‘It really opened up my world’: Users welcome health benefits of accessible trails

Jeffrey VanDyke admits that most of his encounters with nature are experienced by watching a screen or reading books.

As part of a work event, he recently explored the tranquility and beauty of the forested Sandy Hansen Birding Trail for the first time. The mile-long loop in Anderson Woods Nature Preserve in Fruitland Township is accessible for wheelchairs and is part of a growing network of accessible parkland.

“It really opened up my world in a physical sense,” says VanDyke, who works for Disability Network West Michigan as a peer mentor. While his manual chair has a power assist wheel that adds extra power when outdoors or going long distances, he’s still been hesitant to use it to explore the outdoors. 

“I've always been kind of apprehensive about the outdoor exploration type of thing because if you don't have the right person with you, you just never know when you're gonna get stuck.”

Bringing more people into nature

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan worked closely with Disability Network/West Michigan to develop the wheelchair- and stroller-accessible trail system, which was completed in 2015. It leads visitors through a towering oak and white pine forest interspersed with glades lush with blueberry and wintergreen. 

Located at 3901 Simonelli Road, between Bard and Duck Lake roads, the preserve provides important stopover habitat for migratory birds and supports resident birds that require large tracts of unbroken forest.

It also gives people with disabilities, as well as families with strollers and others looking for a welcoming entry into nature, a chance to explore a secluded forest setting, watch for birds and other wildlife, and experience the beauty of a healthy Michigan forest.

Jeffrey VanDyke, who uses a wheelchair, explores an accessible trail in the Anderson Woods Nature Preserve.

Increasing accessibility to natural spaces also increases access to the health benefits that come with being outdoors. Research shows that people who practiced outdoor exercise regularly enjoyed lower stress levels, and some saw healthy drops not only in blood pressure but blood sugar levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic

One in five Americans has a disability, which is why there is a call for more conservation groups to partner with the disability community to create these accessible opportunities to experience nature. 

“The more you can set up accessibility options now, the more you help people in the future,” VanDyke says. “It's just good to be remembered. To be able to participate in society is a key to living, to have access to everything is just a part of life, and it's something we all deserve. The more we can move towards accessibility for all, the better world we create.”

Diverse, immersive experience

The Sandy Hansen Birding Trail is unique among accessible paths in the area for the immersive natural experience it affords. The trail sits in the 76-acre Anderson Woods Nature Preserve, a quiet, undisturbed forest a few miles from the shores of Lake Michigan. It is an ideal nesting and feeding habitat for migratory and resident songbirds.

Asphalt wasn’t used for the trail because a petroleum-based surface wasn’t suitable for an ecologically sensitive area. Instead, builders used a substance called “crusher fines,” made of crushed rock or limestone screenings. This material compacts well, provides good drainage, and is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.

In addition to the trail, the property has an accessible crushed stone parking lot for six vehicles,and a bench that is accessible to people with disabilities. 

It is maintained weekly by volunteers who ensure that no obstacles or debris obstruct the path.
Family legacy

The land for Anderson Woods Nature Preserve was donated to the Land Conservancy by Judy Anderson. Her family had a long history on the land, beginning with her father, Theodore, who bought the property less than two miles from the farm where he grew up.

When Anderson inherited the property, she wanted to create a legacy to her father, who cherished the land. She donated it to the Land Conservancy in 2013 for the purpose of protecting it forever as a nature preserve. 

“It was my dad’s wish,” Anderson said at the time.

From the outset, the Land Conservancy was interested in creating a universal access trail on the Anderson Woods property after learning that the area had few recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. The Anderson property, which is flat, was ideal for such a project.

So, nearly a decade ago, Land Conservancy began raising more than $120,000 in donations. 

Broad list of benefactors

While the project was far more expensive than the Land Conservancy thought, the partnership between the organization and the disability community proved to be fortuitous. 

When the Land Conservancy wrote grant proposals, Disability Network West Michigan drafted letters of support, and the response from funders was overwhelming. Five foundations lined up to support the project, and a sixth foundation wrote an unsolicited check to be a part of the effort. 
A group explores the accessible Sandy Hansen Birding Trail in Fruitport.
“As we began to describe to funders what the project was and who we were doing it with, the whole thing  really caught on,” explains Vaughn Maatman, the then-executive director at Land Conservancy of West Michigan, according to a story produced by the organization. “We were creating something in West Michigan that didn’t exist anywhere else. It was not just for able-bodied hikers. This made a real difference to potential funders.” 

He called the accessibility project a great example of community conservation because its potential reach was so wide. 

“We have learned that the community is broader than we thought,” Maatman said. “People with disabilities and mobility impairments are just like us; they want to get out into the woods, too. This kind of work opens up possibilities in terms of how we think about conservation for the future.”  

The universal access trail was made possible by Dick Hansen, the project’s primary benefactor, and named in honor of his late wife, Sandy.

Among the supporters of the project were the James Hanna and Mary H. Murphy Land Fund of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and the Consumers Energy Foundation, which gave $10,000.

Steven Knox, adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 11 in Muskegon and veterans counselor at Disability Network West Michigan, played a key role in getting veterans involved with trail construction. He organized a group of about 20 veterans with disabilities to mark trails, clear brush and help in other ways.

Spotlighting the resource 

Now, the goal is to let more people know about this resource. On a warm fall day in September, the Land Conservancy organized a guided tour of the trail loop, which included discussion of local plant and animal species.

Led by Land Conservancy stewardship technician Jason Googins, the group, including VanDyke, learned about the plants and wildlife that make their home in the preserve. They listened for birds, saw signs of wild turkeys, and learned about plants like common boneset, greenbrier, bracken fern, and wintergreen. 

“We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to showcase what this preserve has to offer with Disability Network West Michigan and hope more people will visit the preserve and enjoy the trail,” says Marie Orttenburger, advancement manager for the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.

VanDyke’s glad to see the effort to make parks more accessible to people with disabilities.

“When you have opportunities like this, they open your mind and your body to all these things that could be possible, so in that sense I have access to all these different possibilities. That’s very healing, in a way,” VanDyke says. “What may seem like small trails can be life-changing for others.” 

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.