Most residents of the Last Frontier can take the scenery, wildlife and abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities for granted. But for Alaskans with disabilities, experiencing the great outdoors used to be much more difficult than it is today.
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, outdoor and recreational facilities are required to provide equal access to all users.
Going back to existing facilities to make them accessible, however, can be a daunting and sometimes costly process.
Jerie Best of Soldotna, a member and secretary for the state Independent Living Council, remembered an instance about four years ago where engineers were trying to make a dock wheelchair-accessible. They thought the entire structure would have to be torn down and rebuilt, but, instead, all it took was some lengths of rope glued between the boards.
"Adhering to the ADA means creativity and attention to detail," Best said. "There are a lot of solutions that are very simple."
The Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation has been working on several solutions to this situation.
Two handicapped-accessible cabins have been built in the last five years. The Spruce Glacier public-use cabin at Thumb Cove State Marine Park features a wheelchair-accessible cabin, large-sized latrine and boardwalk connecting the two and the high tide berm. Halibut Cove Lagoon East public-use cabin in Kachemak Bay State Park has a boardwalk, marine dock system and rampway. While not perfect -- the boardwalk at Spruce Glacier doesn't extend down to the beach, and the ramp at Halibut Cove can be steep due to tides -- the cabins are in high demand.
"It's basically opened up some part of the wilderness to people who may not otherwise be able to experience it because of limited mobility," said Chris Degernes, Kenai Area Park Superintendent for Alaska State Parks.
Four new campgrounds -- Bing's Landing and Morgan's Landing in Sterling and Slidehole and Halibut campgrounds in Anchor Point -- have been designed and constructed with accessible waterwells, restrooms and facilities in the last six years. As funding becomes available, Degernes says, the older non-accessible campsites will be renovated or replaced.
"Accessibility is not unusual like it was in the past. It's the norm to build accessible campgrounds and facilities," Degernes said. "In the '70s, and even the '80s, very few considerations for providing accessibility were made. Now the reverse is true. There might be some exceptions where the terrain just doesn't allow accessibility, but wherever possible, accessibility is incorporated as a universal feature."
Wheelchair-accessible boat launches have been constructed at Cooper Landing and at Pillars on the lower Kenai river.
An accessible fishing platform was built adjacent to the boat ramp at Bing's Landing. The current isn't conductive to red salmon fishing, but there is an eddy that's good for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden, Degernes said.
Bing's Landing is one of the few specially designed accessible fishing platforms to be constructed. Another is planned for Morgan's Landing to go with the 5 percent grade trail leading to the river. It is not expected to be completed until next year.
"There's no place at Morgan's Landing that I can see that you can fish in a wheelchair. If people just rolled up there by themselves it'd be a dangerous situation," said Don Skuse, who has been fishing at Morgan's Landing for 30 years and has worked with remodeling cabins for accessibility.
Skuse has difficulty pursuing fishing due to limited mobility after having both hips replaced.
"There are probably places you could go that you could put your hook in the water, but there aren't any fish there. You might as well put it in the bathtub."
Wheelchair-accessible fishing and viewing platforms also are planned for Centennial and Swiftwater parks this summer and winter. Part of the funding for these projects is coming from the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association, which donates some of the proceeds from its Kenai River Classic -- an annual invitational sport fishing tournament -- to habitat preservation, fisheries conservation and public education.
Accessible outdoor facilities are not just used by people with disabilities, although State Parks officials hope users will accommodate those that have specific needs.
The wider and gentler trails, handrails, level boardwalks and larger restrooms and cabins are open to anyone and provide a safer and more accessible way for everyone to enjoy what Alaska has to offer.
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