Outdoorspeople with disabilities have more overnight options in the North Country
By Gillian Scott
When Jason Thurston stays at his favorite Adirondack campground, he can participate in activities that are out of reach for him in other outdoor spaces.
He can travel down trails to scenic overlooks or a backcountry lake. He can sleep in a lean-to at night and cook over an open fire. He particularly loves to watch the sunset from an observation deck overlooking the lake.
“To wake up and hear the loons and the birds is just so peaceful,” he said.
For Thurston, camping is no easy task: He’s a quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair to get around. But thanks to the accessible facilities at International Paper’s John Dillon Park in Long Lake, he can spend days in the wild and watch night fall beside a campfire.
The fully accessible campground, open from late May through late October, is owned by International Paper, staffed mostly by Paul Smith’s College students, and funded through an endowment from the pulp and paper company.
It’s one of several options for people with disabilities who want to enjoy the Adirondack wilderness.
‘For everyone to enjoy’
Many state campgrounds and wild areas offer varying levels of access to people with disabilities. Some may offer accessible parking and trails, while others have accessible campsites and bathrooms. There are permits for accessible roads to accessible backcountry campsites in remote areas like the Essex Chain of Lakes, south of Newcomb. There are also special programs to enable access to hunting and fishing.
Various programs make exploring parts of the Adirondacks possible for those with mobility issues or disabilities that make backcountry travel a challenge. Flat trails, for instance, also help senior citizens who might be less steady on their feet or less able to travel rugged trails; families with small children; and even new outdoor adventurers seeking a smaller challenge.
Efforts to balance access with wilderness protection sometimes become controversial, as when the state purchased the Boreas Ponds Tract and its access road. Some wanted the road declared wilderness—off-limits to motorized use—but the state ultimately allowed continued access to a small parking lot where disabled users can park near the wilderness ponds and an accessible lean-to.
“DEC designs and builds its public facilities to maximize accessibility to all ages, abilities, and backgrounds, going beyond the minimum accessibility standards wherever practicable and sustainable while minimizing environmental impacts,” said Lori Severino, a public information officer for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “Under the Adventure NY initiative, New York State strives to improve and expand access to outdoor recreational opportunities for people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.”
Severino said DEC planners identify opportunities for accessible facilities when writing unit management plans for public lands, adhering to standards laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The DEC describes two of its campgrounds—Frontier Town and Scaroon Manor—as fully accessible. At both, accessible campsites include ring fireplaces with adjustable height grills, smooth hardened surfaces and accessible picnic tables. Both also feature accessible showers and restrooms.
Frontier Town Campground, in North Hudson, has two accessible horse-mounting ramps, while Scaroon Manor, in Pottersville, features accessible boat docks and fishing pier.
“The outdoors are for everyone to enjoy,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “While we’ve made great strides in accessibility in the last three decades, there is more work to be done.”
The department does not track how many people with disabilities use these sites, and could not readily provide information on how many people ask for other accommodations. However, DEC says it is currently evaluating ways to measure use by people with disabilities with its DEC/APA Accessibility Advisory Committee and is looking into an outreach plan to increase use by people interested in accessible options.
John Dillon Park
Thurston, a Bloomingdale resident, is the outreach coordinator for John Dillon Park.
He said he began visiting the campground several years ago and fell in love with its amenities. Besides the lean-tos with ramps and fold-down sleeping platforms, all 3.5 miles of trails are graded; Thurston said he has done the 2 miles into Handsome Pond in about 20 minutes in his motorized wheelchair. Because the park is totally off the grid, staff will provide custom-built battery chargers for people who have equipment that requires electricity, such as battery-powered chairs or CPAP machines. The park also provides firewood and will take away campers’ garbage. Even bearproof food storage containers are accessible.
Thurston said there is a sense of isolation that often can’t be found at a bigger campground.
“This really is unique in the sense that it’s backwoods,” he said.
Thurston always loved the outdoors and said the park and campground provide him with a new way to get outside.
“I absolutely love the whole lean-to lifestyle.” said Thurston, who broke his neck in his swimming pool in 2004. “As a C6 quadriplegic, my options are kind of limited.”
He can’t use state campgrounds and backcountry sites that the state deems accessible because they would require a tent and he can’t get himself up off the ground or on and off a lightweight cot.
He noted that although John Dillon Park is an excellent option for him, it won’t work for everyone with a disability. For quadriplegics who don’t rely on colostomy bags, as Thurston does, and who may have a toileting process that can take an hour or more and requires running water, John Dillon’s accessible outhouses with composting toilets present a hygiene barrier. Thurston said the park may eventually install a septic system, allowing for the construction of an accessible shower and bathroom facility, but funding is a challenge.
Though John Dillon Park is designed for people with disabilities, people without disabilities can also stay there. And, Thurston noted, disabilities do not have to be physical.
“Any disability counts, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “People with, for instance, mental health challenges may not be able to go to a big campground because of the crowds.”
Use of the park is free for everyone, but reservations are required for overnight stays. Thurston is not sure what portion of the campers have disabilites, but is planning to survey users about it—information that could help with grant applications.
Besides his work for John Dillon Park, Thurston is also chair of the DEC’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. The committee helps the agency consider accessibility when reviewing plans for wild spaces, such as the changes to the management plan for Debar Mountain Wild Forest, which would involve creating a day use area.
The committee is consulting the state on the Adirondack Rail Trail, a 34-mile recreational trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid that will be built on an old railroad bed. Thurston said the committee wants to make sure the trail has a “firm and stable surface” that can withstand wet weather conditions and remain accessible to wheelchairs. Accessible parking at trailheads will also be key.
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The committee was formed after a civil rights lawsuit filed in the late 1990s—settled in 2001—argued the DEC was not doing enough to ensure people with disabilities had access to state forests. In the settlement, the state set up the committee, agreed to invest millions in capital projects, to keep miles of roads—typically old logging roads or fire roads—open to people with disabilities, and to open additional miles of roads.
Scott Remington of Brant Lake has served on the committee for close to 20 years. He has used a wheelchair since a 1999 logging accident left him partially paralyzed.
“We’ve come a long way since the lawsuit,” he said, noting the construction of accessible picnic areas, boat launches and campgrounds. But, he added, “There is a lot more that can be done and that I hope will be done.”
In particular, Remington said he hopes the state will do more as it buys new lands to preserve existing roads, and consider ways the land could be used by people with disabilities. He said, for instance, there were “hundreds of miles” of gravel roads in the Boreas Ponds area, and it was a fight to keep just 7 miles open.
“It really frustrates me because I’ve lived here in the Adirondacks all my life,” he said. “I don’t want to see it destroyed. … We want to protect it. We also want to be able to use it in a responsible way.”
Thurston said one of his big issues while working on the committee is increasing outreach to make sure people with disabilities are aware of the outdoor recreation options available.
“To me, it starts with the user,” he said. “You find somebody that loves the outdoors that wants to go to a place and can’t, and then you make that accessible.” But, he noted, another part of the equation is making sure that people are informed about places that are already accessible.
Finding accessible places can take a little online detective work. One place to start is the DEC Accessible Recreation Destinations web page. The page breaks down options first by region, then by county, then by site. So a web visitor could click on “Eastern Adirondacks/Lake Champlain,” then “Warren County,” then on one of the sites, such as “Lake George Islands Campground.” Each site page lists the details. At Lake George Islands Campground, that means “2 wheelchair accessible campsites with tent platforms, level trail with a natural surface, picnic tables, dock and a privy.”
The DEC said individuals wishing to visit specific land units or properties can also go to the web page for that specific unit and click on the wheelchair icon at the top of the page to reach the list of accessible features. When in doubt, it never hurts to call a campground or region office ahead of time to ask about accessibility options.
Users of some backcountry sites will also need to call ahead to regional offices. Someone wanting to use the accessible backcountry site on Fifth Lake in the Essex Chain, for instance, will need a code to open a gate. Once the gate is open, users can drive close to the campsite, which has an accessible outhouse and a graded trail to a flat tent site.
It’s important to remember that no reservations are possible, though, so even after calling ahead for the code, a potential user could arrive to find the site already taken.
If primitive accessible sites are routinely unavailable to people with disabilities, DEC has the ability to designate those sites as exclusively for use by people with disabilities, DEC’s Severino said.
“The accessible tent site on Fifth Lake was constructed in 2015 and has been lightly used,” she said. “The land manager expects that its use will increase with time and people’s familiarity with the area.” The road to the site, however, gets used during the day multiple times a week by people with special permits.
Those permits are part of the “reasonable accommodations” DEC offers to people with physical limitations. The Motorized Access Program for People with Disabilities provides a special permit to individuals with mobility disabilities that allows them to drive select routes on DEC roads that are not open to the general public. There are about 1,000 permittees statewide, many of whom are hunters who also have special hunting permits, Severino said.
Options for permit users vary by county. In St. Lawrence County, for example, one 5.64-mile route on the Santa Clara Easement Route in the Stony Brook Conservation Easement is open for hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife observation. Warren County, on the other hand, has 4.17 miles open, spread across six parcels in the Lake George Wild Forest.
Some parcels offer access for cars, but many are only for ATVs or four-wheelers.
DEC offers free and reduced-price hunting and fishing permits that may, for example, allow people with disabilities to hunt from a vehicle or use modified weapons. The department also partners with state parks in the NY Access Pass program, which provides qualified people with disabilities free or discounted access to state recreation facilities that normally have a cost.
DEC offers case-by-case accommodations, too, and handles several such requests each year, Severino said. “Wheelchairs are allowed anywhere open to the general public,” she said. “DEC considers requests for other power-driven mobility devices to determine safe locations for their use in compliance with our environmental regulations.”
More to Explore
This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Subscribe now to receive seven issues a year, delivered to your mailbox and/or inbox.