“Just the feeling of being able to experience parts of the state park that I’ve heard about but have never actually been able to see or to explore myself, there are no words to describe that.”
Those are the words of Jamie Spore. She is a 40-year-old woman with Spina Bifida Myelomeningocele, a spinal cord defect, and she is talking about being able to finally enjoy some of the natural and other amenities at Ludington State Park in northern lower Michigan.
Spore, who was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Michigan in 2016, has long been an advocate for people with mobility issues and has volunteered her time to work alongside the Friends of Ludington State Park to make the 5,300-acre recreation area, nestled between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, as accessible as possible to people of all ages and abilities.
The most recent step in that effort arrived in May: an Action Track Chair. These off-road, electronic track chairs easily handle trails, snow, sand and even shallow water, allowing users to explore areas that traditional wheelchairs might not reach.
Many Michigan state parks have been adding these track chairs, which are available at no cost to visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. Many parks that don’t yet have the motorized track chairs do have either a stable surface to allow easier access to the waterfront or a lightweight all-terrain beach-access wheelchair that can also go into the water, or both.
The state also offers a wide variety of accessible recreation opportunities at campgrounds, boating access sites, state game areas, trails, parks and more.
Spore, a lifelong paraplegic who lives in Ludington, has already used the track chair several times, even exploring the park’s Logging Trail, a four-mile path that follows an old logging road.
“One of the first adventures I went on in the state park was on a trail called the Logging Trail,” Spore says, adding she was uncertain about the chair's maneuverability but found it easy to use. “I’ve lived here my whole life and never seen that trail because it wasn’t accessible to me before and now it is. I’m really grateful for those experiences.”
Steve Begnoche, who is secretary of the non-profit Friends group, says the response from visitors using the track chair has been universally positive.
“We’ve had really heartwarming tales of thanks and videos sent to us about people enjoying it. It’s been so good we’re working on buying a second one,” he says.
The impetus to make the park – seven miles north of Ludington – accessible to all people – no matter their disabilities – is part of the shared vision of Park Manager Jim Gallie, the Friends of Ludington State Park and volunteers like Spore.
The Friends group has been a phenomenal partner in helping the park achieve those goals, Gallie says.
“They bring a lot of great ideas to the table. They’re really good at fundraising and telling this story and the message of why we want these improvements,” Gallie says. “Without them, I don’t think a lot of these things would've been able to happen.
Nearly a year ago, the park installed a universal access kayak launch at Hamlin Lake beach. A 30-foot sloped gangway features a transfer area where visitors in wheelchairs can get out of the chair, onto a platform and into watercraft.
And that’s not all.
Ludington is the first state park in Michigan to have a SeeCoast Viewer powered
by EnChroma lens technology. The new technology enables viewers with red-green color blindness (affecting 13 million Americans) to experience a broader spectrum of clear, vibrant distinct color. The viewer has been posted along the park’s popular Skyline Trail.
“It’s newer technology, not that prevalent,” says Patrick O’Hare, president of the Friends group. “One in 12 men are colorblind and one in 200 women.”
One of the park’s most popular features – a universally accessible playground – was installed several years ago as part of park’s 50th anniversary. The Friends group raised more than $200,000 to build the playground. The playground is built on a poured-in place rubber surface and is accessible by ADA-accessible ramps to the first level. A barrier-free sidewalk connects the playground to the picnic shelter, bathroom building, and concession area.
Spore and fellow Ludington resident and accessibility advocate Shelby Solberaski, whose sister has autism, worked closely with the Friends group on the design of the playground, not reaching consensus until the seventh design.
“I love that playground, and not just because I got to help design it. I was affectionately called the girl with the red pen,” Spore says, with a chuckle.
Spore says it was easy for her as someone with a mobility challenge to look at drawings and decipher whether or not it will be accessible. She now enjoys the playground with her 10- and 12-year-old nieces. She loves being able to interact with them there while they play.
The park has plans for future accessibility features. Gallie says the park plans to replicate an accessible walkway – built from the beach house to Lake Michigan a few years ago – at Hamlin Lake because of its popularity with families. Part of its popularity is because the lake warms up more quickly than Lake Michigan.
New beach wheelchairs also are on the to-do list; the existing ones are becoming outdated, he says.
The community, he says, has been extremely receptive about the park improvements and the effort to include everyone.
“By the community I mean not only our local residents, but also the community of campers that come here every year because it really is a true community.” he says.
The impact is clear.
The Friends’ O’Hare shares an email from a recent track chair user:
“‘I’d like to give you a heartfelt thank you. As a person that is handicapped, trying to get down to the beach with my walker is embarrassing and extremely difficult. What an amazing idea. Thank you again for thinking of us that have mobility issues.’”
“It struck me — him just saying this is a dignity thing,” O’Hare said. “He said that it’s embarrassing and extremely difficult trying to walk with a walker on the beach and here was this opportunity for him to use the track chair.”