State Parks Becoming Ever More Accessible To The Disabled


Steve Fagin
Rick Deluca of Colchester says spending time outdoors is the best therapy.


Steve Fagin
Trees form a canopy over the Air Line Rail Trail in Hebron as Rick DeLuca passes in his wheelchair.


By STEVE FAGIN
Day Staff Columnist
Published on 7/6/2003

Like most outdoor enthusiasts preparing to hit the trail, Rick DeLuca checks the weather forecast, studies maps and plans a route that will take him past scenic natural attractions.

But DeLuca, paraplegic since a 1989 diving accident, also makes sure the path is smooth and solid enough for his 250-pound motorized wheelchair.

"The last thing I need is to get stuck in mud," DeLuca says while wheeling along one of his favorite byways, the Air Line Rail Trail, a 50-mile-long converted railroad bed that winds through 11 towns in eastern Connecticut.

"A lot of people give up after a spinal cord injury," says DeLuca, 43, of Colchester. "But life doesn't have to end. Just pack your van, get out to a trail, take a breath of fresh air and say, 'This is great!'"

Happily, DeLuca and others with disabilities have a growing number of opportunities to experience the outdoors in Connecticut, thanks to laws requiring improved accessibility and to the innovative efforts of recreation advocates.

"We strive to make all our facilities available for everyone," Pamela Adams, director of state parks, says in a telephone interview. "We want to make all people feel welcome everywhere."

She noted that virtually all picnic areas and campgrounds at state parks have been modified for handicapped accessibility, and many - including Bluff Point and Haley Farm in Groton, Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Hammonassett in Madison, Kettletown in Southbury and Stratton Brook in Simsbury - have trails that can accommodate wheelchairs.

In fact, Adams noted, special beach wheelchairs are available free on a first-come, first-served basis at Rocky Neck and Hammonassett.

Other trails suitable for wheelchairs include sections at Hop River in Bolton, Hopeville Pond in Griswold and the rhododendron sanctuary at Pachaug State Forest in Griswold, she said.

Another path modified for handicapped access is a section of the fabled Appalachian Trail, which cuts through a corner of northwestern Connecticut.

This segment, in the rural town of Falls Village alongside the Housatonic River, was the brainchild of Dick Blake, a longtime trailblazer who is mindful of what the historic path represents.

"The AT is supposed to be a wilderness trail," Blake says of the path that stretches 2,150 miles from Georgia to Maine. But the Falls Village section "is a rare spot in which we were able to maintain the character of the trail and still make it handicapped accessible."

Once the site of a failed industrial development in the early 1800s and then a harness racing track, the Falls Village section already had been relatively flat, smooth and hard-packed. Blake and other volunteers covered tree roots, filled in holes, re-routed water to eliminate muddy stretches, raised a bridge, and also built 19 rest stops. The accessible section can be followed as either a long loop, measuring about a mile, or a short loop of about a half-mile, and includes a nature trail maintained by Northeast Utilities.

Today, at age 84, Blake continues to help maintain the trail and, the other day, was preparing to bring his chain saw to the site to remove a fallen tree limb.

The trail is used not just by people in wheelchairs, but also by hikers, bicyclists, runners, parents pushing strollers, toddlers and elderly walkers.

This also is the case at the Air Line Rail Trail, originally built more than 100 years ago as a train route between Boston and New York and now among about 1,000 former railroad beds measuring some 10,000 miles in America converted for recreational use.

While DeLuca was rolling along through a section off Route 85 in Hebron, other trail-users pedaled, strolled and jogged past.

Also on or near the trail that sunny afternoon were a turtle, several chipmunks, squirrels, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds and a furry animal, either a woodchuck or a beaver, that darted into the bushes before it could be identified.

Being able to enjoy nature has been a significant part of his rehabilitation, DeLuca says.

At the time of his accident 14 years ago, he was a 28-year-old construction worker on vacation in the Bahamas.

"I was very active, always doing things outdoors," he says.

Then DeLuca ran into the water from a beach, dove headlong and struck his head on a sandbar, sustaining severe vertebrae and spinal cord damage.

In a split second, "My whole life was turned around," he says. Months of therapy helped him regain some mobility, and today, though DeLuca cannot use his legs and has limited use of his arms and hands, he is far from inactive.

DeLuca drives a modified van, goes on outings with his wife and four children - triplet daughters, 9, and a son, 6 - and has a job as a peer technology counselor with the Norwich-based Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut.

In this capacity, he helps others with disabilities learn to live independently, by coordinating ramp construction at their homes, working with other agencies to arrange the purchase of wheelchairs, and modifying computers and other equipment so they can be used by the handicapped.

DeLuca also encourages those with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors.

"It's great we have a trail like this," he says.

Another state trail, in Barkhamsted, is designed for those with a different disability.

The Metropolitan District Braille Trail, on the west side of Lake McDonough, features Braille signs identifying more than 30 natural landmarks along a route outfitted with guide ropes, ramps and railings for the blind and physically impaired.

Though DeLuca is frustrated by state budget cuts he says have curtailed many services for the handicapped, he is confident the private sector and volunteers will increase their support, especially when they see how many lives are improved by being able to smell a flower, watch a sunset and listen to the wind rustle the trees.

"It's great to know there are places like this where they can continue to do outdoor things," he says.


© The Day Publishing Co., 2003

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