The outdoors is for everyone, but not everyone gets outdoors. Among the missing are the disabled. And that’s a shame. The outside is a wonderful place, and no one should be kept away from it. While we all experience it slightly differently, we do experience it, and that’s a common bond. As fellow blogger and woman with cerebral palsy Olivia Mozzi wrote about learning to ski, “...sports are a great equalizer. When I ski sitting down and you ski standing up, we share the same snow. We have the same goal of getting to the bottom of the hill, regardless of what equipment we are using. “

I got to share some of the same snow, in a sense, in June 2010. French Creek State Park had a series of “ADA Accessible Nature Hikes.” Once a month on a Saturday morning in summer park ranger Phil McGrath led a one mile hike from behind the visitor’s center at the park to Hopewell Lake and back, using a well-beaten trail. 

McGrath, who uses a wheelchair, works with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to add ADA opportunities to the park system. One of his accomplishments was to have a flat, gravel trail added to Barbour Rock in Pine Creek Gorge, which gives an accessible alternative to reach the overlook. Another was the creation of “Accessibility Adventure Day”at French Creek, a yearly event which featured adaptive hiking, fishing, biking, and kayaking.  And then there’s the nature hikes. McGrath’s led them since 2009, and while French Creek’s 2014 calendar isn’t available for the summer, I expect he’ll be back.

Aside from McGrath, there were a half-dozen hikers in wheelchairs, a couple of caregivers, and myself that June day. I could have felt like the odd man out, but I didn’t. We were all out to have a good hike. And the mile was one of the better hiking experiences I’ve had. McGrath stopped and demonstrated what a gall on a leaf looked like, or explained why some plants had woody stems and some didn’t. The slower pace allowed more observation of the natural world than if I’d worked to maintain a conventional two to three mile an hour rate. Rather than the disabled hikers experiencing the outdoors as I do, I was experiencing the outdoors as they do. It was refreshing and fun, and I learned in more ways than one. . 

As the only person standing who was not a caregiver, I tried to be helpful and didn’t succeed. Noticing Ranger McGrath was stopping at seemingly every bush he passed to pick a branch and show it to people, I offered to pull off some leaves of an interesting looking plant. “Neil, that’s poison ivy” said McGrath. “Please don’t pick it.” Despite that near-miss and a couple of suggestions I looked a little tired from the heat, I emerged unscathed from the hike. Hopefully the other participants continued to find ways to be involved in the outdoors.