Hartley Nature Center and Boy Scout partnership blazes trail for accessibility

Most Northland residents take a walk in the woods for granted. Yet, for some people with disabilities, just sitting on a deck might be the only access they have to the outdoors. Hartley Nature Center and Duluth Boy Scout Troop 44 want to change that.

Chris Wilcox, left, of Duluth Boy Scout Troop 44 chats with Brett Amundson, director of operations at Hartley Nature Center, while a fellow scout looks on. To earn the distinguished rank of Eagle Scout, Wilcox initiated a service project at the nature center that refurbished one fifth of a mile of the trail to allow greater accessibility to people with disabilities. Submitted photo

Most Northland residents take a walk in the woods for granted. Yet, for some people with disabilities, just sitting on a deck might be the only access they have to the outdoors. Hartley Nature Center and Duluth Boy Scout Troop 44 want to change that.

During the month of October, which is Disabilities Awareness and Employment Month, the troop finished refurbishing one fifth of a mile of trail on the grounds of Hartley Nature Center. This section of trail is consciously designed to encourage people of all abilities to get outside and experience what the nature center environments have to offer.

Chris Wilcox of Troop 44 needed to initiate and plan a service project toward earning the distinguished rank of Eagle Scout. He contacted Hartley Nature Center because he knew he wanted an outdoor activity. Brett Amundson, the center's director of operations, took a walk with Wilcox on a section of trail near the main building that was six inches wide, overgrown and uneven. He shared the center's hopes for the three-acre area with Wilcox.

"The original vision was to make it accessible to people of all abilities so that they could be fairly close to the building and yet still get out enough into the woods to have a genuine outdoor experience," Amundson said.

"The access trails at Hartley are a good example of universal design which removes barriers to full participation," said Bridget Riversmith, a Duluth disability advocate. "Disability is natural. It's part of the human experience. Disability can wax and wane, and we all grow old."


According to the Wheels on Trails website, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability or health-related limitation. The website has maps of accessible trails and parks in Duluth, which can be seen at .

Wilcox and other scouts from the troop went to work expanding the trail bed to four feet in width, as prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They leveled trail sections, trimmed back vegetation, removed invasive plant species and hauled in gravel to use as the basecoat for the trail bed. Then, for the topcoat, they placed bluestone over the gravel. The troop used a bluestone classified as "fine" because of its smoother aesthetic appeal and smaller size. The smaller stones keep wheelchairs in better balance, lend stronger support to small feet and reduce tripping.

Amundson said he was pleased with the result.

"We do have a lot of visitors who are in wheelchairs or electric scooters," Amundson said. "It's also nice for very, very small children like those in our preschool program who will use this trail a lot throughout the school year and in the summer as well. They're younger, they need a little bit more area to work with, and this trail gives them a little easier access."

According to the U.S. census about 2.2 million individuals 15 years old and older use wheelchairs. Another 6.4 million use other ambulatory aids such as canes, crutches, or walkers.

"It was an amazing project," Wilcox added, as he was surrounded by a number of fellow trail workers during a recent troop meeting. "I had about 17 people come and help me over the last two months. It was great having completed it."

McLean Fifield, who helped build the trail, holds the same rank as Wilcox and is a junior in high school.

"It was some fun physical labor," Fifield said. "It had its down parts, especially when it was muddy out, but overall it was pretty fun."


Younger boys also helped, including Luke Kelley, who is in eighth grade.

"I got to work outside and help my friend out," Kelley said. "We took dirt to the trail, flattened it out for the compactor, made a container for wood to stay dry, and made the trails better."

In the future, four- to five benches will be added to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Scouts who engage in projects to earn the Eagle Scout rank are expected to demonstrate a high level of initiative with almost no adult supervision. Wilcox obtained donations from several local businesses, organized the trucking of supplies for the project, and oversaw participation on his own. He also applied for and received a grant from Minnesota Power to help defray the costs involved in the


Mike Polzin has been an adult leader with the troop for about 12 years.

"It's a chance for a scout to step up among his peers and provide leadership, direction, vision and coordination and get his peers motivated to do a successful project," Polzin said about the Eagle Scout service project.

Boy Scout Troop 44 has 19 active scouts and is directed by Steven Lindbeck, scoutmaster.

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