As an Albertan who loves the outdoors, I’m always looking for new opportunities to enjoy my passion for angling. While fishing, I connect with nature, friends and family, and come away with some great memories. Unfortunately, I face a major obstacle when it comes to fishing—I’m a quadriplegic and there simply aren’t many places where I can get close enough to the water in my wheelchair to wet a line.
Many bodies of water in our area feature soft shorelines and weedy banks, or trails and docks with barriers, preventing wheelchair users from accessing them. It’s very frustrating, and most of my fishing excursions end with me not getting to fish, resigned to only watching able-bodied anglers. In my experience, there are similar access issues across Canada. Boats are an option, but the costs are prohibitive, especially if you’re on a fixed income, as are many people with disabilities. As I have discovered, however, things don’t have to be this way.
A recent trip to Montana opened my eyes as to what’s possible when people want to make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities. Clearly, this state has made it a priority to ensure people like me also get to enjoy the outdoors. At lake after lake we visited in our camper, we discovered a wheelchair user’s paradise, with wheelchair-designated parking and wheelchair-accessible washrooms, trails and fishing docks.
Wherever we went, I would wheel out onto the dock unassisted, look down into the clear water and watch the fish swimming around. Then it was just a quick set-up with my spinning rod and I’d be fighting another trout. I thought we had the great outdoors market cornered in Canada, but I couldn’t believe that Montana’s lakes were far more accessible than ours. Some locals told me this is due to the number of wounded veterans in the U.S., and the importance society places on them.
All this made me realize that Canada has done a poor job of ensuring our fisheries are accessible, even though many of our lakes, ponds and rivers could be made wheelchair-friendly relatively quickly. Often when trying to get to a new place to fish, for example, I encounter trails with rocks, roots and stumps, and even a locked gate preventing wheelchairs from entering. I’m amazed that in an effort to keep ATVs out of sensitive habitat, such areas also exclude wheelchair users. I found a totally contrary attitude surrounding access in Montana, where it felt far more welcoming.
Need for support
Accessible fishing docks are great for everybody, not just those of us in chairs or scooters, as they are wide, stable and safe. Most docks I come across near my home, however, are narrow and unsafe because they don’t have railings. Falling into 30 feet of water while strapped to a 250-pound electric wheelchair would definitely ruin my day. And invariably, these docks have a step or two, making accessibility impossible anyway.
If you’re like most able-bodied people, the daily challenges facing a wheelchair user probably never even come to mind. Before I became disabled, for example, I was guilty of looking no further than myself. Now, however, I would like to make access to the outdoors a Canadian priority. Many people are touched by disability and, as a result, they’re unfortunately left out of the fun.
With all this in mind, observe your surroundings during your outdoor activities. Imagine that everywhere you go, you’re pushing a loaded shopping cart, as though you just left Costco without sticking to your shopping list. Can you get out on a sandy beach? Can you wade through mud or over roots to reach your favourite fishing hole? Can you get past that fallen tree on the trail? Can you lift your cart over an ATV barrier? Is a mere curb a detriment to your travel? By imagining you must push a heavy cart everywhere you go, you’ll soon get an idea what a wheelchair user goes through to access the outdoors in this country. On the flipside, I bet you would have no trouble accessing excellent fishing in Montana while pushing a loaded shopping cart.
Canada’s outdoors is as beautiful as any place on earth. Let’s make it accessible to all.
Guest columnist Kary Wright also enjoys hunting and shooting.