In today’s post, Patricia Pyrka and her son Finnan share their 2018 visit to Arrowhead Provincial Park.
When you love the outdoors and have a child in a wheelchair, things tend to get a little more complicated.
So complicated that for the first seven years of my son’s life we never hiked. Winter outings were completely off my radar – try plowing through the snow on big wheels and small, skinny ones!
At some point, he had had enough. I decided that did I want to take my son to nature. He wanted him to experience places he had never been before and to share with him what he loved so much: quiet nature, deep forests, mountain peaks, rugged terrain trails and changing weather conditions.
Find accessible natural spaces
I resolved the impossibility by sheer effort. That is to say: lots of research, advance planning, and really knowing in advance what to expect, including where to go, what to do, and what to avoid.
Germany was really good at that. There was plenty of accessible public transportation to get to almost any trailhead and good infrastructure because people tend to get out a lot. I was able to prepare by looking up hiking trails to find out if it could work for us. Pure effort also meant developing strength for all types of circumstances.
Canada changed all that. It was quite the opposite. Yes, there were many beautiful places to go, but there was almost no way to get there! This was until we found Parkbus, which became our go-to means of getting to the beautiful provincial parks.
Now here was the new challenge: in these new circumstances, we could not choose our destinations. We had to go with the flow, which was wherever Parkbus went. There was no point in doing extensive advanced research. Either we went or we didn’t go.
I adopted a new attitude: the goal of going out was no longer to finish a certain route or do a certain activity, but to simply get there and then discover what was possible. Simply being out and about and out of town became enough.
But there was another, more important lesson in that. We had to accept spontaneous and unplanned help from others. When you have a child with special needs, you tend to anticipate, plan ahead, figure everything out, and take into account any type of eventuality. But taking trips into the unknown meant I could no longer understand everything. When things got tough, I needed to trust that others would be there to lend a hand or come up with different ideas.
Help from Ontario Parks staff
This is where Ontario Parks staff came into play. Far beyond simply covering their tasks, they helped us accomplish things we never expected to be able to do.
There were so many beautiful experiences that the staff helped us with. They let us use their office space when it rained on us, and even offered us Timbits! They transported the wheelchair from the tubing entrance to the exit point and connected us with other campers who could help us carry firewood to our campsite. They were always thinking outside the box, doing everything they could to help us.
Winter took this to another extreme. Parkbus took us to Arrowhead Provincial Park three times.
I had anticipated this trip simply as a way to build a lot of snowmen and get outside for an entire day. But this trip became an important milestone for my son’s physical abilities!
When we first arrived at the park, we started experimenting with what we could do. My son first tried regular cross-country skiing, relying on the poles for balance. It worked, more or less, but it required almost inhuman effort on his part. I took him down the ice trail in a wheelchair and we had a great time flying.
Then someone suggested asking the park staff for a sit-ski. That’s where Collin came in. He made sure the ski was taken from some distant warehouse and brought to the rental cabin. He made sure a missing piece was found and available the next time we got there.
And the third time he prepared a sled for us to skate on the ice rink!
All the park staff supported us and went the extra mile. But Collin had that extra smile and joy in his eyes every time he saw my son using his equipment. I mentioned it to him and expressed my gratitude. Collin said that he really enjoys seeing my son try new things and the enthusiasm he showed for it.
For Collin, it was clearly about more than just doing his job. That’s what made our trip to Arrowhead so memorable and helped us conquer winter, despite the wheelchair and changing weather conditions!
I know that every disability is different and that my son’s ability to get out of his wheelchair gives us options that others may not have.
But in the end, maybe it’s not so much about the details. It’s about the fact that you simply can’t plan for human kindness, generosity, and enthusiasm; Instead, you have to leave room for it. Set the bar low for what you could do in unknown destinations, but set it high for what might be possible. Even if it’s just one more step into the unknown, it’s so much more than staying home.
Many thanks to Parkbus for taking us everywhere and accommodating my son’s special needs, and to the staff at Ontario Parks for their unforgettable experiences!
In Finnan’s words:
“It was good for me to get outdoors because I could be outside and really enjoy the snow. The best thing was that I was able to sit down and ski.
“The park staff was very friendly, especially Collin, because when we arrived he was always super friendly and they always allowed me to sit ski and that was a little difficult, but it was great to try sit skiing.
“And the trips to Arrowhead were really incredibly fun because I got to try sit skiing, which I had never done before.”