Tracy Tabaka looks out at the blue horizons of Lake Superior beyond the Meyers Beach parking area in the Apostle Islands. She smiles, thinking of the freedom she will feel with a paddle in her hands, the wind in her face. She has been dreaming of this moment for years. But that smile fades as she looks down at the 45 steps tumbling down a 23-foot bank to the launching area below and then at her wheelchair. "When I pick up a paddle, I am no more disabled than anyone else," she has said of that moment. "The only real difficulty is all those stairs.”
“All those stairs.”
As someone who has loved national parks, like the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore most of my life, I have always believed that they belong to all of us. Yet for the one in five Americans like Tracy Tabaka who live with mobility challenges, “all those stairs” can spell the difference between the adventure of a lifetime and a lifetime of being left behind. I think it is time we changed that.
Friends of the Apostle Islands, the official philanthropic partner of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore recently announced its “Access for All” initiative aimed at doing just that. The initiative includes supporting the National Park Service in its efforts to build wheelchair accessible boardwalk to the lighthouse on Sand Island, the accessible amphitheater for ranger talks on Stockton Island, even more audio and tactile features on interpretive signs.
But the centerpiece of Access for all is an effort to replace “all those stairs” at the Meyers Beach parking area with a 520-foot 3% grade accessible ramp. Friends is looking to raise $325,000 to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the National Park Service Centennial Fund to help make this a reality and to make the popular kayaking launch area easier to access for everyone. The difference could be lifechanging.
“Trips like this kept me from giving up when I learned of my progressive neurological disorder,” says disabled paddler Annie Hickman. “Paddling the Apostle Islands has been life changing. It shows that I can still do some of the things I love. It is completely restorative even though I am a puddle when I am done.”
Perhaps we can never, and maybe shouldn’t, change how hard the paddling is. It may always leave you “a puddle” when you are done. But let’s not let it be done before it’s even started because of barriers like the steps at the Meyers Beach landing. Let’s make sure that the old saying that national parks belong to all of us is a reality and not just an empty slogan.
n Jeff Rennicke, Executive Director, Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.