Outdoor Abilities

Juneau residents with disabilities take advantage of the great Alaska outdoors

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Lee Hagmeier first hiked to the top of Thunder Mountain in 1959, three weeks before being blinded by a bear attack. Last summer, 44 years after his first and only ascent, he hiked Thunder Mountain again, this time with the assistance of his friend and climbing buddy, Pat Leamer.

"It's kind of nice to be up top," said Hagmeier, who recently retired to Olympia, Wash. He also hiked Mount McGinnis and Mount Jumbo for the first time last summer.

Like Hagmeier, numerous Juneau residents with disabilities are taking advantage of their abilities in the great Alaska outdoors.

"I just like the feeling, in hiking, the feeling of getting away from the noise, and I particularly like the quietness of the alpine and the special feeling that you get when you are away from the complexities of everyday life," he said. "It kind of nourishes the soul, so to speak."

In Southeast Alaska, Outdoor Recreation and Community Access, a program of Southeast Alaska Independent Living, provides a variety of recreational opportunities throughout the year to encourage people to recognize their abilities to succeed. ORCA serves all Southeast Alaskans, of any age with any disability, varying from spinal cord injuries, visual impairments, developmental disabilities, and more.

"We facilitate recreation for people with disabilities in the community," said Sierra Caden, director of ORCA. "Of course, ultimately the goal is that people do it independently and with friends and not need us, but it's a long way before that happens because of accessibility issues, people not understanding the law, and what is out there for them.

"There really isn't anything that someone with a disability can't do, and I think people get into this 'I can't do this' attitude," she said. "If you do a little research you'll probably find out that almost anything you can think of in the recreation arena, somebody with a disability is already doing it. It just takes adaptations."

Virtually every outdoor recreation opportunity available in Juneau has a disabled resident participating, Caden said.

Juneau resident Joe Tompkins, a successful international competitive monoskier and a wheelchair user, said he also enjoys kayaking, biking, jetskiing, and tries to get out on the local golf course several times a week. He said he finds a lot of his disability to be mind over matter.

"It's about getting out and doing something," he said. "It's good for the heart. It's good for the mind.

"Getting out and doing stuff is pretty important for the mind, and that's not just for people with disabilities, there's some serious couch potatoes that need to get out there," said Tompkins.

Caden said the community has come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, especially in the last several years, but she says there still could be more done.

"Accessibility is a lot better than it was five years ago," she said. "It's at least on people's radar screens, and new facilities and new things being built are accessible, but it's not great."

Longtime Juneau resident Scott McPherson, a wheelchair user, was injured during a downhill ski race in January of 1975 while attending the Mission Ridge Ski Racing Academy in Wenatchee, Wash.

"After I had my spinal cord injury I would have rated Juneau as one of the least accessible places in the world," he said, due to the steep hills and lack of ramps, sidewalks and elevators. "I think Juneau has come a long way in both accessibility as well as recreational opportunities."

McPherson is an avid boater and fisherman who averages about 15-25 trips on the water each year, he said. With his father-in-law he is partial owner of the Arne Too, a boat that has modifications to make it more accessible, including a custom built swim step platform.

"The thing that makes this a wonderful state is the scenery and the wildlife," he said. "It's great in my case to get out and enjoy it in an isolated setting in a boat."

McPherson said getting outside is important for everyone.

"I think that recreation and exercise are a big part of any healthy lifestyle," he said.

Caden said, "Recreation is such a fundamental part of all of our lives and everybody deserves the opportunity to recreate."

As for advice to people with disabilities who are not eager to get outdoors or who might lack the initial courage to start a particular activity, Hagmeier suggests people can "gain some confidence by doing a little bit first and gain their confidence and gradually build on their experience."

McPherson said, "Stay active, enjoy the country and do what you can with what you got."

"It's about getting out and doing stuff, there's so much more than watching television," said Tompkins. "Live life, don't watch it through the television."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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