Aug 262023
Wheeling Sea to Sound, Day Two

A longer, harder day, and a new perspective from which to view a trail: That was Day Two.

Photo showing a closeup selfie face of a white woman with light hair wearing glasses and a blue tanktop dress. In the background, two riders on bicycles, and a white man with dark hair and a bear in a wheelchair wearing light blue jeans and a white patterned shirt.

Longer and harder meant 27 miles with a lot more climbing. That’s where Zelda the e-bike shines, though. Both yesterday and today before, during, and after the steep parts more than one person said some version of, “Maybe I’ll get an e-bike.”

Screen print images showing a map marked in red from a point west of Port Angeles heading east to Sequim. Below that, a topographical map shows a lot of steep climbs, a drop down to a fairly flat segment just above sea level, then a lot more elevation gain with some ups and downs.

That flattish part in the map above just a touch above sea level? That’s the Olympic Discovery Trail through Port Angeles running right along the water, which was almost the same blue as the sky. I would have gazed at it more except that this portion was also when I used a power wheelchair operated with a joystick for five miles. Might have gone more smoothly had I been more of a video game player in my youth; I did end up off the side of the trail at one point and kind helpers got the chair back where it was supposed to be.

I got pro tips from coach Ian Mackay, who pointed out that I was hugging the right edge of the trail to let people pass me. This put me in the area with more dips and cracks, frequently with a bit of a tilt because the crowning of the trail designed to shed water creates an angled slope to the sides. Hugging the edge also put me closer to that leafy green edge with the squishy dirt.

When I talk to people about biking on a street with drivers I tell them to take the lane: to position themselves where the driver can see them and where they run less risk of dealing with grates, debris, flung-open car doors, and other hazards instead of hugging the curb and then abruptly popping out to get around a parked car. I was exhibiting the trail version of that “gutter bunny” behavior when instead I needed to take the lane.

I realize now that I was avoiding taking up space. Is this something our designs and reactions signal as implicit expectations of people with disabilities? “Don’t take up too much space” instead of “Does this design provide enough space for everyone to be comfortable?”. I’m thinking now of the woman on a bike near the beginning of today’s ride, not one of the participants, who rode into a crowd of people on bikes and using wheelchairs calling out “On your left! Let a rider by!” as if only her passage mattered. She essentially brought her “car head” onto the trail.

Some of my takeaways from my time in the chair:

  • Maintenance matters! Root heaves, potholes, and gravel patches from washouts all rattled me.
  • Preservation also matters; the smooth new surfaces of rebuilt segments were such a treat after segments of old buzzy chipseal, and I navigated more confidently. I talked with someone about the effects of rougher surfaces on the chair, and the way many wheelchair designers have assumed that someone in a chair doesn’t need extended battery life or a more ruggedized chair.
  • Trail width and slope matter. In narrower sections of the trail as I avoided the side if it sloped or had potholes and used the center, I effectively kept others from passing unless they wanted to navigate a fairly skinny passing zone. The tilting effect was uncomfortable in a power chair; if I’d been in a manual chair it would have created an uneven workload for my muscles that would translate into pains and strains over time. To be fair to the trail designers, this isn’t a steep camber that shows up everywhere; I just noticed whenever I started to tilt. But just as design engineers think about shedding water, they also have to design for the needs of the people on that slanted surface. It’s much more visceral feeling a tilt in the chair than it would be with a vehicle around me, and on my bike I likely wouldn’t have experienced a tilt at all; I’d pick my line of travel and the gyroscopic effect would carry me through before I could notice it.
  • I’d watched the participants in the ride navigate parking their equipment skillfully on the shuttle, efficiently packing 4 chairs into a tight space, and was very glad I didn’t have to deal with parallel parking.
  • The first part of the ride when I was on my bike had taken me on sidewalks crowded by light poles, with curb cuts angled out toward the center of the intersections. I was very glad I was using the chair on the trail, away from vehicular traffic and substandard accessibility designs. The trail absolutely represented freedom from constraints found everywhere else.
  • People far more skilled than I in operating a chair were kind and helpful and boy, do they know their gear. Suspension, arm rests, control types, screen interface settings, whether you have a place to hang your stuff. . . . It felt like conversations among bike people I’ve listened to, with a lot more to consider about the constraints on what’s available because this makes the difference in being able to navigate the world around them.

To be clear, five miles in a chair doesn’t give me anything like the lived experience of someone who uses one every day. There was a reason the back of my chair had a sign reading “Student Driver.” I’m glad Ian invited me to have this learning experience.

As for the rest of the ride, a beautiful day all around, with that balmy late August feeling in the air (and a touch of smoke). We started the ride under the Elwha River Bridge with eagles soaring overhead. Volunteers plied us with snacks at every stop and we enjoyed live music and local ice cream from Welly’s at lunch. Our route took us through forest lands, along the water, through fields of hay, and along US101 in a few places. Sure appreciated being on the trail and not on the shoulder.

The pictures don’t begin to do justice to the diversity of people, bodies, wheeled devices, and beautiful scenes along the way.

Updated to add the Day Two video and photo gallery produced by Jesse Major.

Sharing is karma--pass it along!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.