Rediscovering the Lost World

“Ok, Garnet, how do we make my old beast into an all-terrain unit?” I’m gesturing toward my tired old Quickie P300, which is lying under a pile of junk. I know how Garnet loves a challenge.

Garnet MacDonald, inventor and builder extraordinaire, steps forward to examine the chair. Everybody with a disability needs a Garnet, and no, you can’t have mine. I may not even be using his real name in fear of you making him a better offer.

“Let’s see, it has two DC motors,” comes the reply.

“Yep.”

“And it’s computer-controlled to steer with the motors differentially, like a Bobcat,” he adds.

“Yep,” I say, noting by the look in his eye that the hamster is running on its wheel.

He stares at it for a minute or two. “Can I take it apart?”

Now when Garnet says, “Can I take it apart?” you need to take that simple question seriously, because it is understood that there will be no hope of it returning to its original state. No turning back.

“Yep. You can take it apart.”

“Tracks or wheels?”

For the last couple of months I quizzed nearly every person who walked through the door on how to turn that chair into an all-terrain unit. The general consensus was wheels would be cheaper, easier on the flooring in the house and RV, and the battery life would probably be better.

“Tracks might be too hard on batteries, and I would like the chair for hunting, fishing, beaches, and camping. Budget is a consideration here.”

“How big can it be?”

“It’s got to fit on my van lift. Otherwise it’ll be a pain in the ass to transport and never get used.”

Garnet strolls over to the tool box. He grabs a tape measure, walks over to my van to measure the ramp’s length and width, and pauses to let the hamster burn the dimensions into memory.

“Let me think about it,” he says, and turns and walks away.

I know from experience that the seeming lack of enthusiasm is merely the focusing of  energy. The seed has been planted. Now it is being watered and nurtured. It will be revealed as a mature and wondrous creation at some undetermined time in the future.

Some weeks later Garnet shows up unannounced. “Can I take it home?”

“Take what?”

“The chair. I’ve been thinking about it. You wanted an all-terrain chair, right?”

“Oh yeah, I did,” I reply, recalling our previous conversation about what I had thought might only be a far-fetched pipe dream.

“Go ahead,” I reply, taking a last look at my old ride.

****

In one week, Kary Wright's old wheelchair went from collecting dust to traversing previously-inaccessible terrain, thanks to the resourceful engineering of his friend, Garnet. "Everybody with a disability needs a Garnet," Wright says.

In one week, Kary Wright’s old wheelchair went from collecting dust to traversing previously-inaccessible terrain, thanks to the resourceful engineering of his friend, Garnet. “Everybody with a disability needs a Garnet,” Wright says.

I have been working on making hunting and fishing more feasible from a wheelchair ever since my becoming a quadriplegic in 1986. Along with some friends, we’ve adapted fishing equipment for both spin-casting and fly-fishing, and we’ve built gun-rests and trigger-pullers for hunting, but one of the major obstacles to overcome has always been accessibility. There just are not very many places where you can take the average power wheelchair to hunt and fish. I’ve seen commercially-manufactured all-terrain chairs, but they are out of my budget. I had become resigned to the idea that stream-fishing was about as possible for me as riding a unicycle. Whenever I found a great trout stream, the banks were not navigable.

“What do you want to do about someplace to sit. Use a van seat?” Garnet is calling me a few days after hauling off my junked chair.

I tell him the original is best since it fits me comfortably and the controls will already be installed, knowing that every time I get a new chair, the hassle-factor sky-rockets as I try to make it comfy.

“Oh yeah,” I add. “I’ll need a power tilt on it so I can level myself on uneven terrain.” As this last comment is met by
silence, I imagine the hamster picking up speed. Click.

A couple of days pass and the phone rings at 9 a.m. “You’re not going to believe this, but I found chain and sprockets for about $25, and tires and rims for $10 each. I have a DC motor out of a scrap van seat for a recliner and enough metal for the frame, and there was enough stuff to make axles at your grandma’s army surplus store. It’s going to work perfectly. I’ll need to mount one motor up front and one in the back to keep the center of gravity low, but you’ll never notice it once the chain drive is in.”

Garnet is speaking so fast I can hardly understand him.

“Are you drinking coffee or something?” I ask.

“My hamster started running last night, and I had to get up. I’ve been up since 2 a.m. cutting and building, I have the old chair apart, the metal for the frame cut — you’ll be playing with this thing by the weekend!”

The weekend? I thought maybe two summers from now.

“Can I come and look?” I ask.

“Not yet. So far it’s a bunch of chopped-up metal. And your old chair … well … let’s say it’s never going to go back together again. Come by around 3 p.m. and I’ll have something tacked together.”

Mid-afternoon I show up at Garnet’s house. Immediately I notice the pile of little metal pieces that are about the same color as my old Quickie P300. He wasn’t kidding about the chair never going back together again.

“Do you think this is going to work out?” I ask.

“This is going to work out better than I thought! It’s all coming together just as I had imagined.”

He has welded the frame together and now has two motors sitting on it, front and back. I try to imagine what it is going to look like when it is all put together.

“I just have to make the axles and fit everything together. Then I’ll finish all the welding and we’ll test it. If it works OK, I’ll take it apart and paint it. With any luck it will still be done by the weekend.”

****

Sure enough, right on schedule the phone rings on the weekend. “Kary, I think you’re going to like this! I’ve even tested it outside and in the sandbox. If this thing will haul me through this sand” — Garnet outweighs me by a fair bit — “you are not going to have any troubles! I can’t believe the power this thing has!”

The old Quickie P300 had 20-inch back wheels, and the four-wheel drive chair has wheels approximately 10 inches in diameter. This means the chair will go half as fast as the original but have twice the power. The old chair was strong enough to pull a large whitetail buck out hunting, and even moved a vehicle or two in its time. Now the new invention will have the power to climb a lot steeper grade than I’m comfortable with.

The first time I tested the chair, I went down the alley behind our house and looked out over a park area that has been left wild. The chair easily climbed a 6-inch ridge and allowed me to drive up the hill through rough ground and sit beside a park bench that was overlooking a beaver pond. I hadn’t seen that area for about 25 years. I hadn’t even thought of being able to get up there to see it again.

The incredible feeling was totally unexpected, and it let me know how much of the world my mind had closed off, simply because I thought it was inaccessible, and how much of the world this chair was going to open up for me. There are streams out in the mountains to explore, there are beaches to explore, there are hiking trails through the bush to explore, and more. I find myself having to rethink what is possible now.

I have since used this chair to spend hours on a nature trail behind our house that was previously only accessible to people who could walk, as it is not groomed and has been left natural. Ruts, roots and rocks make it impossible to navigate in a normal wheelchair. With this four-wheel drive chair, I have no problem crawling around the trail silently at slow speed, or bouncing along quite quickly, admiring all the sites and sounds and smells of the wild.

The torque is amazing. You can drive down a steep hill slowly and stop midway, and then from that point back up the hill again without any trouble. It is so different to have that type of freedom in a wheelchair. The range appears to be about seven to 10 miles off-road, and the recliner allows you to level yourself when sitting on uneven terrain. Garnet installed a rifle/crossbow rack of our own design, and I started bow hunting with the chair.

We have since upgraded to snow blower tires that have a much larger footprint. It will go through soft sand and snow even better. We used it to go through deep snow while hunting this year with no trouble (my van had trouble, even with snow tires!).

We wheelers encounter so many things out of our realm of possibility that we learn to close our minds to prevent disappointment. Every now and then we need to experience something new and out-of-the-box. It opens our minds and lets us realize that with the help of others, we can do so much more than we realized. I must thank all of my friends and family who encourage and help me to do the things I like to do. They make all of these and future adventures possible.

Kary Wright is a freelance writer from Bashaw, Alberta, Canada. Besides hunting, fishing, camping and gliding, he enjoys traveling, video and experiencing nature. You can reach him at karywright@eastlink.ca or check out his blog at http://stilloutdoors.blogspot.com/.

 

Low Budget All-Terrain Chair FAQsQ. What was the total cost?
We spent about $100 on parts and scrounged some free scrap metal for axles.Q. How fast will the chair go?
About half as fast as a Quickie P300 — 3.5 to 4 mph. This seems slow to those of us who like to zoom around, but when travelling off-road over rough terrain, it is plenty of speed. Also the doubling of power that you get from the lower top speed is amazing. It will crawl over stuff like it’s a Mars rover. The P300 was a powerful chair even in stock configuration.

Q. How heavy is it?
It actually came in a little lighter than the stock P300, which weighed in at 112 pounds without batteries.

Q. How stable is it?
The center of gravity is very low. Garnet tested it to extremes, including climbing a near 30-degree angle when driving on to a utility trailer. Most of us are not comfortable on anything close to this steep without backup, so it will easily perform just about anything you want it to.

Q. How long did it take to build?
Start to finish, construction took about a week, but there was lots of discussion, pondering, coffee and plenty of wheel time for Garnet’s hamster to figure out details.

Q. How does it perform on turns?
In rough outdoor situations like snow, gravel, sand, grass or any uneven terrain, it turns great. It is not so good at turning on dry pavement or cement, and spinning donuts is hard on batteries.

Q. Is there anything you would change on the next one?
So far we haven’t hit any snags. We were worried about grass tangling in the chain and sprocket, but it doesn’t seem to happen. Next time we might fill the underside in with sheet metal instead of the expanded metal. Then the chair will be less likely to get stuck when high-centered on something.

 

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