Outdoor Access for All

Jeffrey KemnitzNPF Blog
Group of adults with developmental disabilities smiling in front of Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile

The morning drizzle broke as I sat at a picnic shelter on Indiana’s Lake George, eating lunch with a group of adults with developmental disabilities from a Search, Inc. home. We would take them out canoeing soon, and everyone was hoping not to wear ponchos.

I ate a hot hoagie with an older guy named Michael. He was mostly non-verbal, but he was set on showing me everything his iPod mini could do. Some of his friends would tell me what he liked to do (dance), what he liked to eat (pizza), what he was for Halloween last year (a cowboy). I grinned at the thought of Michael in a 10-gallon hat.

As part of its longstanding social mission to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to live their fullest lives, Toad&Co, an outdoor lifestyle apparel brand, provided the National Park Foundation with a generous grant to help Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile connect 1,000 adults with disabilities to public lands and waterways in 10 cities across the country: San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago.

The Lake George shore was abuzz with conversation and excitement as partners from Toad&Co, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and Dunes Learning Center had come out to paddle 24-foot Voyageur canoes with the folks from Search, Inc.

“It’s time to paddle!” The buzz turned to silence and nervousness and many folks were hesitant to get their lifejackets on. We warmed up the crowd with some ice-breaker games, and soon everyone was shouting and laughing and ready to canoe.

Group of adults happily paddling at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry

After I helped Michael adjust his lifejacket and demonstrated how to hold the paddle, we headed down to the dock and into the canoe together. As I sat by Michael’s side, I noticed he enjoyed paddling backward or not at all. Yet, because the big canoes fit 10 paddlers each, people can still be immersed in the experience without having to paddle.

Even though Michael didn’t talk much, we were able to connect with each other by pointing out the flowering lily pads, counting the turtles sunning on logs, and watching the beautiful red-tailed hawk circling us overhead.

Man standing on dock next to wheelchair with group paddling in a canoe in lake
Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry

There was a moment when we got in a tight spot. One side of the boat had to paddle backward and the other forward. Our boat captain recognized that Michael only wanted to paddle backward, and she made sure his was the backward-paddling side. It was a great reminder that there are ways to get everyone involved, regardless of ability.

Lake George isn’t wilderness. It’s in a post-industrial and economically challenged part of Northwest Indiana close to Chicago. Despite that, it’s a small oasis of nature and a valuable ecological asset to the community. Dunes Learning Center and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore are pioneers in community engagement, extending their programs out into the community in order to provide access to recreation and foster environmental stewardship.

Staff cheering on woman with walker in poncho at Indiana Dunes Learning Center
Rose Conry, Wilderness Inquiry

Such innovative programming was on display that day. Here was a group of people who don’t always have the opportunity to participate in outdoor adventure or other aspects of community life. Staff from the group home were admittedly hesitant to get their clients – of very diverse ability levels and function – into canoes. “You want us to do what?” they asked. This was going to be a stretch, but they were excited by the challenge.

In the end, nearly everyone was out on the water, smiles evident in mid-afternoon sun. Toad&Co and the National Park Foundation are making it possible for individuals of all abilities to get outside, but the impact is so much bigger than that. There are social barriers for people with developmental disabilities: on the job, on public transit, in the activities of daily life. Getting people out in canoes on public lands is about stretching comfort zones, building confidence and engaging differently with their community.

Diverse group of adults with developmental disabilities in canoe smiling at camera
Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry

This was the first time in a canoe for Michael and his friends. Thanks to the National Park Service Access Pass, they and other Americans with disabilities are able to go to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, free of charge. For more information on how to claim an Access Pass, visit its website. These are our lands, accessible to all.

For updates on the Canoemobile’s whereabouts and tour schedule, read Toad&Co’s blog. Tell us about your Canoemobile or national park experience and share your photos with the hashtags #FINDYOURPARK and #ENCUENTRATUPARQUE!

Last updated October 13, 2016.

As outreach director for Wilderness Inquiry, Jeffrey works to ensure all people have opportunities to play, learn, camp, explore and discover their strengths in the outdoors. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and two young boys who enjoy long walks in the woods. 


What an incredible program.
That was a very fun and rewarding day. Including everyone in the adventure is where it's at. We're all in this boat together!

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