Jan 5, 2017

The Door is Open

By: Barb Car

There are over 500,000 people in Wisconsin that have a disability that affects their ability to participate in outdoor activities. More innovative equipment is developed each year and the opportunities for success on the ice is at an all time high. The demographic of the modern day ice angler continues to be more inclusive, and the disabled are part of that list.   

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in an increase in veterans that are now in wheelchairs. If you are a hunter or angler and are active on social media, you probably have seen or heard of various organizations that take disabled vets fishing.  Veteran or not, the numbers of disabled hunters and anglers is on the rise. Support systems are in place to help with organized outings, networking and creating opportunities for more outdoor activities. 

I spoke to John Martinson, who had an accident in 2002 that left him paralyzed from his chest down.  Before his accident, John had been an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed hunting and fishing. While still in the hospital, he was contacted by a mentor from Rock Creek Disabled Outdoors. https://www.facebook.com/RockCreekDisabledOutdoors. John said that having a mentor to help him learn new ways to do things was invaluable. John is an avid ice angler and is able to access frozen lakes with his Wilcraft. The Wilcraft is an amphibious vehicle designed for ice fishing.  It is maneuvered with a joystick and has 12-inch clearance. There are holes in the floor and a cover, so John never has to get in or out of the vehicle. 

The development of an all terrain wheelchair has also created access and independence to the great outdoors. The Action Track Chair, http://www.actiontrackchair.com, comes both in a stand up and sit down model. These track chairs are able to navigate rugged terrain which allows the operator to hunt, fish, hike, or explore the outdoors without needing assistance.  Chad Hermanson, a local dealer for Action Track Chair said that maneuvering on the ice with a traditional wheelchair is almost impossible. The all terrain chair allows people to ice fish independently and opens a whole new world of opportunity. The chairs are somewhat expensive, but there are organizations that provide loaner chairs at no cost. Access Ability Wisconsin, http://www.accessabilitywi.org, has several loaner chairs available. Chairs are brought to many organized activities. People can reserve a chair for hunting or fishing trips and additional chairs were recently added to the fleet.

Ice fishing poses additional challenges for paralyzed individuals. The cold weather can be dangerous because of the difficulty to monitor the body temperature, especially in the feet. Being able to stay warm is critical.  Two years ago, the President of Clam Corporation, Steve Gertzen, was working the St Paul Ice Show and was approached by a disabled veteran. The man was in a wheelchair and said he loved to ice fish but found it difficult to get into a hub shack. Traditional hub shack doors zip open and there is a 4 - 8 inch rise requiring a step to enter.  Steve thought about it, and worked with his team to solve the problem. The answer was the Clam Bigfoot XL6000T Garage Ice Fishing Shelter. The shelter has 112 square feet of fishable space, big enough for an Action Track chair and the entire family. The door on the end opens completely, allowing entry with no step. The shack could also be used as a garage to park an ATV or snowmobile to get it out of the wind and frigid temperatures. 

For the last two years, I have been part of the Women Ice Angler Project, which is a media event to promote Women Ice Anglers. This year, Ashlee Lundvall has joined the team. Ashlee was in a paralyzing ranching accident when she was 16 years old and has been using a wheelchair ever since. She is the author of the book, A Redefined Life: Lessons from a Pitchfork. Ashlee has many accomplishments, some of which include a TedX talk presenter, an NRA Disabled Shooting Sports Committee Member, a writer for several outdoor publications, and even a former Ms. Wheelchair USA. Ashlee loves to hunt, camp, kayak, fly fish, and we hope she is able to add ice fishing to that list. She is a motivational speaker and mentors newly injured patients and their families. Ashlee is a valuable resource to the outdoor industry and can provide valuable feedback to companies looking to meet the needs of the disabled outdoors person. Be sure to follow the Women Ice Angler Project on facebook, and you will see videos and footage of the Action Track Chair in use. https://www.facebook.com/womeniceanglerproject/

The technological advancements in the fishing industry have eliminated some of the barriers that people with disabilities face. One product is a motor driven fishing reel that was created by M- Pow-R Fishing LLC, http://www.mpowrfishing.com.   The reel runs on a battery and is designed to assist anglers in retrieving lures and landing fish. It can handle up to 3 pounds, and more if the angler pumps the rod while bringing it in. The reel is activated by a thumb button and can be used for open water or ice fishing. Another company, Adaptive Outdoorsman, is making adaptations to the reels, and other outdoor gear, which will allow it to be operated by a puff of air. http://adaptiveoutdoorsman.com . In addition to retail products, many people are finding ways to adapt their own equipment. 

A common theme that comes up is how important mentors and support systems are. From my experience in the world of women fishing, many women have found an “aha” moment when they see other women succeed. They feel, “If she can do it, I can do it.”  The same philosophy applies to the disabled. Being connected to similar people is beneficial for a variety of reasons. There is an online magazine called, Able Outdoors that is a great information source for everything outdoors. The web site, www.ableoutdoors.net has information about adaptive equipment, outdoor activities, lists available resources and stories are shared about outdoor adventures. 

Regardless of your disability, resources are available to help you enjoy the thrill of the catch. Hunting, fishing, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors can enrich lives and create opportunities for adventure, no matter who you are or what challenges you face.