By Paul Gowan

The yawning prairie expanse is no match for one versatile TrailRider – certainly not in the hands of Steven Fletcher or Val Mayes.

This past autumn, a lone TrailRider made the journey from Manitoba to Alberta on a show-and-tell circuit that opened the eyes of Albertans to the original features of this one-wheeled wilderness access device that affords persons with a disability a unique outdoor opportunity.

The TrailRider is a revolutionary, lightweight vehicle resembling a fancy lounge chair with long handles at either end. It carries its occupant across rugged terrain with the help of two able-bodied individuals, one who pulls and one who pushes. Unlike multi-terrain wheelchairs, this non-motorized device leaves little or no environmental ‘footprint’ on the trail.

With the latest developed technology, the vehicles are improving day by day. These are designed and remodeled to help the disabled navigate through the difficult maze of traffic. They can be confident and secure that the vehicles are enabled to help them through their commuting. The manufacturers also have suitable advice for them.

Steven Fletcher first heard about the TrailRider while participating in disabled sailing’s Mobility Cup in 2001. Unknown to him at the time, the Disability Foundation‘s Sam Sullivan, who conceived the TrailRider in 1998, had been using one to access the backcountry for some time. Word, though, had not yet spread as far as Manitoba.

His first reaction was surprise. “I spoke to Sam Sullivan and he said he was going hiking. I thought he was pulling my leg,” recounts Fletcher.

Not until the next year when he experimented with one himself did he shed his disbelief and fully realize the independence the TrailRider gave him.

Steven, who is 31 and a C4 quadriplegic – meaning he has had no motion below the neck since a 1996 car accident – is a Winnipeg resident and highly active member of the community. Currently, he is Manitoba president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and is on the slate as a candidate for the next federal election, when it occurs.

When he rode the TrailRider, the experience transported him. Remote lakes, trails and mountains he had always been drawn to before his accident – but which he thought were lost to him – opened up once again.

He purchased his first TrailRider in 2002. Then, with the help of two $10,000 donations – from the Winnipeg Foundation and from a private donor – he acquired a second for others to experience and enjoy.

With the support of the Disability Foundation, he formed Wilderness Access Manitoba in 2003, giving others a chance to use the TrailRider to experience the wilderness and feel the same rush of excitement he had.

Last autumn, he received a phone call from Val Mayes, who works with Alberta Recreational Parks Association in Edmonton as a diversity officer and has connections with the association’s Calgary office. At the time, she was also Alberta representative for the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability (ALACD), an organization that addresses community inclusion for persons with a disability.

She first witnessed the TrailRider during a 2003 Calgary Film Festival, entitled Picture This …, that focused on disability issues..

After conversing a few times, Fletcher phoned Mayes one day in September to announce he was driving to Calgary that night and would bring the TrailRider with him. He was heading out for a political meeting, and would drop the TrailRider off. He was happy to lend it to someone, since the Manitoba hiking season had just ended.

In Manitoba, Fletcher has introduced the TrailRider to the media, shown it off to other disability organizations such as the Canadian Paraplegic Association, and taken it to school presentations. He explains the sense of reward he gets from helping others to enjoy an activity that would be normally be out of reach.

One family rented it and took it to their family cottage for their son who has a very serious case of degenerative ALS. For two months, the son rode around their property and Steven says the family told him that it “just made their summer.”

On Sept. 10, with two health aides and the head of his constituency association in tow, he made the 16-hour trip and handed over the TrailRider to Val Mayes in Calgary.

Mayes took the TrailRider on a custom tour of Alberta. Her first stop was the Easter Seal March of Dimes’ Camp Horizon outside of Calgary, where children with muscular dystrophy took it out for a ride. Later, she introduced it to a physical education class at Mount Royal College in Calgary, and the following day, it was off to a Calgary health care workshop called Activate the Network.

Then, she rented an SUV to accommodate the TrailRider and drove to Edmonton, where she presented it at Alberta Parks and Recreation and Alberta Special Olympics venues.

The next stop was five hours further north to Grande Prairie. Val flew, but dropped the TrailRider off at the Greyhound station in Edmonton for a bus journey.

“The guy at the Greyhound station took one look at it and said, ‘No!'” she recalls. After some “sweet talking,” she managed to persuade him. The transportation was by truck not bus. But still, she was told to “lose the cardboard box (that it was packed in).”

In Grande Prairie, the vehicle attained instant popularity at a resource fair and a workshop at Grande Prairie Regional College.

The TrailRider returned to Calgary in December, and made an appearance in February at the Picture This… Film Festival, 2004.

Mayes sighs that eventually Steven is bound to want it back. She has $3,000 raised from an anonymous donor toward purchase of a TrailRider for Alberta, and hopes she can find another pot of money somewhere in the community to finance the rest of the funding needed.

Meanwhile, Fletcher’s TrailRider has been a popular hit on the hustings.

Related Articles:
— One-wheeling to paradise: TrailRider features
— About Steven Fletcher