Camping in Accessible Cabins

Photo by Mary Melton

Photo by Mary Melton

I love camping. I hate camping.

Camping is a pain in the ass, especially when you’re crippled. Even if I could hammer stakes into the ground and pitch a tent, why would I want to? This is supposed to be a vacation. And sleeping on the hard lumpy ground with my bony body is hardly a weekend at the spa for me, either. And I’m sorry but outhouses and pit toilets don’t work for me. I find no romance in crapping in anything that doesn’t flush.

But when you live in the city, you don’t realize how much the urban clang and clamor hammers away at your brain until you leave it all behind. They don’t have real quiet in the city, the kind of quiet in which you can converse in a normal tone with someone 20 yards away. There are no stars in the city, no birds except pigeons. No crickets. No fireflies.

So what a guy like me needs in order to go camping is rustic without all the rustic. I need a cabin, but not in the Abe Lincoln sense. I want a cabin with hot and cold running water and a fridge and beds and a roll-in shower and air conditioning and heat. (Can you still call that a cabin?) But when I step outside I want to hear the trees rustle and the campfires crackle.

Thus, a part of my summer for the past 15 years or so has been a trip or two up to Wisconsin, to one of the seven state parks that has an accessible cabin on their campgrounds. The 30-by-36-foot cabins are pretty much identical in design. There’s a kitchen with a four-burner cooking surface, a microwave, fridge and sturdy wood table and chairs. The living room is furnished with a futon couch and chair and a reading lamp. There’s a comfy screened-in porch that runs the length of the cabin. The bathroom has that good old high toilet, roll-in shower with wall-mounted bench seat. The bedroom even has two hospital beds, which is the only thing I don’t like about it. I suppose if you’re really going to call yourself accessible you ought to have hospital beds, since that’s what some people need. But it sucks if you have a certain someone with whom you enjoy sleeping. Making a double bed by putting two hospital beds together ain’t nearly the same.

When I take my summer camping trips, I benefit from the activism of others. All the Wisconsin cabins are the result of community organizing projects heavily involving local disabled folks and/or their families and friends. They’ve developed a cabin design and organizing model that could be replicated in other states. Even after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stopped taking the lead on constructing new cabins after the fifth one opened in 2005, two more cabins have gone up and another is due to open in 2014. The demand is great. Summer reservation requests have to be submitted in January. Stays are limited to four nights maximum.

Anthonette Gilpatrick was accessibility coordinator for the Bureau of Parks and Recreation of the DNR when the first cabin opened at Mirror Lake State Park
in 1991. She worked with the late Kayleen Brereton, a disability activist from Madison who had polio as a child and was a wheelchair-user, to brainstorm a list of projects that would make state parks more accessible. One idea was an accessible cabin. “We wanted it to be on the campground with all the other campers,” Gilpatrick says. The cabin idea seemed like pie in the sky. “But we said let’s put it out there and see what happens.” The project list was pitched to the local chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America, a volunteer community service organization for employees and retirees of the telecommunications industry. Gilpatrick says the Pioneers fell in mad love with the cabin idea and helped drum up troops and funds to make it happen.

Time for more brainstorming.

Gilpatrick and Brereton assembled a group of people with a wide range of disabilities to come up with cabin design standards. They weren’t architects or anything. They were just folks who knew what accessibility meant to them. “It was meeting after meeting really hammering out what does the bathroom look like, etc. We were making this up as we went along. We were really trying to do something for a wide range of people for whom it would be difficult to camp.” The group decided $35 was a reasonable amount to charge for a night in the cabin. The fee remains the same today.

The First Cabins
Art Miller of Milwaukee was among those who helped translate these ideas into the paper plans for the original cabin. He’s the president of Miller Engineering ITG, which provides mechanical, electrical and plumbing or design and construction support services. He was approached not just because of his engineering expertise, but because all three of his younger siblings had cerebral palsy. He has no disability, but he never experienced a family vacation as a child. “Families with disabled members are so overwhelmed with the tasks of daily living. Vacations are always a problem, even today.” An accessible cabin might well have been a place where his family could have enjoyed a vacation together often.

DNR assisted primarily with building the infrastructure, such as plumbing lines, and the Pioneers provided “everything from the ground up,” Gilpatrick says. She says volunteers working every day built the cabin in two months.

But that was just the beginning. Gilpatrick says she made a wish list of nine more state parks where cabins ought to be built. She also hoped to spread the word to other states so that this new cabin design might pop up on public campgrounds everywhere.

After the fourth cabin was completed, the Pioneers moved on to other projects. There’s no state master plan anymore. Gilpatrick’s wish list of nine more sites has long since gone out of the window. But cabins are going up in places where citizens are motivated to make it happen. It’s a whole new cast of players. Miller is delighted that the momentum continues. “It’s great. It sort of makes you feel like Tom Sawyer. You started painting the fence, and now other groups are picking up the paint brush.”

Friends Carry On
When my wife and I travel to the cabins, our van moans and groans and huffs and puffs under the weight of all the stuff we pack. Everything is BYO — cookware, kitchen utensils, bedding, towels and bathroom stuff. We make an annual reservation at our favorite site at Buckhorn State Park, secluded in the middle of the state just outside the village of Necedah (population 918). This cabin is just a few yards away from the Castle Rock Flowage of the Wisconsin River.

There’s an accessible pier which is great for fishing the day away or catching an incredible sunset. The nearby Necedah National Wildlife Refuge means there are a wide variety of birds gliding around. We see a lot of the spirited osprey, which builds large, elaborate nets on platforms local residents have constructed atop telephone poles. The natives are easygoing people who speak with a hint of a Minnesota accent. They end a lot of sentences with the word “then,” as in, “So you’re going camping then. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

We also make a second reservation, and lately that has been at the newest cabin at Koehler-Andrea State Park just south of Sheboygan. The cabin is pretty much the same, but the camping experience is completely different. This site is about a five-minute walk from an expansive beach on the Lake Michigan shore, surrounded by grassy sand dunes.

Bryan Kasper of Sheboygan was a major force in this cabin project. His son is a C4-5 quad. “Our family was waiting at a stoplight in Milwaukee. A half semi hit us from behind doing 55 miles per hour. The driver fell asleep at the wheel. Everyone in the vehicle was severely injured. Our 15-year-old son and his girlfriend at that time were in the back seat. They were hurt the worst,” Kasper says. “We were always pretty big into camping … everything from being in a nice camping rig to backpacking across the Grand Canyon or to the top of a mountain in the Rockies or Glacier National Park. Our accident put a damper on the more extreme forms of camping.”

But after the Kasper family spent a few days at the accessible cabin at Potawatomi State Park in Door County, Wisc., they realized camping was not completely out of the question after all. So Kasper approached The Friends of Kohler-Andrae. Many Wisconsin parks receive a great deal of support from these volunteer groups of local citizens who help coordinate and raise money for park improvement projects.

It just so happened that the Kohler-Andrae friends already had a cabin project underway. And it just so happened that Kasper is a master carpenter and construction project manager and has a master’s degree in finance. Those were all talents needed to move the cabin project forward. Kasper donated hundreds of hours of his time and expertise.

Jim Mohr, president of Friends of Kohler-Andrae, says it cost $125,000 to build the cabin, furnishings and all. The DNR provided money through matching grants, and the rest was raised through a lot of old fashion door-to-door grunt work. Individuals and businesses were solicited. “Some gave $5 and some gave $5,000,” Mohr says. There was also an enormous amount of donated labor, from drivers to architects. It took about four years to pull off (two years for construction alone) but the Kohler-Andrae cabin opened in 2008.

Gilpatrick says if it weren’t for the leadership of people like Kasper and Mohr, cabin construction would probably cease. You can’t wait around for DNR to take the lead. “Times are tighter. Money is tighter. I don’t think we could do it.”

Mohr thinks that might be for the best. “A Friends group can get things done a lot faster than the state can.”

In the 1990s, Gilpatrick made a presentation about the Wisconsin accessible cabins initiative at a conference of the National Association of State Park Directors. Afterward, she received a lot of inquiries from other states. She sent out countless copies of the design plans, she says, but she does not know if the little accessible cabin disabled folks brainstormed up more than 20 years ago has gone up anywhere outside Wisconsin. But she’s still willing to share. And she says if enough people with enough energy get together and work together, it could happen anywhere.

Resources
•  Anthonette Gilpatrick, 608/275-3214; anthonette.gilpatrick@wisconsin.gov
•  National Association of State Park Directors, www.americasstateparks.org. This website links to each state’s park system. Most state parks offer accessible camping sites, including cabins, as well as accessible hiking trails, fishing piers and hunting amenities.
•  Wisconsin State Park System, 888/936-7463; dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/

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