Under the brilliant blue skies of mid-March, an exuberant group of skiers gracefully carved turns through 30 inches of fresh powder on Buffalo Mountain in Colorado’s Routt National Forest. Nine of them, paralyzed from the waist down, did it on sit skis. Two were blind. Several used outrigger skis in place of missing limbs.
Adaptive adventure-travel writer and accessibility consultant
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Writing adventure-travel guides for disabled hikers, bikers, boaters, campers, paragliders ...
"(Accessibility) could always be happening faster. I’m just happy it’s happening at all. There are a lot of places we can go. "
For organizer Craig Kennedy, who gets around in a wheelchair when he’s not plummeting down mountains on his sit ski, it was just the kind of epic backcountry experience he wants all disabled people to be able to enjoy.
Kennedy grew up hiking, fishing and skiing in the Adirondacks, eventually moving West in search of the Rocky Mountain "ski life." He found it in Steamboat Springs, but his course was forever altered on a March day 10 years ago, when he launched off a ski run and ended up in a hospital bed with a broken back.
Permanently confined to a wheelchair, Kennedy was determined to keep his adventurous ski-town groove. First, he taught himself to ski in a ski chair. Then, his passion for travel led him to write about the rapidly expanding opportunities for disabled, or adaptive, travel, from wilderness horseback rides to African safaris. He published a groundbreaking Colorado adaptive-travel guide last year. His second guide, due out in 2007, features about 50 sports, from paragliding, to downhill mountain biking and sailing, to kayaking, rafting and fishing.
Kennedy doesn’t let his wheelchair keep him from much. "Many times we have pushed, pulled or carried Craig into a place that may have been inaccessible," says friend Nate Grant. "To me, his allowing people to assist him in these situations without any damage to his ego is one of his greatest assets. Over the last few years Craig has seen these locations that are inaccessible as an opportunity rather than a barrier."
Kennedy’s "go anywhere, do anything" attitude appears to be spreading. Open Doors Organization, an advocacy group for disability consumer opportunities, estimates that people with disabilities spend $13.6 billion taking almost 32 million trips each year. "The industry’s getting ready to explode," Kennedy says, thanks in part to new gear. Wheelchairs have advanced from unwieldy wooden devices to carbon fiber or titanium machines that resemble mountain bikes and can tackle rugged trails. Kayaks, horseback riding gear, and ski equipment for adaptive users have undergone similar evolutions.
These advances will bring a whole new group of people onto the West’s public lands, says Kennedy, and along with them a new collective voice. People with disabilities are poised to shake up discussions about public-land recreation and wilderness designation.
The new wave of recreation also raises its own questions, concedes Kennedy. This is where his fervor for breaking down boundaries reaches its limit. Unlike some activists, Kennedy is not troubled that most designated wilderness areas are a struggle for him to reach. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows wheelchairs in wilderness, but doesn’t require specifically accessible trails. Kennedy says this compromise is fine: He doubts the wisdom of fighting to get people into pristine wilderness areas at all costs.
As the adaptive adventure-travel industry booms, Kennedy says outdoor enthusiasts with disabilities will have new, and different, input about how public lands are managed. For some, like Kennedy, it’s about getting back to places they enjoyed before a life-altering accident; for others, it’s about exploring new territory. "We don’t want people (with disabilities) to just travel. We want them to go out and do the things they want to do."