Craig Simpson was driving home from work in the winter of 1992 when the car ahead of him slowed unexpectedly. Simpson braked hard, clipped the back of the vehicle, then drifted into the opposite lane, where a pickup hit him head on. The collision threw him over the center console of his Firebird, smashing his head into the passenger side floor mat. The other drivers had minor injuries. Simpson was not as fortunate.
"I didn't have my seat belt on," he says, recounting the accident from the kitchen table in his suburban Minneapolis rambler. He sits in a manual wheelchair, wearing an outfit that matches his down-to-earth demeanor: jeans, sweatshirt, Twins cap. "I always wore a seat belt," he continues, "but I had just gotten gas and was two miles from my house."
The crash left Simpson with a severed spinal cord and a new reality. He was a quadriplegic at age 26, paralyzed from the chest down, with minimal use of his arms.
"When you get injured, you think you're never going to be able to do the things you did before," says Simpson, now in his fifties. "But I had some great physical therapists who pushed me to stay active." Determined to hunt and ride ATVs—activities he'd loved since he was a kid—Simpson bought a Honda four-wheeler and added a T-handle shifter so he could throttle the vehicle with his knuckles.
In the summer of 1993, more than a year after the accident, Simpson test drove his modified ATV on family land near Spooner, Wisconsin. He rode hard. As hard as he had before the crash. "I cried that first ride back," he says. "It was pretty emotional."
Emboldened, Simpson and a buddy tricked out his electric wheelchair with BMX tires and a weighted boom system on which he could balance a shotgun for hunting. They rigged up a special trigger that allowed Simpson to fire his gun by biting a duckbill-shaped mouthpiece attached to a cable. In all, they used just $200 worth of materials, keeping costs low by repurposing parts from other machines. For the boom system, Simpson's friend melted down some old tire weights in a coffee can. The cable came from a remote control airplane.
"You become an amateur engineer," says Simpson of his decidedly DIY approach to modifying his chair and four-wheeler. Through Capable Partners, a Twin Cities nonprofit that organizes hunting and fishing activities for folks with disabilities, he discovered a small but passionate group of tinkerers who refused to let their physical challenges interfere with their outdoor pursuits.
Simpson estimates that at least 10 capable Partners members have customized their ATVs or wheelchairs to suit their unique needs. "You could have 50 different quadriplegics with 50 different setups," he says. The modifications range from minor tweaks—think customized hand brakes—to major additions like a welded carriage system that lifts its wheelchair-bound owner onto his four-wheeler.
With their spare parts and utilitarian designs, the souped-up machines look like something out of a Mad Max movie. But only an outsider would say that. For Simpson and others, modified off-road vehicles are highly personal, both in appearance and function.
"Want a beer?" It's happy hour in Ken Johnson's garage in Shoreview. The space is packed with all the trappings of the old-style man cave: antler mounts, a dart board, a vintage Grain Belt clock, string lights adorned with red Solo cup fixtures. I decline the beverage, as tasty as it sounds on this warm April afternoon. "Suit yourself," says Johnson, who sports the kind of trim, full mustache that's become an endangered species. He finishes his drink and motions for me to follow him to the backyard.
The grass is bumpy out back, and Johnson struggles a bit in his wheelchair. "Fricking moles," he says. In the corner of the lot, he opens up a large yellow shed, revealing a Polaris Sportsman 500. A metal rack juts out from the back of the four-wheeler. "It's an old tire jack that my friend and I welded to the tongue that fits in the hitch receiver," says Johnson. "I can collapse my wheelchair and bungee it to the rack while I'm out riding."
With that, he rolls up to the side of the Polaris and pulls himself onto the seat like a gymnast working the pommel horse. He reaches down, folds up his chair, and slides it on the rack, doing it all with such ease that I can't help but comment on his upper-body strength. "The good Lord left me with my arms," he says. "I used that line with the priest at the hospital after my accident. I think I scared him."
In 1985, Johnson was thrown from his motorcycle after passing a car on a tight turn. His legs were paralyzed in the crash, but he retained full use of his upper body. When his back brace was removed, he began dreaming up ways to get outside. One early solution was an adaptive dune buggy a friend built for him out of a snowmobile motor, an electric starter, hand controls, and other spare parts.
Johnson eventually graduated to the Polaris rig and began volunteering for Capable Partners. "It's a great organization," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're blind or missing a limb, you'll meet someone there who can help you."
For many Capable Partners members, that helpful person is Leon Fletcher, a machinist who once built robot parts for NASA. Now retired, Fletcher creates boom systems, bite triggers, and other adaptive equipment for disabled hunters and off-roaders. He works out of a small shop in St. Cloud, donating his time, and spare parts, to each project.
"Leon's a mad scientist," says Dean Petersen, a former president of Capable Partners who hired Fletcher to build him a boom system for his wheelchair. "He had a bunch of parts laying around."
Though slowed in recent years by muscular dystrophy, Fletcher continues to help out. "I just donated a boom to a 10-year-old girl," he says. "It's pretty cool. She can adjust it as she gets older." Fletcher also designed the aforementioned carriage system, as well as Timbertraxx, a vehicle he and Petersen dreamed up.
Essentially a skid loader that you drive a wheelchair onto, Timbertraxx is geared toward those who want some independence on the trail but are unable to transfer from a chair to an ATV. "I built it to hunt from," says Fletcher. "It's low RPM, so it won't spook the wildlife." Fletcher and Petersen hope to sell their creation to the public someday.
A spirit of collaboration runs throughout Capable Partners' tinker culture. In 2018, Craig Simpson's power chair broke down when a drive gear failed. Unable to source the part online, Simpson turned to Federal Ammunition, a longtime sponsor of Capable Partners. The Anoka-based outfit engineered the gear using a 3D printer.
During our meeting at his house, Simpson leads me to his garage, where he stores his power chair. I'm struck by the chair's harmonious blend of high-tech features like that new drive gear, and simple solutions such as welded footrests that help prevent falls. Simpson is clearly proud of his creation. "I'll never forget my first time hunting from the chair," he says. "It was a special goose hunt in Brooklyn Park. Worked out great. This chair is the cat's meow."
There's dust in our nostrils. And all over our clothes. And on every sliver of exposed skin. We're barreling down the Red Top ATV trail a couple miles east of Mille Lacs Lake, on a narrow strip of gravel that's surrounded by hardwood forest and lit by the August sun. Capable Partners volunteer Alvin Bedeaux drives our Kawasaki side-by-side, an off-road vehicle that looks like a beefed-up golf cart. In the front passenger seat, enjoying his first ATV ride, is twentysomething Brandon Wittrock. I'm squeezed in the back with Brandon's parents, Jerome and Sheri.
"This is great!" yells Brandon over the drone of the engine. Ahead of us, kicking up all that dust, is the rest of our crew—30-odd Capable Partners members, volunteers, and friends and family who've gathered this morning for the annual Red Top Trail ATV Adventure. The ride gives old friends a chance to reconnect and lets new members like Brandon dip a toe in the world of off-roading.
Brandon has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for him to walk long distances. He and his parents view off-roading as a potential new hobby, a way for the family to explore the outdoors together. "If we ever bought ATVs, we'd obviously want to make sure they were safe for Brandon," says Sheri. "Sounds like Capable Partners could help us with that."
Minutes later, we pull into Red Top's version of a jungle gym—a large, open area with dune-like hills on the perimeter and a giant mud puddle in the middle. Bedeaux guns it toward the puddle. It's pretty deep, but the Kawasaki powers through, spraying water in all directions.
Laughing and mud-splattered, we pull over and watch other members of our group follow suit. Ken Johnson buzzes through on his Polaris, followed by Capable Partners president Darren Dorn on his Yamaha Grizzly.
It's a thrill to see modified machines in action, a reminder that as unique and clever as they are, their real purpose is to help their owners get outdoors—and to inspire people like Brandon to do the same.
"It's easy to give up and stay inside when facing a disability," says Johnson after the morning ride. "But if you're willing to get some help and get the right equipment, you don't have to."