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Slopes? Zigzags? Access Recreation aims to offer pros, cons of Clark County parks for differently abled people

Columbian - 5/21/2024

May 21—For some people, the simple joy of hiking a trail is anything but simple. One person's carefree dirt path can be another's hazardous obstacle course.

That's why Debbie Timmins of Access Recreation, a Portland-based grassroots coalition of recreation and disability-advocacy groups, and Patrick Stark of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guided a group of local leaders on an exploratory walk through the woods of Whipple Creek Regional Park last week. Participants represented a broad cross-section of agencies that manage land or host outings — from the Washington Trails Association to Clark County Public Health to Educational Service District 112.

Along the way, the group stopped to study the trail anomalies many people don't even notice: tree roots, dangerous holes, protruding pipes, tricky turns, steep slopes.

"Know before you go" is Access Recreation's guiding principle, Timmins said. "Sometimes people don't even go out because they don't know what they'll be getting into."

Many recreation agencies aim to offer parks and trails with genuinely universal access and full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Timmins said. Reality on the ground is usually a lot more complicated, as well as costly and time-consuming to update and improve. That's why many agencies have multiyear transition plans toward access and ADA compliance, Timmins said.

Access Recreation's main mission is simply collecting and posting as much detailed information about recreation sites in the Portland area as possible, Timmins said. Armed with detailed trail descriptions and photos that strive for honesty, people of different abilities and challenges can make up their own minds about what outings to try.

"Our job isn't to make a judgment call about whether it's accessible or not," Stark said. "Our job is to provide facts so people can decide for themselves."

Just one of the 36 regional hiking trails that's thoroughly analyzed on Access Recreation's website is in Southwest Washington: the Salmon Creek Greenway Trail. (Make sure to click through to "trail characteristics" to see an exhaustive survey of the trail.) Obsolete information about Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is there too, but that hasn't been updated since Steigerwald was closed, improved and reopened in 2022. All other trails featured on the Access Recreation page are south of the Columbia River in the Portland metro area.

Access Recreation is eager for that to change, Timmins said. Another primary Access Recreation mission is providing training sessions like the Whipple Creek one, so local jurisdictions can do their own detailed trail analyses — letting people of whatever abilities make their own well-informed choices about outdoor experiences.

Trail details

Whipple Creek Regional Park, west of the Clark County Fairgrounds, is 300 acres of uneven forest that's long been a favorite of hikers and horseback riders. Some of its trails are relatively flat. Others are full of slopes and zigzags.

But before the Access Recreation group even got that far, it examined the packed-gravel parking lot and its awkwardly placed port-a-potty and trash can. The restroom's door is facing sideways — not toward the parking lot — and the gravel ground doesn't quite meet the lip of its doorway. That makes it a challenge for anyone in a wheelchair, Timmins noted.

The restroom is also exposed to direct sunlight, which heats up the inside. Heat can be a major challenge for people with "invisible" conditions like multiple sclerosis, said landscape architect Jane Tesner Kleiner of nature + play designs (and former parks manager for the city of Vancouver).

Two pathways connect the parking lot to the trailhead. The one nearest the restroom slopes to one side and has loose gravel. The flatter, sturdier one — the one that's obviously preferable if you're on wheels — is yards away, across the parking lot.

The trailhead map is pretty good, participants noted, but would be even better if it featured raised Braille type for the sight-impaired and even little animal symbols, showing what critters are present here, for non-English speakers. (Newer local park signs and maps are multi-lingual. The older signs at Whipple Creek are not.)

Various trail-measuring gadgets were deployed before the group entered into the woods. Low-tech assistance came from standard tape measures and levels, used to determine the exact width of trails at different spots, as well as to measure the height of occasional tree roots, frequent erosion-control "waterbars" (small logs that divert stormwater off the trail) and other anomalies in the trail.

Medium-tech tools were a pair of measuring wheels, rolled along to determine longer distances between points of interest, between the trailhead and various trail anomalies and challenges, and to get a sense of exactly how long Whipple Creek's shortest loop through the forest really is.

"You don't want people to be second-guessing distances," Timmins said.

Highest-tech help came from a package of technology riding on what looked like a rugged-wheeled jogging stroller. That's a gadget called WISP (Wheeled Instrument Sensor Package), which continuously measures and records trail features (grades, widths, anomalies) and snaps periodic photographs. Carefully wheeling the tech-laden stroller along the trail was Karen Ceballos of the Portland office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who said the agency might be willing to loan it out to other agencies or to work with them on using it.

To be considered "accessible," trails are supposed to be at least 3 feet wide and no steeper than a 5 percent slope without providing periodic flat stretches for rest. (Guidelines about accessible trail design get intricately detailed. A good resource is the United States Access Board's "Accessibility Standards for Outdoor Developed Areas.")

The outing helped sensitize many participants to trail details they don't usually consider, they said. Some agency heads said it will help them recruit disabled but eager volunteers for outdoor events and projects, or to reassure parents of disabled children that their needs are being considered.

"If you haven't been in the position of having a temporary or permanent disability, this really gives you something to look at and think about," said Mesha Wood, a park ranger at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex (which spans several sites in Southwest Washington).

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"We are actually all 'temporarily abled,' aren't we?" noted science educator Ashley Conley of Vancouver'sWater Resources Education Center.

And yet, Timmins noted, most parks-and-recreation websites (including Vancouver's and Clark County's) contain virtually no detailed information, descriptions or photos of complicated realities on the ground. Those are the details that differently abled people need in order make their own decisions about trying trails, she said.

Posted photos of sites shouldn't only emphasize pretty scenery, Timmins said. They should convey what the site will really be like to visit, including the bumps, barriers and other less-than-ideal qualities that some folks should know about before they go.

"We want to get word out that all this good information is available," Stark said.

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