Opening a wider path to nature. Unusual hiking trail gives a sense of independence to the disabled

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Nine-year-old Ian Gayton, who is legally blind, can tell you what it feels like to pet a salamander (``kind of soft and smooth'') or hear the South Yuba River, which ``sounded like the ocean.'' Ian learned firsthand about the wilderness last summer, as a member of the first overnight camping trip by disabled youngsters on the Independence Trail. For good measure, he also got to hammer some nails, wade in a stream, sniff wild orange blossoms, roast hotdogs, and sing campfire songs in an action-packed expedition.

The hiking trail, located six miles north of Nevada City, attracts some 4,000 visitors a year, including about 200 in wheelchairs. About six-tenths of a mile of the trail's total 2.5 miles is equipped with a ``tapboard,'' which blind hikers can negotiate with canes.

Made by recycling an abandoned ditch which once carried water to gold mining operations, the trail is the brainchild of John Olmsted. A plant ecologist, he got the idea for a wilderness hiking trail for disabled people in 1965, while guiding a woman around San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. ``She asked if there were any trails in the mountains she could go on,'' and Mr.Olmsted described the problems of negotiating a wheelchair through switchbacks that zigzag across steep terrain.

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Four years later, when he noticed the gentle grade of the old canal, the idea of using it to create a path for wheelchair hikers ``hit me like a cartoon character when the light bulb lights up over his head,'' Olmsted says.

He and his wife Sally (the two have since separated) founded a nonprofit organization to buy land for the trail, calling their group Sequoya Challenge, after the scholarly Cherokee chief who recorded the language of his tribe. ``He was born lame, so he was a disabled person,'' Olmsted explains.

The first investment in land for the trail was made in 1975, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation became a partner in the project soon after, allowing use of some public funds for land purchase. In addition, Olmsted has successfully rounded up donations of labor and materials from numerous groups, especially the California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs, Telephone Pioneers of Pacific Bell Company, Redwood High School, the California Conservation Corps, and Milhous Boys Ranch.

The most expensive part is rebuilding the wooden flumes,or troughs, on which about a quarter of the trail rests, a process costing some $100,000 per mile, Olmsted says.

His dream is to rebuild the entire nine miles covered by the old canal, developing several campsites in addition to the sleeping platform completed last year. Without flinching, he estimates he needs about $1 million in donations to finish the job.

``In a lot of disability programs, a person has to be helped. A disabled person has to be helped to ski, or helped to go rafting. The Independence Trail is designed so a person can do things by himself - that's part of the dream,'' he explained. Others who take advantage of the trail's gentle terrain include parents with toddlers, seniors, and persons with temporary disabilities - a conglomerate Olmsted refers to as ``the easy trails majority.''

He narrates nature hikes along the trail and supervises its maintenance, preserving as much wilderness atmosphere as possible while attending to details like poison oak removal and making sure flowering shrubs droop to exactly the right height for close examination by someone in a wheelchair.

Teacher Joanne Ligamari of Newcastle School for Exceptional Children (located about an hour's drive away) has brought disabled students to hike the trail for six years, so it was fitting that a group of her students were first to camp overnight on the trail. Her rule that each child be accompanied by a parent thinned participation to three boys, two of whom use wheelchairs for locomotion. One of the boys, Jeff Curtis, said his favorite parts of the trip were hiking and fishing, although no fish were caught. His mother, Marsha, who camped with her son, said the trip ``gives them a chance to do something their brothers and sisters don't get to do.''

Use of the trail is free to all comers. Overnight campers should request permission to stay on the trail and disabled hikers are asked to register before hitting the trail by calling Olmsted at (916) 432-3183, or writing to him at 12488 Empty Diggins Rd., Rough and Ready, CA 95975.

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