Wheelchair users seek outdoor adventures.
By Peter Madsen
From local trails to the Grand Canyon, two Central Oregon residents pursue ways to explore
Jabe Couch rode his electric wheelchair down a familiar path near Lava Butte. A couple inches of fresh snow caked his wheels, making his stroll a little tougher. He wasn’t troubled, though.
“It was super doable, and I had a blast,” Couch said.
Even though multiple sclerosis stripped Couch of his ability to use his legs in 2014, such outings have become essential for the La Pine resident, who was diagnosed with the condition when he was 24.
“I like being out in the woods. (Becoming paralyzed) is definitely a life-changing thing,” said Couch, 38. “When I get out there, it’s kind of a church for me. I don’t go to church; I go out to the woods.”
Around 2.2 percent of Americans are day-to-day wheelchair users, according to the nonprofit Disability Rights Oregon. Couch is one of an estimated 4,400 wheelchair users in Central Oregon, according to the organization. As many wheelchair users will say, being unable to use their legs does not remove a person’s sense of adventure or desire to experience the outdoors, and the world, as others do.
Before Couch became paralyzed, he enjoyed a career in forestry and loved hunting deer and elk. Now, Couch is happy he can still fish. Even rolling through the woods and cleaning up a messy campsite is a good way to spend an afternoon.
“I never had an inside job. To ask me to sit inside on a powered chair inside my home — that doesn’t work,” he said. Couch frequently drives his retro-fitted van to various outdoors destinations. He’s in the process of transitioning from his 450-pound electric-powered chair — to a manual wheelchair — called the GRIT Freedom Chair. It would weigh about 47 pounds and allow him to roll off-road. Because Medicare doesn’t cover off-road wheelchairs, he’s begun a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the off-road, knobby-tire, arm-propelled chair.
“You get up there, especially in the desert, mountains — it doesn’t really matter where you are so long as it’s not paved. Which is odd because if you’re in a wheelchair, pavement is really friendly. But sometimes it gets old. It’s hard to explain,” said Couch.
In the meantime, Couch gets outside at least three times a week during the winter. The cold drains his electric chair’s battery, however. Summer heat does the same, and getting stranded somewhere is a danger Couch takes seriously.
“During the summer, I just don’t go inside,” Couch said. “Powered wheelchairs are very indoor things. They’re not made for outdoors. If I’m out in the woods, I want to use my body to propel myself,” Couch said. “My upper body is fine; my lower body is pretty well destroyed. So, as long as I have (the right) wheelchair I can get there.”
‘Innate, immeasurable value’
The importance for those with mobility issues to get outside isn’t lost on Pat Addabbo, the executive director of Oregon Adaptive Sports. The nonprofit helps those with disabilities do just that. Each year, OAS helps more than 400 individuals with disabilities throughout Oregon have nearly 1,500 outdoor experiences.
“Sometimes (being outdoors) is more than just the exercise,” Addabbo said. “In a very general sense, being outside … takes people who have impairments or challenges from surviving to thriving. Being outside provides them healthy exercise, fresh air, a reason to want to stay active, be fit and engage in the rest of their lives.”
Nineteenth century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson would agree.
In his 1836 essay “Nature”, Emerson wrote: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.”
“There is an innate, immeasurable value to being outside,” Addabbo said.
Couch said rolling among the ponderosa pines that surround his rural home is like an antidepressant.
“I don’t think anyone comes back from hiking feeling depressed or bad for themselves,” Couch said. “And losing your legs is probably one of the most depressing things you could go through. But if you get out there and do some work, make (the forest) look pretty in one little place, that’s what makes it OK.”
A variety of equipment on the market allows people with disabilities to get into the woods, lakes or mountains, Addabbo said. The challenge, he added, is that the equipment is often cost-prohibitive for individuals. They often need support or access to programs like OAS to use equipment to unlock the outdoors. And then there is learning how to use the gear, whether it’s an arm-powered, off-road wheelchair or a sit ski.
“For individuals with ability impairments or neurological impairments like MS, just getting in and out of a piece of equipment can be a big part of the learning curve, not to mention getting out onto the trails or onto the mountain,” Addabbo said.
Couch is hoping to raise about $5,500 for the GRIT Freedom Chair before a scheduled trip to the Oregon Coast. With the off-road chair, Couch would be able to ride along the packed sand on the beach.
“I think every human being knows that connectivity to nature, that feeling,” Couch said. “And it’s not different for us.”
Geoff Babb hasn’t let two strokes exclude him from outdoors adventures.
“I always spend as much time outside as I can,” said Babb, 60, a Bend resident who grew up exploring his native Columbia Gorge. “I get my strength and inspiration by being in the mountains.”
Having experienced his second brainstem stroke in November, Babb recently returned home after a three-month stay in the hospital. He suffered his first brainstem stroke in 2005.
“I had to find new ways to get outside,” Babb said. “My family has been really helpful and supportive of me. A big part of my well-being is being outside.”
Babb’s challenge has been to find a wheelchair that helps him get outside and “explore the mountains.”
In 2016, Babb set his sights on exploring the Grand Canyon; he realized he needed a modified, off-road wheelchair when he found that riding a mule wasn’t practical.
“The trail is a long, steep trail,” Babb said.
He needed a wheelchair that would be easier for teams to pull and push than conventional wheelchairs.
Babb teamed up with local designers Dale Newbauer and David Taylor. They came up with a prototype they call the AdvenChair with which Babb returned to the Grand Canyon with the help of friends and family, Babb said. However, the axle wasn’t strong enough.
“That’s the best thing that could have happened. It led us to different frame designs that are more based on mountain bikes,” Babb said. “We’ll have a much stronger chair than we would have before.”
The latest design that Babb, Newbauer and newcomer Jack Arnold have come up with features harnesses that connect the wheelchair’s frame to the waists of pullers. Ergonomic mountain bike handlebars mounted behind the chair make it easier for an aid to push; levers activate the chair’s disc brakes. Babb, along with friends and family, took the wheelchair for a test ride at Mt. Bachelor last summer. He likens the off-road wheelchair design to “a sit ski with wheels than a beefed-up wheelchair.” He hopes to have a small fleet of prototypes, which local fabricators will piece together, to test on trails this summer. Their price will range from $5,000 to $6,000 and weigh 40 pounds. Babb and his team aim to have the off-road chairs on the market by 2019.
“That the wheelchair is not powered by the person in the chair gives the advantage that it can go places that other chairs can’t,” Babb said. “We want people to explore and experience the wild there is around here as well as around the country.”
While his off-road wheelchair design takes up much of Babb’s head space, Babb, who is also an OAS board member, said he’s been hankering for a sit-ski session all year, which would mark his 10th season. A lifelong nordic skier before his stroke, Babb didn’t glide on the same patches of snow as his twin sons, Emory and Cory Babb, 25, who prefer snowboarding. But now that their father sit skis, the three take runs down alpine slopes together. In doing so, Babb realized that maybe nordic skiing isn’t that much fun after all.
“I enjoy going downhill fast a little bit more,” Babb said.