Trail Mix — The Wilderness Made Accessible

Circa 2010-11

New York’s Adirondack Park is a six-million acre wonderland for those who love the outdoors. The largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, it attracts hikers and bikers, as well as folks who fish, bird, golf and gallop. But if you’re blind or deaf or use a wheelchair, you may have a tough time getting in on the fun. That’s what prompted Joel N. Schadt to create hiking trails that cater to all levels of ability.

“I’ve worked with people who are developmentally disabled all my life,” says Schadt, a 21 year-old student at Paul Smith’s College in Franklyn County, NY. “It’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

Schadt was inspired by his brother, Matt, 25, who has cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities that his family attributes to a bad batch of vaccine during Matt’s infancy.

“Matt’s always in the back of my mind,” Schadt said. “I want to be able to hire my brother and everybody else like him who is stuck working at a fast food place. If Matt doesn’t work, he doesn’t get Medicaid, so it’s a vicious circle.”

When Schadt was charged with completing a 400-hour externship as a condition of his May 2011 graduation, he homed in on a project that would provide three hiking trails that Matt, and anybody else, could use.

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Schadt had a tough road to plow: dead trees, falling fences and swampy pathways made the 15-year-old south Franklyn County trail system resistant to overhaul. So Schadt, a Recreation and Adventure Travel Ecotourism student, enlisted help from the staff and participants at the adjacent North Star day treatment program, whom he had intended to use the trails in the first place. Clients of North Star—who may be deaf, non ambulatory, mentally ill, have low or no sight, or face behavioral challenges— were all recruited as volunteers on the project.

Schadt began by talking to the North Star team members about what kinds of things they wanted and needed in a trail. With this information he created Red, Green and Blue accessibility levels. Of the three categories, Blue is most accessible, allowing navigation by wheelchair.

Along the Green path, Schadt derooted and destumped trees to make the way smooth. He put wood chips down to absorb soppy moisture. The Green trail spoke to the needs of those who have challenges lifting their feet, or who experience difficulties with hand-eye coordination and balance.

Red—the most challenging of all—left roots and stumps intact and dipped up and down hills, giving hikers what Schadt called “a taste of a typical Adirondack trail.”

Though Schadt completed three trails over a span of five or six acres, the cost of his project was minimal, thanks to donations that included 18 tons of crushed stone, a gas-powered tamper to set the stone into place, lumber for fences and benches, and two trailers full of wood chips. Schadt recycled or reused everything he could. Some tools that were broken during the project were even used to make railings.

“For anything I couldn’t do or didn’t know how to do,” Schadt said, “I got people to help.” A friend of Schadt’s, well-versed in ecology, taught him that hard woods (such as cedar, maple, and birch) are best for construction of benches and fencing because they would last longer—or because, as Schadt put it, “we’d get more bang for the buck.” Soft woods were used to line the side of the trails and to make posts for the signs. A horticulturist also donated his services to teach the project’s participants about forest cycles.

A stickler for details, Schadt made every effort to build sensory components into each of the trails. Interpretive signs along the routes allow hikers to identify animals, herbs and plants as they move forward. Visitors to the trails can break into teams, competing to determine which group can pick out the most specimens. The trails also provide ideal posts for watching or listening to birds.

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Just outside the North Star center, Schadt and his volunteer crew built a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot deck on which the staff can socialize. If tackling a challenging behavior issue, staff can take a client on a walk, allowing him or her to cool down and regain a level head. Picnic tables are available for lunch al fresco, and grounds are ideal for dog-walking. Schadt notes that during winter months, the area is wide and flat enough for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

“This was the best job I’ve ever had,” Schadt said. “I’m already looking into disability-related organizations I can work with when I graduate this May. I want to take people out on adventures, and expand their opportunities and experiences.”

The Joel N. Schadt Interpretative Trail took Joel N. Schadt about three months to complete. As summer ended, Schadt’s volunteers and donors joined North Star employees and community members at large for a celebratory ribbon-cutting in the woods, where everyone snacked on Kool-Aid and cookies as Schadt spoke a few words about his passion for the project.

Afterwards, Schadt’s guests checked the sign that greeted them at the entrance, selected a trail, and enjoyed some of the best the Adirondacks have to offer.

by Pamela K. Johnson

Joel Schadt’s favorite websites:

Developers of New Hampshire’s first accessible trail in mountain terrain.

Outdoor adventures for those who never thought such things were possible.

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