Everyone associated with the city of Rochester’s decision to purchase an Action Trackchair, an all-terrain wheelchair, points to Rochester resident Noah Hanson’s advocacy as a catalyst for the decision.
And this weekend, after two years of lobbying, the tank-like, electric-powered vehicle, referred to as the Humvee of wheelchairs, will be deployed at Quarry Hill Nature Park. The $11,000 chair is expected to open up and make more assessable areas of the 329-acre park that had previously been closed to wheelchair users.
And Hanson will tell you that his decision to get involved stemmed from a mishap that occurred to him at Indian Heights Park in Northwest Rochester.
It was a day on which the members of the Rochester-Olmsted County Youth Commission were meeting at the park two years ago to clear out buckthorn and garlic mustard. Hanson, then a Century High School student, was hoping to join them. Hanson was rolling his wheelchair down a gravel road when he got stuck.
He was stuck for about 20 minutes until he was able to call for help on his phone.
“It was mainly poor planning on my part, but I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is Rochester. There’s got to be a way to get into the park,’ but nope, I was wrong,” Hanson said.
That incident became the catalyst. From there on out, Hanson and Mary Gorfine, the youth commission’s coordinator, became allies in an effort to persuade the city to purchase a Trackchair to make Rochester’s parks and nature more handicapped accessible.
Their efforts went no where in the first year of their efforts.
Then one day, Hanson and Gorfine were in the skyway talking about their need to enlist the support of a Rochester city council member. When, lo and behold, like a miracle of constituency service, Council Member Ed Hruska happened to walk by.
“We told him about it and, right away, he was very receptive,” Gorfine said. “I cannot say enough nice things about how quickly he responded.”
Hruska introduced the proposal at a Committee of the Whole Meeting, where Hanson talked about his experiences using a trackchair at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in Stewartville.
Hanson described how empowering the vehicles were, allowing him to participate in more outdoor activities with his family than with a regular wheelchair.
“At first, it’s just weird to be able to cross over grass, mud, rocks, gravel and sand,” Hanson said about the sense of liberation. “It’s just empowering to be able to be in the outdoors and not have to worry about terrain issues when you can just up and over them and keep powering through.”
The chair was bought last spring, and this weekend it will used by members of the community at Quarry Hill.
The chairs are not new to the area. Olmsted County has two, one at Chester Woods Park and another at Oxbow Park.
Ben Boldt, recreation supervisor at Rochester Parks and Recreation, said that the city’s chair will only be used at Quarry Hill for the time being, but the hope is to expand its availability to the city’s other parks.
“We’re not quite there yet as far as figuring out those logistics and how to make it work,” Boldt said. “We’re trying to take reasonable baby steps here as we get the program going.”
Gorfine and Hanson easily imagine how the Trackchair will open up nature and the city’s parks to a wider group of people: The elderly, disabled veterans, school-age child with physical limitations.
“It makes me really happy that other people can experience nature in the same way that I’ve been able to,” Hanson said.
Online reservations are required for use and must placed a minimum of three days in advance. It is available for the time being on Saturdays and Sundays for 90-minute segments. To make a reservation, go to www.rochestermn.gov/departements/parks-and-recreation and click on the Bike/Track Chair Rentals button.