‘Hiking Close to Home’ last week we rode the bus with an intrepid wheel chair user and visited a few of Whidbey Island’s barrier-free trails via foot and wheel.
Maribeth Crandell, Island Transit Mobility Specialist, organized the outing. Her long-time friend, retired state park ranger Jack Hartt joined us. They publish a weekly blog, Hiking Close to Home, and have written an updated book by the same name detailing nearly 70 hikes on Whidbey, Fidalgo and Guemes islands, and beyond.
Maribeth, a former naturalist and hiking guide, has hosted past ‘Walks with Wheels’ library programs for people with kids in strollers, people on bikes, in wheelchairs, or those with mobility challenges. While hosting the popular talks, she received feedback from wheelchair users, saying access was difficult at particular trails. As a result, Maribeth contacted land owners and trail planners to improve accessibility. Jack Hartt is now involved with the Anacortes Community Forest Lands and Skagit Land Trust. He also enjoys photography and enjoys being outdoors.
Meeting at the Coupeville Transit Center, we boarded the bus with Wendy Berta Sines, a self-described “wheel chair user.” Wendy is the manager of the Orca Network’s Langley Whale Center. At our stops, Wendy gamely steered her motorized vehicle over gravel, mud, and hilly terrain.
Our bus driver Joanie Crowther quickly and expertly transported Wendy and her chair aboard the bus via a mechanized ramp. Once on board, Joanie good-naturedly secured Wendy and reversed the process for our exits.
All Island Transit buses are capable of taking at least two wheelchairs, Joanie explained. She gets a number of riders with service dogs as well.
“We have seeing eye dogs and service dogs; as long as it’s a well-behaved service dog, they are welcome,” Joanie explained. Most I’ve seen are amazing.” Joanie recalled seeing the improvement in one rider’s life once he started traveling with a service dog.
While Wendy Sines did not have a service dog, she was met at South Whidbey State Park by Hawkeye, a certified hospital therapy dog owned by Georgia Edwards. Georgia is married to This is Whidbey’s photographer David Welton, and teaches K9 Nosework® classes at South Whidbey Parks and Recreation.
A Bouvier des Flandres dog breed, Hawkeye is trained in nosework and has served as a demo dog at several Seattle Kennel Club shows demonstrating his skills. On her webpage, Georgia writes, “He is the first Bouvier to hold a competitive nosework title awarded by the National Association of Canine Scent Work. He continues his own training, joined by his daughter, Leda, under mentor Miriam Rose.” And, she wrote in an email, “He was one of the national Top Twenty performance dogs in 2018.”
At South Whidbey State Park, Hawkeye posed with Wendy and trotted along side as she navigated the trail. We walked along the old campground road at South Whidbey State Park, which is accessible just left of the restrooms.
As we walked along, Georgia said that Bouviers are used as herding dogs and are ‘very protective’ animals. They are used in service for police work as well. Their breed was used for pulling carts in World War I, and brought over from France following WW II. Walking along a muddy trail next to a motorized wheel chair, the big herding dog was calm.
“Hawkeye is bomb-proof,” Georgia said. “If a tree fell over, he’d say, ‘That’s interesting — now, what are we going to do?’”
After saying goodbye to Georgia and Hawkeye and the old-growth forest, we boarded the bus and headed to South Whidbey Community Park in Langley.
The bus let us off at Maxwelton Road and we walked through tall woods, up and down hill, along gravel paths to exit on Langley Road near the soccer fields.
Maribeth, Jack, Wendy and Joanie then traveled to Oak Harbor to the Waterfront Trail.
“The best trail for wheelchair access that we took with no hills, mostly paved, with accessible restrooms, was the Waterfront Trail in Oak Harbor,” Maribeth wrote in an email. “It’s over a mile long, just off the beach, with picnic sites, playgrounds, and the swimming lagoon, but it’s more of a city park than a nature experience. The west end is in Freund Marsh, which is more natural with packed gravel paths. It can have puddles after rain, but was ideal yesterday (April 1). We took the bus to Harbor Station and crossed the street on a crosswalk to access the trail at Flintstone Park, then turned west.”
Following our adventure, Wendy wrote in an email: “It was such a fun day for me! I have already talked my sister into going with me at South Whidbey State Park, which is just down the road from us, and a good friend wants to go with me this weekend! And thanks for all the offers to be hiking buddies with me (we offered to go out with her). I think my family and friends will feel more comfortable going with me now that they know I’ve tried it out and I had no problems.Thank you all for your kindness!”
Meanwhile, Betsy Arand, who manages the Freeland Library, takes her motorized wheelchair out on our local trails. She mentioned some of her favorites and commented on difficulties of others: “I use a motorized device, not a manual wheelchair, so these experiences are based on that. My favorite accessible South Whidbey trails are at Community Park, Trustland Trails, and Trillium Community Forest. The Price Sculpture Forest in Coupeville is a new and outstanding addition to accessible adventures on Whidbey.
“At Community Park, the Westling Loop, Water Tank Way, and Park Connector to the soccer fields are wide and easy to navigate, as long as it’s not muddy!
“The ADA loop at the Trustland Trails and the Bounty Loop trail at the Trillium Community Forest are both easy to navigate. These trails are not long but provide a peaceful respite in the woods, with Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, alder, huckleberries, and blackberries.
“The first loop (Nature Nurtured) trail at the Price Sculpture Forest in Coupeville is four feet wide and easy to enjoy if using either an electric or manual chair. The second loop (Whimsy Way) is only three feet wide and steeper so is not ADA accessible. It is a real thrill to come around a corner of the trail and discover an amazing piece of sculpture.
“I don’t recommend the new Falcon Loop at Community Park because much of the trail is built on an angle and is covered with crushed rock. This makes it difficult for all of the wheels of a chair (either manual or electric) to make solid contact with the trail’s surface. While technically wide enough, there are many parts of this trail that are not navigable by someone using a chair by themselves as an assistant needs to guide the chair so it does not go off the trail.”
Later, Maribeth posted via email links to the wheel-friendly trails available on the Island Transit website under Visit the Islands. “Everywhere we went is on a regular bus route,” she said. “And riders can contact me if they have questions. My office phone is 360-678-9536 or email at Travel@IslandTransit.org
“These trails are accessible by bus and all Island Transit buses can carry two wheelchairs,” Maribeth added. “We allow service animals onboard as long as they’re well behaved (like Hawkeye) and don’t take up space in the aisle. Jack and I have a book called Hiking Close to Home with a list of wheel-friendly trails and trails accessible by bus.
“I don’t want to mislead people into thinking all of these trails are suitable for all the different types of wheelchairs or mobility challenges. For example, I walk from Freeland County Park on the paved pedestrian path next to Myrtle Avenue up to Payless frequently and there is one spot that has a big dip on one side, not safe for someone in a wheelchair. The ground has shifted and pavement settled. Someone in a wheelchair would have to detour onto the street, or maneuver two wheels onto the grass, hopefully not too dangerous.
“There are 10 wheel-friendly trails in the flyers below, yet some have difficult places in them. And rainy weather can also make them inaccessible.
“Jack’s last blog post mentions a few places on the paved Dunes Trail next to West Beach at Deception Pass State Park that has rough spots due to tree roots. This trail is a mile from the nearest bus stop so it’s not included in the flyers below:”
- Accessible Trails are Best by Bus! (North Whidbey)
- Accessible Trails are Best by Bus! (South Whidbey)