounds, it’s a machine straight out of a futuristic action movie.
“They almost look like mini tanks,” said Kristin Waltz, who manages Staunton State Park's Track-Chair Program. “They have the suspension on the wheels that help the chairs climb and, you know, go up hills, go over rocks.”
It elicits quite the reaction from hikers like Dale Cox.
“At first when I saw it down the trail, I was like ‘Huh, how are they getting this wheelchair up here,’” he said. “And then I saw the tracks on it and I was like, 'That is amazing.'”
The chair allows people like Willman to "hike" again – something she hasn't done often since her motorcycle crash in 2014. That accident halted her life of adventure and travel.
She used to spend her time volunteering at Staunton and enjoying trails all around Colorado. But after the accident, she found herself limited to the visitor center.
“I just felt like all I was going to do is sit there in a wheelchair from now on,” she said. “You have to tell yourself at that time, ‘Well, you're lucky you got to do what you got to do,' you know? And you live on those memories.”
But that changed when a volunteer brought a track chair to the park in 2013. That volunteer, Ted Hammond, was a nurse at Craig Hospital. Hammond was familiar with track chairs because Craig Hospital used a track chair as part of its recreation program. He decided to bring it to Staunton so that his paralyzed neighbor, Mark Madsen, could get out into nature again. Later, Willman gave it a try, too.
“My first trip with the chair was very interesting,” Willman remembers. “That was before they had any established program here and before they had any established chairs or anything. So it was kind of like no rules, no boundaries.”
She said she couldn’t stop smiling as she went over all the bumps and ridges that first time. Finally, she was doing what she loved again.
“Just knowing that I could get on the chair and get out there…it was just such an awesome feeling,” Willman said. “It's hard to even describe how good it makes you feel.”
In 2015, Hammond's neighbor Madsen passed away. It had been only two years since Staunton had opened and he began riding in the track chair there. After his death, the nonprofit Friends of Staunton State Park created the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund with the goal of getting more chairs for others with a disability who wanted to get out into nature.
The organization held a fundraiser in the summer of 2016. They raised more than $40,000 for the program, enough to buy two track chairs.
“We've been very fortunate, especially within Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to have a volunteer base that's dedicated to a lot of this,” Taylor, the park manager, said.
The park launched its free Track Chair Program in 2017. They’ve logged over 1,500 trips and counting. The park created a reservation system to manage the demand and accommodate special needs.
“By the time we get to that May 1st opening of our reservations, that first couple of weekends in June are booked almost as quick as possible,” Taylor said. “In a usual summer, we'll probably take between 250 to 300 trips on the regular…and again, a lot of those people come back for second, third trips.”
People come from across the country to try out one of the park’s five chairs. Taylor said it's thrilling to share in their experience.
“We've seen them come back from their trips just soaking wet from the rain, just hair's all frazzled…but they're lit up, they're having a great time, they're smiling,” he said. “They're just enjoying life because they got off the bed, they got out of the chair, they got out to where they could go play with their kids, go play with the grandkids, go have that experience in nature again and again.”
For Taylor, this program resonates personally. When he was in high school, his grandmother lost her leg to diabetes but she lived in an apartment with no elevator. He and his sister would carry her down the stairs just so she could be outside. He knows a lot of people can relate.
“Whoever you talk to, somebody knows somebody that has a disability or is unable to do what they would like to do in outdoor recreation or just accessibility in general,” he said. “This is one of those programs that provides that through simple donations.”
The program leaders are working to expand the track chair program. They want more volunteers and would like to offer more trips on the weekends. They’re also looking into adaptive equipment to make the chair more comfortable to users. That could include things like accessible joysticks and head straps that control movement.
Waltz, the park's track chair program manager, said accessibility is key.
“That might not seem like a big deal. But for people that have maybe spinal cord injuries, a bumpy ride can maybe trigger an anxiety attack or thermoregulation issues,” Waltz said. “So, the more updated the chairs, the better for us.”
Taylor's team is helping other parks to join the effort. Staunton donated some of its old chairs to Colorado's Ridgway and Barr Lake state parks. And they're talking with other parks, such as Chatfield and Cherry Creek, about other ways to make their sites more accessible – even if it doesn't involve track chairs.
The concept is catching on around the Mountain West and far beyond. For example, the Utah chapter of Disabled Outdoorsmen received donated chairs to provide accessible hunting and fishing. Many programs for veterans across the region also use the chairs for events. Just in the last year, track chair programs have been launched by state parks in Minnesota and Georgia, and programs are expanding in Michigan, Kansas and South Dakota, among others.
Taylor was even contacted by the government of Australia about the chairs.
“It's kind of become not necessarily a Colorado thing, United States thing, but almost an international type experience that we can provide to disabled users,” he said.
The concept is still developing, however, and faces barriers at some parks. A single chair costs $13,000, and that’s not including maintenance costs. Also, each trip requires a volunteer for safety purposes.
Still, Taylor said, "the sky's the limit."
“You shouldn't be limited to just what you physically can do, because there are resources out there that can help you with those opportunities to go experience what you may have before, or have never experienced before,” he said.
For an adventurer like Willman, those experiences never get old. On this cold and sunny Colorado day, she can't stop pointing out the birds and animals on her hike, trying to take it all in.
“I love seeing the wildlife, but just the air and the smells, you know, you take it for granted, being able to just come out and do it,” she said. “And when you can't, you have to depend on something like this. I think it makes you appreciate it even more.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.