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Opening doors

Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc Boy Scout Andy Arrance, left, Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center monoski instructor Quintin Gray and Gray's son Cole (behind Gray) head up the Lower Cataract Lake Trail Friday, north of Silverthorne.

SUMMIT COUNTY – When 15-year-old Silverthorne resident Andy Arrance started looking for a project that would be one of his final steps toward achieving Eagle Scout status, he joined forces with Kim Fenske, a local Forest Service wilderness expert. The duo starting considering ways they could improve the visitor experience at Cataract Lake, a sparkling blue alpine gem nestled among aspens, pines and the craggy peaks at the north end of the Gore Range. After talking it over, they decided to work on the trailhead, coming up with a project that not only enhanced the area aesthetically, but also eased access – especially for outdoor enthusiasts in wheelchairs.Using only donated materials and labor, Arrance rebuilt a dilapidated section of fence and replaced an old-school entry gate at the Lower Cataract Lake trailhead that previously required an awkward climb up over a series of wooden steps. The new gate and maze combo is a huge improvement, and Fenske said he’s already had a slew of positive comments from visitors.”It makes it easier for everyone to get in there. Grandparents with kids in strollers, wheelchairs, it’s just a huge improvement,” Fenske said.”I was looking around at a couple of projects and thought this would have the most impact and the most benefit,” Arrance said Friday at the trailhead, taking some time off from school on a crisp autumn afternoon to explain how he got the job done. All told, Arrance spent a couple hundred hours on the project, beginning with the early planning stages back in April, when he took pictures of the site and started sketching out plans, now all neatly logged in a notebook as part of his Eagle Scout certification record.”I worked with the school district to get beetle-killed trees from around the middle school,” Arrance said, gesturing toward the new section of fence built from the trimmed lodgepole logs. Some of the lumber for the new gate and maze-like entryway came from the Frisco FunGround renovations, he explained.”This is great,” said Quentin Gray, rolling his wheelchair through the new gate. “The spring in the hinge isn’t too hard. It’s easy to open,” he added as he started down the trail toward the lake beneath sun-dappled aspens. “It’s kind of a luxury to be able to play near the wilderness right in our back yard,” said Gray, who teaches skiing for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center’s (BOEC) adaptive ski program in the winter. “And a paved trail isn’t always the way to go, from my standpoint. Part of it is being out in it,” he said, deftly maneuvering his chair around a couple of buried boulders in the trail.

“There’s plenty of paved rest stops near the highway, but to be able to get out in the woods and see the forest, the wildflowers and the wildlife, it really makes a difference in your day,” said Sarah Will, winner of multiple ski medals in paralympic events.Many of today’s mobility challenged athletes, whether they are riding hand cycles, wheelchairs or four-wheelers, are looking for backcountry adventure. For Will, that could include a hand cycle trip down the famed Minturn Mile, or a backcountry trail from near the summit of Vail Mountain to the nearby town of Minturn.Will said it’s critical that the people who are designing various facilities, whether it’s backcountry trails or in-town sidewalks, need to get in touch with the disabled community to seek input. “There’s not enough community-based information on accessibility issues, she said, citing a recent case in the town of Vail, when local officials incorporated certain features in a street redesign that were far from ideal for wheelchair visitors and residents.And access should never come at the expense of the environment, according to Will.”Most important is that you respect the land when you go out there,” she said.Higher expectations”For people with mobility challenges, expectations are going up,” said Bob Bond, BOEC wilderness program director. “There’s great demand for access to front country terrain,” Bond added, aptly describing the area around Cataract Lake, relatively close to a highway and nearby communities, but with a distinct near-wilderness feel.

“The single biggest challenge is transportation – getting from point A to point B,” Bond said. Making sure the parking areas are accessible is a key part of enhancing access to such front country terrain, he added. “If it’s a great place, with a good interface between the road and the edge of the wilderness, we’ll go there,” he said.Bond said that he’s been working with the Forest Service on access issues for 10 years, and he has nothing but praise for the agency.”Everyone is more aware, and the Forest Service has been on the cutting edge,” Bond said. “They’ve attempted to meet us on a basis that makes it work. They’ve defined ‘reasonable accommodation’ in a way that’s very helpful to us, and we’re all working together to make the outdoors accessible to people who are routinely excluded,” he said.That’s not to say it’s a perfect world out there, and the Forest Service officials in charge of addressing accessibility issues are the first to acknowledge there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”We’re trying to consider that we want to provide a variety of challenges and opportunities,” said Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton. “Just a paved, low-gradient trail is not what everyone is looking for. Every time we work on a project, we’re thinking about this,” he said.”The Forest Service is really progressive in this area,” said Rick Doak, in charge of recreation for the White River National Forest. “We’re incorporating accessibility into all the projects we do.” In fact, the Forest Service just recently updated its outdoor recreation accessibility guidelines in May 2005, trying to balance access with protecting resources and natural settings. In the guidelines, the agency restates its commitment to a policy of “universal design,” which seeks “integration of all people in programs and facilities without segregation.””We’re strongly committed to ensuring that new or reconstructed facilities … are both accessible and appropriate to the setting,” Doak said.Meanwhile, Forest Service officials anticipate that wheelchair technology is likely to change in coming years, and will be able to “travel across narrow, steep terrain and not be dependent on firm and stable surfaces or electrical plug-in recharging.” People using these devices will be able to access primitive areas and will expect to be able to use the facilities when they get there, according to the draft accessibility guidelines currently under discussion.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.comWaning interest in ‘universal design’?Universal design is the watchword for Carol Hunt, a long-time accessibility advocate who helped found a group called Partners for Access to the Woods (PAWS).”It goes back to the 1980s, when we presented an idea to the Vail Rotary about making the outdoors more accessible,” Hunter said. “During that time there was tremendous interest in making public lands more accessible, when accessibility issues were bright and new and shiny. But I’m afraid that interest has waned. We’re back to doing it because we have to,” Hunter said, without faulting public officials, “who have their plates full to overflowing with management challenges.”For now, Hunter’s group has focused all its attention on an ambitious project at Berthoud Pass, where the group hopes to restore the historic 26-mile wagon road, turning it into a proving grounds of sorts for universal design on a grand scale. Along with 20 partners, including the Colorado School of Mines and the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park, Hunter wants to incorporate the latest universal design guidelines and technologies to create an experience that’s accessible for everyone.

On the WebThere are already many areas and trails that are universally accessible. Specific information is available at the following web sites:- http://wildlife.state.co.us/accessibility- http://www.wildernessonwheels.org- http://www.moab-utah.com/rack/disabled.html- http://www.americantrails.org/resources/accessible/FSTAG03.html- http://www.americantrails.org/resources/accessible/index.html