By David Nickelson ~
I loved hiking…
Beginning with family hikes on the Island Trail at the Ludington State Park along Lake Michigan, I’ve learned how much joy can come from a simple walk in the woods. As I grew up, family vacations took me to the great national parks of the west, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, and Glacier. It was there I fell in love with the leg burning climbs that rewarded me with pristine mountain lakes surrounded by barren peaks where snow still clung to higher crags late into summer. I was young and fit, a former high school cross-country and track and field runner with hundreds of future hikes already planned in my head. Then my life changed.
At a college party in 2002, after a few too many drinks, I fell off a second story balcony. By the time everyone heard the thud and turned to see what had happened, I was a paraplegic. I sustained a spinal cord injury at T-11, and aside from some use in my quadriceps, I remained nearly entirely paralyzed from the waist down. For the time being, the possibility of ever reaching those lakes or mountains again was gone.
Four years after my injury I visited those mountains again with my parents, spending a week in Glacier National Park. The limits placed upon me by my lack of mobility were frustrating. A few short boardwalks and crowded visitor centers were not how I wanted to experience the outdoors.
After buying my first handcycle, a Quickie Mach 2, I regained some measure of exploration. I even pushed the half-wheelchair, half-bicycle device up a steep trail and back down one August morning to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park.
That was a mistake. My hands ached for months. That particular handcycle simply wasn’t designed for that level of terrain, nor were human hands designed for the pushing and arresting the rear wheels coming back down the rough trail required traversing it.
The solution finally came when I found myself with an opportunity to try out a different type of off-road handcycle, a Bomber made by Jake O’Connor and his company, Reactive Adaptations. Jake was bringing some of his bikes to Grand Targhee ski resort for people to demo. It was 500 miles away. I drove down without a second thought and was immediately hooked. The bikes could go nearly straight up a ski hill when placed in the lowest gears. This, I thought, would finally get me back into the mountains. I saved what I could from my job and finally scraped together enough to purchase my own.
My hopes were temporarily dashed, when, bike in my truck-bed, I stopped into a Glacier National Park visitor center to ask if wheelchairs were allowed on hiking trails. The young lady at the desk wasn’t sure, but when she made a call to park headquarters, I was informed that no, wheelchairs were not allowed on the trails. I spent the rest of the summer riding on old logging roads outside of the park that, while better than nothing, didn’t provide the same level of scenery that hiking trails did.
The following winter I received a call from the Chief Ranger at Glacier. Following the disappointment at the visitor center I had filled out a comment card to inquire as to why off-road manual wheelchairs were not allowed on trails. I now learned that yes they are indeed allowed, although the definition of what exactly is a wheelchair is unclear. The Reactive Adaptations Bomber I have is somewhere in between a wheelchair and a bicycle which further muddies the answer. For me however, this was as close to a green light as I could hope to get. I started re-reading my old hiking books, trying to pick out trails to try when summer returned.
One hike I had done many times prior to my injury was the 2.3-mile journey to Avalanche Lake and it was at the top of my list to try again. Although I had reached the lake using the Quickie Mach 2 mentioned earlier, it was such a difficult experience that I swore I’d never do it again. Now however, with equipment better suited to the task, all I needed was a time to go.
A park ranger friend knew of my plans and put me in touch with Glacier’s park photographer at the time, Jacob Frank, who was looking for visitors with disabilities to shoot some photos for an update to the park website. After talking for a bit we agreed that me traversing the trail to the lake would be great to show what visitors with disabilities can still do.
I met Jake behind park headquarters on a picture-perfect Friday after work in mid July. The days were still long and the lighting at Avalanche Lake great in the evenings he’d told me. After a short drive to the Avalanche parking lot we were off. Friends of Jake met us at the trailhead giving us a total group of five people. The first portion of the trail is easy, wheelchair-accessible in fact, so we talked about the trail ahead.
After just a quarter mile the most difficult portion of the trail begins, a series of stone steps carved into the hillside. While no trouble for an able-bodied hiker, these steps required help from my hiking partners to climb. With me cranking and my new friends lifting the front wheels over each step we were soon on to the trail.
The Avalanche Lake Trail meanders alongside Avalanche Creek for the first mile or so, climbing slowly over tangled roots and scattered rocks through some old-growth cedar and hemlock forest. The trail is one of the most popular in the park, so it is well worn and easy to follow. By going in the evening we had missed most of the crowds, but the hikers we encountered were at first confused, and then amazed to find out what I was doing. Most wanted to talk and ask questions, some even wanted to take pictures.
In several places tree roots or rocks proved too high for me to get over by myself, so Jake and his friends gave me a boost just as they had done on the earlier stone steps. Eventually the trail distances itself from the creek bed and begins a steady climb through the moss-carpeted forest. Although it was an easy pace for my fellow hikers, I was working up a sweat as I cranked.
Through an avalanche break in the trees we looked out at the cliffs made of sedimentary rock laid down millions of years ago that make up most of Glacier. Stopping from time to time for pictures I felt the exhilaration of being in a place I loved, taking the time to soak in that deep forest air and the sound of water rushing through the gorge below.
The 2.3 miles passed quickly, and soon we were going through a brushy area high with cow parsnip and grasses. From past experience I knew we were close, just a few dozen yards to the lake. After a few twists of the trail I made a left hand turn and rolled out onto the shore of Avalanche Lake surrounded by a half dozen waterfalls that drain Sperry Glacier high above. The lake is spectacular, surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs and deep green forests. With an ear-to-ear grin too big to possibly conceal, I took it all in, happy to be in such an amazing place once again.
As we took some photos and chatted with other hikers we watched a pair of visitors fly-fishing in the lake. The setting sun lit up the cliffs in all their brilliance. 115 years earlier the legendary conservationist John Muir described Glacier as having the “…best care-killing scenery on the continent… Give a month at least to this precious reserve,” he wrote. “The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven.”
A gift from heaven it was indeed. Of course the time eventually passed and we had to turn around to head back. As the sun began to cast long-shadows from the trees along the lakeshore, we made our way back into the woods and towards our waiting vehicles.
An hour later while having a beer at Freda’s, a bar in West Glacier that is popular with locals and park employees, we talked about what an amazing and unique experience we all had. While I still couldn’t hike, the trails I remembered were suddenly open to me again.
I savored the camaraderie that comes from a good hike with good people, and I started thinking about the next trail I wanted to try.
TIPS FOR OFF-ROAD HANDCYCLING
Off-road handcycles open up tremendous possibilities, but some observations I’ve made from my time in the woods will hopefully help you have the same type of experiences in a safe and fulfilling manner.
- Always go with someone. It is safer and a lot more fun to have someone to talk with.
- Don’t be afraid to turn around. For every trail I reach the end of, there are probably 2 or 3 that I have to turn around on. It’s not worth taking a tumble into a ravine just because you’re determined to reach the end.
- Plan ahead and prepare for difficult situations. Look at the weather and plan for the conditions. Tires blow, chains derail, and things brake. Have the proper gear and tools for fixing the problems that do happen.
- Slow down and enjoy the moment. It can be easy to get frustrated if a trail is impassable or too difficult at a certain point. Rather than getting upset, break out the snacks and enjoy the natural beauty around you.