Working toward outdoor access for all at Apostle Islands
Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore aims to make the park more accessible for people with mobility issues and other impairments.
CORNUCOPIA, Wis. — Along the South Shore of Lake Superior there’s a sandy beach that makes the perfect place to launch a kayak and paddle — not too far — to see the famous sea caves.
It’s part of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and thousands of people go to the Meyers Beach access each year to see Lake Superior’s majesty.
But there are 45 steep steps between the parking lot and the beach, a sometimes an insurmountable barrier for people with mobility issues that exemplifies how much of America’s outdoors — beyond curb-cut sidewalks and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms — remains inaccessible to millions of people.
“I was able to participate in a great Wilderness Inquiry trip a few years ago to go out and see the sea caves in person, to paddle out there. ... But for them to get me down the steps to the kayak, they had to carry me on a wooden kitchen chair,” said Janet Badura.
Badura, 69, of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis nearly all her life and is mobile on land mostly through the use of a heavy, power-drive wheelchair.
“Being from Wisconsin, I had been up to Ashland and Bayfield several times before. But, until a few years ago, I was never able to actually get to the waterfront and tour on the water because it wasn't accessible for me,” Badura said. “I understand not every place is going to be accessible for me. … There are some places that can't be because of the ecology or the landscape. But, where it’s possible, our parks should be accessible to everyone.”
Badura is looking forward to construction of a new, 500-foot ramp at Meyers Beach that would allow people in wheelchairs and others with mobility issues step-free access from the parking lot to the water’s edge. The $650,000 project is still on the drawing board. But members of the Friends of the Apostle Island Lakeshore are hoping to raise $325,000 in coming months to kick-start the project. It’s expected that a National Park Service grant would be available to match the remaining $325,000.
The ramp is another part of a yearslong effort by local park officials and Friends activists to make what otherwise might be seen as a very inaccessible, wild place into an example of how to provide better access outdoors.
“It doesn’t do much good to have an accessible tour boat, or accessible kayak programs, unless you have accessible walkways and destinations for people to experience,” said Jeff Rennicke, executive director of the Bayfield-based Friends of the Apostle Islands.
Rennicke noted that the improvements aren’t just about wheelchair ramps and wooden boardwalks. Interpretive displays have been modified to include use by deaf and blind people and people with other conditions who otherwise might not be able to enjoy them.
“Access is a journey, not a destination,” Rennicke added, noting improvements must be ongoing. “We’ll never be finished.”
Local National Park Service staff conducted an internal audit of accessibility issues in 2012. The results made clear the challenges for a park that generally requires a boat or kayak to get around and that has sometimes unfriendly terrain on shore to anyone who’s not fully mobile.
Since then, however, thanks to the partnership between the Friends group and the Park Service, several barriers have come down.
Recent improvements include:
- A wheelchair-accessible overlook on the dock at Little Sand Bay.
- Accessible campsites, restrooms and more than a mile of boardwalk on Sand Island.
- An accessible amphitheater and campsite on Stockton Island.
- Audio and tactile interpretative materials at visitor centers and online.
- A new Friends website that offers options for people with color blindness, seizures and other visual or hearing issues.
The fact that groups like Wilderness Inquiry and the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute adaptive outdoors programs get people outdoors and into the Apostle Islands wilderness is great, supporters say. But they also say more is needed.
“We really shouldn’t have to carry people from their vehicle to the kayak,” said Erika Rivers, executive director of Minnesota-based Wilderness Inquiry.
Rivers said progress has been slow but sure in opening access to the outdoors for more people, but she said much work remains. Health experts say 1 in 5 Americans have ongoing mobility issues. With about 200,000 visitors annually, statistically, about 40,000 people who come to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore have access issues. But nearly all of us may face temporary issues at some point in our lifetime.
“We’re all only temporarily able-bodied, really. Everyone at some time in their life has some sort of disability or disorder — maybe issues with a bum knee or a heart condition or age or whatever — that will require us to have improved access to do the things we should all be able to do,” Rivers noted. “It’s not just about the people who are in wheelchairs all their lives.”
A long, slow road to accessibility
Efforts requiring access be provided for people with mobility issues started slowly in 1973 with a federal law that made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. But it didn’t reach full stride until the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990.
“Most of our national parks and state parks were built in two waves, back in the ’30s and in the ’60s and early ’70s, before the ADA act was passed,” Rivers said. “Now, as park buildings and facilities are being upgraded 50 or 90 years later, access is being upgraded, too. But it really has been a slow process.”
Moreover, while bathrooms, lodges and walkways may be upgraded to be accessible, that doesn't mean people with mobility issues can make it to campsites, remote trails, water access areas, natural or historic sites like lighthouses or simply get back into the woods or onto a secluded beach.
Eric Larson, sports and recreation supervisor at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute–Northland, said he’s seen great progress in providing outdoor access to people with mobility and other issues.
Courage-Kenny participants are regular users of the Meyers Beach access, Larson noted, and the ramp will be a huge upgrade.
“It's a lot better than we were 29 years ago when I started doing this, no question,” Larson noted, “But the problem of how do we get people into places where they truly feel like they are experiencing the outdoors? It’s going to take more.”
Larson said every private entity and public body needs to take accessibility into account more often. Even when new projects have been completed, he noted, such as the new kayak access along the St. Louis River in Duluth’s Chambers Grove Park, designers don’t always build in access for all people.
Larson noted that it’s been more than 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, but the federal government still isn’t fully funding access even at places like Apostle Islands, requiring private donations to help pay for basic improvements like ramps.
Accessibility doesn't allow me to be like everyone else. Rather, accessibility honors my disability. It honors who I am and how I navigate the world. It allows me to be disabled, not judged, and not expected to be ‘normal.'
“The people at Apostle Islands are really stepping up, and the Friends are trying to push this forward as best they can,” Larson noted. “‘But, in most places, it’s taking too long.”
Katie Napiwocki, of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is mobile on land by use of a wheelchair, and has been since age 4 because of spinal muscular atrophy. Napiwocki serves on the advisory committee for the Apostle Islands accessibility project, as do Larson and Rivers.
“The beauty of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is an experience, a bonding with the natural wonder of nature, that should be accessible to people of all abilities and disabilities,” she said. Thanks to the accessibility effort, “the disabled community is not only being seen and acknowledged, but included and welcomed into the landscape of adaptive outdoor recreation.”
Fundraising now, construction later
Lynne Dominy, superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, said the park includes improved accessibility as repairs or improvements are made to facilities and as the park budget allows.
“When you have old infrastructure — houses, parks, whatever — you have to go forward a little at a time to improve access. That’s what we’re doing as funding is available,” she said.
Dominy noted that the entire water-based park is difficult for many people to experience simply because of the remote nature of the islands.
“What we have here now serves a pretty small group of people” who are physically fit and have boats or kayaks, Dominy noted. “You really have to think about how to make a national lakeshore accessible to all.”
Dominy praised the partnership between her agency and the Friends group, saying it not only offers a financial boost to projects, getting them done quicker, but also helps build community support and awareness of the broader issue of accessibility in society.
“At some point we all will benefit from accessibility improvements,” she noted. “When I had small children, I needed stroller access. When I had surgery and was on crutches, I needed access. When I was in a car accident and in a wheelchair, I needed access. … As I get older my eyesight may not be as good, but I will still need access.”
Dominy said the greater Apostle Islands community needs to be involved “because it’s not just a structure or a ramp or a boardwalk on an island. It’s where you can stay overnight. Where you can eat. How you get here,” she noted. “How do we make the whole experience accessible?”
Rennicke said the accessibility effort — dubbed "Access For All" — will see fundraising gear up in 2023, with hopes the Park Service grant will be approved next year as well and construction of the new Meyers Beach ramp expected in 2024.
After that there are plans to extend boardwalks on Sand Island, build more accessible campsites and docks and increase access to park attractions like lighthouses while also improving interpretive information, both in the park and online, for those with hearing or vision challenges.
“I truly believe this is a difference-making project,” Rennicke said.“We’re trying to make the Apostle Islands an example of what can be done.”
The project "is the perfect combination of raising awareness and making things physically better in a place we love,” Rennicke added.
“Accessibility doesn't allow me to be like everyone else. Rather, accessibility honors my disability. It honors who I am and how I navigate the world. It allows me to be disabled, not judged, and not expected to be ‘normal.’ It creates equity so that I can participate in life through avenues that suit me best,” she noted. “The doorways to nature must be open to everyone.”
About 'Access For All'
To learn more about the Friends of the Apostle Islands "Access For All" campaign, or to donate to help build the Meyers Beach ramp, go to friendsoftheapostleislands.org .
Who has access issues?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in 4 U.S. adults — 61 million Americans — have a disability that impacts major life activities.
The most common disability type, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about 2 in 5 adults age 65 and older.
Other disabilities include cognition (serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions), hearing and vision.