Staying on track with nature

Specialized vehicle helps Riveredge visitors keep in touch with great outdoors

RIVEREDGE NATURE CENTER in the Town of Saukville has an Action Trackchair all-terrain outdoor wheelchair provided by McFarland-based Access Ability of Wisconsin Inc. so people with temporary or permanent mobility issues can access and enjoy the great outdoors. Riveredge Administrative Assistant Julie Dickson is shown on the Trackchair as she explored the center’s 379-acre campus. Riveredge Nature Center photo
By 
ERIC A. JOHNSON
Ozaukee Press Staff

Wisconsin is known for its natural beauty, with millions of state residents flocking to enjoy the great outdoors in all four seasons. 

But for many residents, temporary or permanent physical disabilities have prevented them from enjoying all the outdoors has to offer in the Badger State.

Increasingly that’s no longer the case, thanks to the work of McFarland-based Access Ability Wisconsin, Inc. (AAW), a grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the means for individuals with mobility challenges to access and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources. 

“A lot of outdoor activities are not accessible,” said AAW president and founder Monica Spaeni, an outdoors enthusiast who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while skiing 21 years ago. “We want to make sure people have the personal freedom and ability to do things outdoors with their friends and family.” 

With a goal of placing at least one all-terrain outdoor wheelchair (OWC) in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Spaeni said the organization has placed 20 Action Trackchairs in 12 counties to date, including one housed in Ozaukee County at Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville.

AAW partners with organizations such as state and county parks, nature centers, parks and recreation departments, sportsmen’s clubs, veterans organizations and independent living centers to serve as host locations.

Donations and grants fund AAW’s purchase of Action Trackchairs and accompanying enclosed travel trailers.

Spaeni said the freedom offered by the OWC’s bring users “a joyous feeling” as evidenced by the “smiles and tears of joy” she’s seen since the first Action Trackchair and trailer was placed in Dane County in 2014.

Available on a by-reservation basis, the all-terrain Action Trackchair at Riveredge is available for on-site use at the center, which encompasses 379 acres of restored prairies, woods and wetlands along the Milwaukee River. The OWC is also available for a wide variety of off-site uses.

The $20,000 Action Trackchair is available for free use year-round, with a $50 refundable deposit,  to those needing assistance to enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities — everything from camping, hunting, fishing, birding, trail walks and nature photography to outdoor concerts, festivals, fairs, field trips and outdoor weddings.

Among the regular users of the OWC at Riveredge is Julie Dickson, Riveredge’s administrative assistant for education and membership.

“Just a few years ago I was mostly able-bodied, hiking without the need for mobility aids,” she said. “As my health began to decline due to a number of rare chronic illnesses in my early 20s, I was terrified at the thought of not being able to enjoy the serenity of a hike in the woods again.”

For Dickson, the all-terrain wheelchair based at Riveredge has made a profound difference.

“Access Ability Wisconsin, Riveredge and the other partners across Wisconsin have stepped up and made sure disabled people like me can continue to take pleasure in all that nature has to offer,” she said.

“Spending time outside is where I can let the many stresses of life wash away and just breathe. With the Trackchair, I can drive through a squishy mud puddle to get to the vernal pond and hear the frog chorus. I can watch wildlife scamper through the trees. I can attend events, spend time with friends and just be who I want to be.”

The Action Trackchair gets high marks from Dickson for its ease of use and functionality.

“The Trackchair is incredibly user-friendly,” she said. “Users can transfer in from the front or side because the footplate and armrests move. It is driven with a right arm to control the goalpost joystick.

“There is a tilt feature, headlight, horn, a gun arm for hunting and five speeds. We can also acquire other features like a chest harness when requested. Riveredge even has a trailer for it so it can be taken off-site to anywhere you’d like to go.”

Dickson encourages those with a need to take advantage of the availability of Riveredge’s Trackchair.

“If folks are reluctant to use the chair, please know it is for anyone who feels they could benefit from it,” she said. “Most people I have come across on trails just say a polite ‘hello’ like they would any hiker.

“Occasionally, kids will express awe about ‘How cool that thing is.’ Personally, I love how the Trackchair allows people to see that mobility aids are beneficial and everyone can be outdoors.”

Also among the appreciative users of the OWC at Riveredge is 9-year-old West Bend resident Harrison Knoske, a third-grader enrolled in the Northern Ozaukee School District at the Riveredge Outdoor Learning Elementary School (ROLES) charter school.

“You’re not just stuck inside all day,” Harrison said, giving the all-terrain wheelchair a thumbs-up “10” rating on its usefulness and functionality.

When Harrison sustained a deep leg bruise, his mother Christina Knoske said the all-terrain wheelchair made the difference between Harrison being able to be actively engaged with his classmates in the full range of activities at ROLES and learning from home during his recovery.

“It’s been a blessing,” Christina said. “He still gets to go join his class on the hikes. I think it’s great.

“We are all very thankful they have it available. People don’t need to be stuck inside — it can go many places.”

Information about Access Ability Wisconsin’s Ozaukee County all-terrain outdoor wheelchair is available online at www.riveredgenaturecenter.org, by calling Merten at 375-2715 or emailing ozaukee.co.wi@accessabilitywi.org.

General information about Access Ability Wisconsin is available online at www.accessabilitywi.org or by calling (608) 886-9388.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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