This man is traveling 300 miles by wheelchair to push for more accessible nature trails

This man is traveling 300 miles by wheelchair to push for more accessible nature trails

Ian Mackay considers himself a cyclist and a birder — a nature buff who gets lost on lush trails near his Washington state home for hours every day.

But if popular opinion had its way, many people wouldn’t expect Mackay to be able to pursue this passion. They may even assume he couldn’t truly enjoy the outdoors independently.

That’s because his “cycle” is his power wheelchair, and Mackay is a quadriplegic man.

Using a power wheelchair in nature does have its challenges, and Mackay is the first to admit that. But those challenges don’t inherently stem from Mackay’s disability. He says they’re usually a result of nature trails that are relatively inaccessible to those on wheels — a problem bicyclists and parents with strollers all grapple with, too.

Mackay is advocating for this to change — and he’s using fairly radical means.

The outdoors enthusiast just embarked on a 10-day journey, which started on Aug. 13, that will take him more than 300 miles. Beginning in Victoria, British Columbia, and ending in Portland, Oregon, the route will span the entire length of his home state.

As Mackay puts it, he’s “rolling across Washington” to bring awareness to the need for accessible trails and bike paths. And he’s dubbed the journey Ian’s Ride.

The need for more accessible trails

On June 4, 2008, Mackay was in a bicycling accident at age 26 while traveling a nature trail. He was riding home from college on a familiar path in Santa Cruz, California — but what wasn’t familiar was unexpected patches of sand on the turns of his regularly traveled trail made him slide out and lose control. Mackay went headfirst into a tree.

“I crashed and I broke — I broke my neck,” Mackay, now 34, tells Mashable.

The helmet he was wearing most likely saved his life. But Mackay sustained a spinal cord injury in the accident. The outdoors enthusiast can now shrug his shoulders, but that’s the maximum mobility his body is capable of below the neck.

Mackay travels the Olympic Discovery Trail  in Washington state.
Mackay travels the Olympic Discovery Trail  in Washington state.

Mackay’s passion for nature predates his paralysis. He started to appreciate trails in his 20s, but says he only rekindled his love for the outdoors about two years ago with the help of assistive technology.

Mackay knows he is relatively lucky that accessible trails are abundant near his Washington home. Yet, that access isn’t guaranteed in all places — even in other regions throughout Washington.

“Me and my other paralyzed brothers that live in the greater Washington area — many of us don’t have the luxury of having access to beautiful trails or easy to access paths,” he says. “Much of the time, we are stuck on the sides of roads and highways — and we don’t want to be at risk on the shoulder riding next to big rigs.”

In planning Ian’s Ride, there was one key question facing Mackay: In a ride advocating for more accessible trails, how was he going to ensure his route was actually accessible? Much of the journey, after all, is uncharted territory for the outdoor adventurer.

Mackay says that’s where Washington Bikes, a statewide organization that advocates for more accessible trails in the state, stepped up and had an indelible impact. Historically, the organization hasn’t focused on people with disabilities, but rather cyclists and parents with strollers who also frequent trails. But Mackay’s accessibility needs, he says, perfectly align with those of other nature travelers on wheels.

The organization helped connect Mackay to the cycling community in the greater Washington region. After Mackay put together a proposed plan of his route, he posted it on his blog — and the cycling community took action.

“I got a tremendous amount of emails from cyclists with pictures of roads I wanted to travel and advice like, ‘There’s very little sidewalk. You might want to reconsider,'” he says. “With all of this input, I was able to revise — and now I have the best scenario possible.”

The route for Ian's Ride.
The route for Ian’s Ride.

Though he says the bicycling community has given him a “much more polished, viable route,” the majority of his trip will be on roads and shoulders of small highways. It’s what’s most accessible, Mackay says — and an indicator that the work he’s doing is essential.

“Anywhere I can get on a path or trail, I’m going to be on a path or trail,” Mackay says. “But even me being visible on these roads and highways just highlights what I need more.”

Mackay isn’t going on the trip alone. His mom, Teena, is his “main roadie.” She will be driving the route, providing general caregiving to Mackay during his trek. Mackay will also travel with at least two cyclists the entire time, additionally meeting up with other friends along the way who want to be a part of his journey.

Ian and his mother, Teena.

For the first few days, Mackay plans to go about 40 miles per day. But his power wheelchair, which can travel up to 7 miles per hour, only goes 25 or 30 miles on a single charge of the battery, presenting an obvious problem. To curb the need to charge, Mackay is bringing a second chair to swap mid-day.

“I’ve done 30-mile days, but I’ve never done a 40-mile day,” Mackay says. “It’s going to be a first for me, but I’m ready for it.”

Technology helping to facilitate independence

Since his accident, Mackay says he has grappled with the desire for greater independence — especially when it comes to exploring nature. For the first several years after his accident, he shied away from the outdoors, feeling unable to take advantage of the trails and paths he once frequented due to his disability.

Technology gave him the confidence to reconnect with nature, and it’s a key component of Ian’s Ride.

To drive his power wheelchair, Mackay uses a sip and puff — a straw-like device that is sensitive to air pressure, allowing him to send directional signals to his wheelchair. And while that technology allows Mackay to navigate independently, what really has given him the confidence to explore the outdoors is something people without disabilities use daily — a smartphone.

Mackay gives credit for being able to independently and fearlessly explore nature to Switch Control, a feature released on Apple’s iOS 7 in fall 2013. The feature allows Mackay to navigate his iPhone with a simple switch placed near his mouth, using flicks of his lips to replace finger gestures other users typically rely on.

“Before Switch Control came out, I was very reliant on someone using the phone for me or navigating a GPS for me,” he says.

Now, Mackay can be the main navigator in his everyday outings — and on Ian’s Ride. Over the 300-mile journey, he will control the GPS and be the point person for all his team. And he’ll do it completely hands-free.

Mackay says the importance of technology to people with disabilities while out in nature can not only be life-changing, but also life-saving. And it has been for him.

In summer 2015, Mackay crashed his wheelchair while out on a trail, completely tipping over. The trail was not well-trafficked, and his mouth could not reach the switch needed to activate his phone to alert help. He couldn’t even use the “Hey Siri” option on his iPhone — a command that automatically activates hands-free navigation for iPhone users — because there was not enough service.

Mackay, however, had a back-up option — a tracking app that proved to be essential. When he was gone for a prolonged period without contact, his family knew to activate the app and find him.

“Having that confidence and knowing I can reach my help has allowed me to spend hours out there as long as I have someone on call,” he says. “I now have that feeling of independence again.”

The beginning of accessibility advocacy

Mackay admits that the push for more accessible trails is going to take more than one man on a 10-day mission. He says it’s going to take communities getting more invested in their own trails — and  accessibility at large.

“All of our communities have great spots in nature that are underused,” Mackay says. “To push for accessible trails, we first need to get more activity and traffic on the ones we already have. That gets the conversation started.”

But he also recognizes that sometimes advocacy is most effective through policy. He encourages people around the U.S. to talk to local and state government officials to express a want for more inclusive trails — even if they don’t necessarily need them themselves.

“You know, I enjoy traveling,” Mackay says. “The more people can get out in their communities and advocate for this, the better it is for me — and the better it is for them.”

Even with complex planning and inevitable challenges along the way, Mackay is hopeful his ride will make a tangible impact. And he hopes that impact is felt not only in the Washington disability rights community, but for all people who could benefit from outdoor accessibility nationwide.

Mackay travels on the Olympic Discovery Trail near his home in Washington.

“We’re all in it together — be it the cyclists, the moms with strollers, the joggers. We’re all together out there,” he says. “The more trails out there, the better for everyone.”

To support Mackay throughout his ride, you can visit his blog or donate here. All funds raised, Mackay says, will go toward lodging and other accommodations during his trip. Any additional money will be given to Washington Bikes to aid the organization in making trails more accessible in the state of Washington.

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