All-terrain wheelchairs are changing lives at Minnesota state parks.
Brittanie Wilson screams and laughs with delight as she drives a twin-tracked electric wheelchair over the snow-covered terrain of an oak savanna at Myre–Big Island State Park outside of Albert Lea.
“I’m experiencing that for the first time in my life and I’m 34 years old,” she says of her ride over unpaved parkland. “It’s awesome. I love it. This changes everything.”
Wilson was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that affects her joints and muscles. The St. Paul resident has for most of her life used a standard wheelchair, which limits her options for enjoying the outdoors. She uses her electric wheelchair on paved trails, but in the winter, snow on sidewalks and trails often creates a barrier to fresh air and exercise outside.
The track chair, which Wilson was invited to test-drive as part of a new state park initiative, promises new access to outdoor spaces at select Minnesota state parks. Starting this spring, an all-terrain track chair can be reserved and used, without charge, at Myre–Big Island, Camden, Crow Wing, Maplewood, and another park to be determined.
Made by Marshall-based Action Manufacturing, the chairs cost about $14,500 apiece, and most were paid for through the state’s Parks and Trails Legacy Fund. (One chair was donated.)
Jamie McBride, a state parks and recreation area consultant, says track chairs allow people with disabilities or mobility difficulties to explore areas where they may not have otherwise been able to go. The tracks distribute weight evenly, improving traction on a wide variety of surfaces. Users can go over grass, mud, sand, and snow and can climb hills and even ford shallow water. Other nifty features include a zero-turn radius and an electric tilt mechanism that allows users to stay level in the chair while traversing hills and uneven terrain.
“We thought this program really extends our vision of creating unforgettable outdoor recreation experiences for people in Minnesota,” says McBride.
At least one trail at each of the participating parks will be designated as a suggested route for track chair users, including the popular Hallaway Hill overlook trail at Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids.
At Myre–Big Island, Wilson is exuberant after her first track chair excursion.
“For someone who is born with a disability or someone who uses a mobility device and that’s all that they know, being able to be out in nature is really life changing,” she says.