Access to the wild for people who have disabilities
By Mike Piekarski
I was not born with a plastic camping spoon in my mouth. Unlike my wife, Debbie, who was raised in rural upstate New York, I was city-born and grew up more familiar with asphalt playgrounds than with green woods. In my neighborhood, we didn’t have swimming holes; we had potholes.
In recent years, thanks to my wife and her pop-up camper, I’ve become more at home in the outdoors. Our latest foray into the outdoors, however, expanded our horizons: We became the first people to spend the night at the newly opened John Dillon Park, a backcountry campground designed for people with disabilities and their families and friends.
The 200-acre park is named in honor of Schroon Lake native John Dillon, retired chairman and CEO of International Paper. So far, IP has donated more than $1.5 million toward the $3 million needed to pay for the construction of the facilities. Paul Smith’s College, Dillon’s alma mater, operates the park. Steve Cobb, the park manager and a Paul Smith’s alumnus, lives on site during the park’s May-to-September season, as do the four young staffers, all of whom attend or have graduated from the college.
The park’s special features include wheelchair access to its lean-tos, outhouses and lake—making it possible for people in the target demographic, such as myself, to enjoy the wilderness. When I was a toddler, I contracted polio. For most of life, I used crutches. Nevertheless, I stayed as active as possible, pitching in softball games and playing golf. Eventually, my polio morphed into extremely fatiguing post-polio syndrome. In 1996, just after turning 40, I was forced to forgo my crutches and start using an electric wheelchair. Camping out in the wilderness was perhaps the furthest thing from my mind.
When John Dillon Park opened this past June, Debbie and I decided to give it a shot. Like me, she had never slept in a lean-to before. She was a little worried about camping in “bear country.” As for me, I was more worried about the mosquitoes. When we turned off Route 30 north of Long Lake and onto the park’s serpentine access road, we knew we were not in an ordinary campground. This was the deep woods. This was remote. We could tell from the partially buried boulders and recently hewed logs along the dirt road that the park was still a work in progress.
The road led about a mile to a Welcome Center staffed by Cobb and his crew. The trail leading to our campsite was not at all like the asphalt walks I have used at state parks. It was a grayish mixture of ground stone and rock dust, natural materials that blended in with the woods around us. My fears that my wheelchair’s tires would sink into the surface proved unfounded. All five miles of the park’s trails are six feet wide to allow wheelchairs to easily pass each other.
At our campsite, I was able to roll up a gradual incline into a spacious lean-to. The park’s seven lean-tos (two more are planned) were constructed of pine logs and cedar shingles by Thru the Woods of Wilmington. The interior, about 10 feet by 14 feet, easily accommodated us, our gear, my wheelchair and a fold-down wooden “bed” several feet wide that is hinged to the wall. Debbie, who is 5-foot-6, had no trouble standing inside.
All the sites come with a sturdy picnic table and a fireplace that accommodates a grill. Because we had called ahead, the staff had provided us with a five-gallon water container (the only running water at the park is from a sink at the Welcome Center and another at the staff cabin) and a supply of firewood. Our outhouse contained a composting toilet and a corner shelf with disinfectant and moist towelettes. There also were two large metal boxes, one for garbage, the other for coolers and food. The latter is a “bear box.” The park requires that all food be stored in these boxes to keep the furry carnivores from paying unwanted visits.
Although a number of bears had been spotted in the vicinity the previous year, only one mother bear and her cub had been sighted within a mile of our site this past season. Still, Debbie was nervous. At breakfast that first day, a low growl-like sound got her attention. “What was that?” she asked in alarm. “Sounds like a bear!” But I quickly dismissed her notion, mostly to allay her fear, not because of any wildlife expertise of mine. The next morning, again at breakfast, we heard that same growl. This time it persisted, and we immediately recognized it. “Chain saw!” I cried triumphantly. She smiled, conceding the small victory for the city boy.
There was little to do that first day because of the nearly constant rain that kept us mostly inside the lean-to. After bedding down for the night, we were startled to hear an unusual wailing sound coming from the lake below us. It wasn’t until the next day that we learned it was a loon, thankfully a much less menacing creature than a bear. (Maybe that’s why the park has no “loon boxes.”)
Before the trip, I had been concerned that I might not be able to keep my battery-operated wheelchair charged. That worry was allayed on the first day when two staffers brought us a portable solar charger. The next day, my chair charged and the rain only a memory, I was eager to see the park’s sights.
With sunlight shimmering through the dense forest, we headed down a long, curving trail to Grampus Lake, of which we had seen only tantalizing glimpses through the trees from our campsite. Raising her binoculars, Debbie spotted a warbler on a high branch. Staffers have seen bald eagles, ospreys and even peregrine falcons at the park. Cobb told us he recently spotted a merganser on the lake. “You don’t see those too often,” he said. Alas, in our case, he was right.
We followed the trail, crossing a wet section on a long wooden boardwalk, to a fishing dock surrounded by a metal railing. The dock gave us an unobstructed view of the lake and an osprey’s nest high in a tree on a jutting section of shoreline. Farther down the trail, we came to a canoe and kayak dock and then the pontoon-boat pier. This electric boat, powered by huge solar panels, seemed an ideal way to explore the lake—no noise or pollution.
With the boat moored, Cobb and the pilot swung a section of the boat’s side inward and unhooked part of the dock railing, which then served as a ramp. I easily rolled my chair aboard and then transferred to one of the long, cushioned seats to get more comfortable. We puttered past a tiny island where loons were often spotted (sadly, not during our tour) and then navigated around a bend to reveal much more of the large lake than could be seen from the docks. With the sun shining brilliantly off the water and the stately pine, spruce and birch trees along the shore providing a scenic backdrop, Debbie began discussing plans for a return visit.
Did I have any complaints? Just a few: The bear boxes were hard to open; toting gear from our van to the campsite, a distance of 180 yards, wasn’t easy, especially in the rain; the parking lot surface was rather soft for wheelchairs. But I greatly appreciated the helpful staff. Cobb, the hardworking 53-year-old son of a Scoutmaster dad and nature-loving mom, told me that he listens to the park’s visitors for suggestions on how to improve the park. “I tell people I’m a jack-of-all-trades and master of some,” he said. “If I can’t build it, I’ll find someone who can.”
Next year, visitors will be able to take a trail to Handsome Pond–1.5 miles deeper into the woods. But given the natural beauty, tastefully designed facilities and undreamed-of accessibility, John Dillon Park is a winner, at least for me.