More and more research is accumulating to support the therapeutic benefits of immersing yourself in the natural world. Decreased stress, increased focus, the list of physical and psychological benefits keeps growing. However, for one segment of the population, accessing the natural world is next to impossible.
For those with mobility issues, being able to stand at the top of a mountain or sit quietly surrounded by a thick copse of trees presents immense challenges. It is incredibly difficult for most wheelchairs to navigate uneven forest trails and crutches or walkers are no match for the steep inclines of many hikes. It seems like a cruel irony that those who may be able to benefit from the experience most, are often excluded from it.
In 2013 I spent a year in a town on Canada’s West Coast, called Powell River. Nestled into a gently sloping hillside, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. My commute to work was a five-minute walk alongside the Pacific Ocean, huge expanses of forest were just a few minutes away waiting to be explored, it was during my time there that I discovered one of the most creative and empathetic programs I’ve ever encountered.
This is a TrailRider (below). This innovative 23kg vehicle allows those with mobility issues to access the great outdoors in a way that hasn’t been possible until now.
The TrailRider is the brainchild of Sam Sullivan, who became tetrapalegic after a skiing accident. Sullivan teamed up with a volunteer engineer, Paul Cermak, to build a device that would enable him to re-experience the natural world he loved so much.
According to the British Columbia Mobility Association, “In his garage, Paul started with an old folding aluminum chair and added handles front and rear for the power-providers – the “sherpas”, who would push and pull the vehicle. He then mounted a pneumatic tire housing underneath and the TrailRider access vehicle emerged – a vehicle that would many times take Sam into the woods and mountains surrounding his hometown of Vancouver.
Since 1995, the human-powered, ecologically friendly TrailRider has been redesigned, rebuilt and retested, over and over again. It has taken hundreds of people with disabilities to places they never thought were attainable. Twice the TrailRider has reached the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in 2002 and 2006.
I first learned about this program in the hallways of the Powell River Recreation Centre. I was meandering along looking at the different displays when I suddenly came across a photo of the TrailRider in action. It stopped me in my tracks. I was floored by what a basic idea it was, but one I hadn’t ever really seen implemented before.
It struck me then how completely I took for granted my ability to access any part of the natural world I wished to see, regardless of the terrain. I think we often do this, we rush from work to daycare drop-offs to lunch meetings and back home again. We barely have time to register the trees in bloom, the fresh air, the lush life all around us.
One look at the faces of those being spirited along in a TrailRider, and you’ll never take it for granted again.
All imagery graciously provided by BCMOS