Ridge to Rivers Explores How to Make Foothills Trails More Accessible 

The Path of Less Resistance

After a motocross accident let Pat Dougherty paralyzed, he engineered a detachable front wheel to his chair to make rolling in grass, sand and dirt easier. He's sold thousands of his invention, the FreeWheel.

Courtesy of Pat Dougherty

After a motocross accident let Pat Dougherty paralyzed, he engineered a detachable front wheel to his chair to make rolling in grass, sand and dirt easier. He's sold thousands of his invention, the FreeWheel.

Jeremy Maxand is bored of the Boise Greenbelt. He takes his hand bike out occasionally, but gets overwhelmed by the pedestrians, cyclists, kids, dogs, construction and chaos of the paved path along the Boise River. It's not the experience Maxand wants when he gets outside. He wants to get above the city, away from the people, and reach a plateau with a nice view. Maxand wants to get into the Boise Foothills, but he can't.

"Even if you were to get to the trails, the trailheads are impossible," Maxand said. "There are metal gates, and it's those sorts of barriers that took that trail off the map, right at the trailhead."

Maxand is in a wheelchair because of a "totally random neurological thing" called transverse myelitis that developed when he was 14. It's rare and acute, affecting its victims' spinal column. Within a year, Maxand lost the ability to walk.

"That's it. Boom," he said. "But it's all good."

Now, he's executive director of Life's Kitchen (see this week's Citizen) but, in his spare time, he's working with Ridge to Rivers to make the trails in the foothills more accessible. Ridge to Rivers staff is currently drafting its first-ever 10-year management plan for the Boise Foothills, and Maxand wants to make sure trail accessibility is addressed.

So far, he's hosted a meeting with a handful of other chair users to talk about how the foothills trails could change. He sent out an online survey to people with physical disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments and mobility challenges.

He received nearly 50 responses detailing what trails they visit and what kind of changes they'd like to see. The survey showed 65 percent of respondents want to see a trail fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would meet the federal standard for grading, surface material and width. The other 43 percent wanted dirt trails with more challenging slopes, but with adequate width for wheelchairs and hand bikes.

"The survey demonstrates people are using the trail system however it works for them," Maxand said. "There's definitely a need to better incorporate some of these [ADA] ideas."

Maxand said chair users are forced to think about every aspect of a trail before setting out, from the grade of the trail to the surface material.

"Every foot, I'm just like, 'OK, am I going to sink into something? Am I going to get stuck? Go sideways?' You don't know," he said. "Since 1989, I've had to stare at the ground, constantly stressed out about hitting something and eating shit."

Adapting the trails to be more accessible is a challenge, but Ridge to Rivers Program Coordinator David Gordon is ready for it. His crew has been talking for years about doing a better job of providing opportunities for everyone.

Gordon said it's not possible to widen many of the single-track trails in the foothills, but he already has some possible loops in mind. They would be wide, gentle and covered in an all-weather compacting road mix that provides a better surface for wheelchairs.

He's already identified possibilities in Lower Hulls Gulch, Castle Rock Reserve, Harrison Hollow and Military Reserve.

"The adaptive community is much like the rest of the trail community," Gordon said. "They're looking for a wide range of experiences. Then there are people like Pat who are out there, getting on trails you would never expect someone with a physical challenge to be able to do."

Gordon is talking about Pat Dougherty, who suffered a motocross crash in 2003 and became quadriplegic. Dougherty was angry when he could barely push his wheelchair through the grass in his backyard to play with his kids. Being an engineer from the University of Idaho, he took apart an old bike frame with the help of a friend and crafted the FreeWheel.

The FreeWheel attaches to the front of a wheelchair, not unlike a jogging stroller. It creates stability and lifts the small wheels off the ground, so they don't get stuck in grass, sand or dirt.

"It's life-changing," Maxand said. "This thing, you can pop it on and off and you can go crazy anywhere. Beaches, grass, snow, ice, rocks. Imagine 10 years of wearing high heels and somebody says, 'Hey, try these mountain boots on.'"

Dougherty has sold thousands of his invention in more than 40 countries. They start at $600 and can be ordered online or purchased at medical supply stores like Norco.

After his wreck, Dougherty had no interest in giving up on the foothills. Using a custom arm-powered mountain bike, he cranks his way up trails like Kestrel and Crestline in Hulls Gulch. He bikes all over Blaine and Valley counties.

"I'm a stubborn SOB and I'm going to find a way to ride no matter what," Dougherty said. "I really enjoy finding out if I can do these trails or not."

Dougherty runs into the same problems as Maxand. Trailhead gates are just a few inches too narrow, or trails are narrow and steep and off camber.

"I'm not going to kid ya'," he said, "I've rolled down the mountain on my head a few times."

Like Maxand, Dougherty is excited to help the city find ways to make trails more accessible. Gordon said he hopes to have at least one accessible trail completed in the next two years.

In the meantime, it's about looking at current trails and identifying opportunities to overlay ADA characteristics. Maxand calls it an "experiment." For anyone who wants in on it, he encourages them to email him at jmaxand@hotmail.com.

"Every step is just a step through the dark," Maxand said. "I'm just glad Ridge to Rivers is willing to include this stuff in the management plan. That's a huge win."

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