Minnesota’s Three Rivers Park District Paves the Way for Local Adapted Outdoor Recreation

March 1, 2014, Department, by Tracy Tabaka

The author, an outdoor recreation educator with Minnesota’s Three Rivers Park District, tries out an adaptive kayak at Cleary Lake, just south of Minneapolis.For outdoor recreation and health enthusiasts, Minnesota has a lot to offer. With the state’s drastic seasonal changes, along with its abundance of parks and trail systems, it seems that there is something for everyone no matter what time of year.

Three Rivers Park District, established in 1957, is a park system in the western suburbs of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. It encompasses almost 27,000 acres and serves more than 9.5 million visitors annually. Three Rivers has always offered inclusive services and worked to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals of all ability levels to have the opportunity to participate in its recreation and educational programs. Its adapted downhill skiing program reaches 150 participants per year, while its golf programs welcome 50 participants each year.  

In January 2010 the park district’s Outdoor Recreation School began hiring individuals to teach a wider variety of programs in an effort to further outdoor activities for adaptive communities. With one or two Nordic sit-skis, a few volunteers and some instruction on working with individuals with disabilities, a handful of adapted Nordic ski lessons were taught that winter, and an idea was born. From that point on, the Outdoor Recreation School of Three Rivers Park District has worked to create and offer adapted versions of almost all its park programs. Through lessons, clubs, demonstration days, community outreach opportunities, and partnerships with organizations such as Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, the Minnesota chapter of Veterans Affairs and local bike shops, the Park District is expanding its resources and knowledge of adapted recreation with each passing year.  

Outdoor Recreation School staff members have worked diligently through grants and other funding mechanisms to purchase top-of-the-line adapted equipment, which has in turn made programs such as adapted Nordic skiing, kayaking, canoeing, archery, geocaching, golf, river trips, fishing (winter and summer) and hand cycle mountain biking (winter and summer) extremely popular with park guests. During the 2012–2013 season, the Park District reached approximately 400 total participants through its adapted programming efforts. An abundance of positive feedback regarding Three Rivers’ focus on adapted program opportunities, as well as its passion to make structural universal design changes within its park facilities to accommodate a wider variety of guests, has fueled these changes. Some of these structural modifications include the construction of wider single-track mountain bike trails to accommodate adapted hand cycles, changes to park buildings to ensure that ramps and bathrooms exceed ADA expectations, the addition of park equipment such as beach and all-terrain wheelchairs, mobility mats for wheelchair access across sand, mud and snow, and specified walking trails for slower and multi-use pedestrian traffic. 

Year after year, Minnesota is continually ranked high among the nation’s healthiest states due to the number of parks and trail systems. For people of all abilities, the opportunity to go outside and play is both physically and mentally stimulating. Weight-loss, endurance, strength, cardiovascular health and overall mental focus and happiness are just a few of the benefits of outdoor recreation. For individuals who have disabilities, having this opportunity to enjoy the outdoors can be life-changing.

For Ryan Duffy, a 20-something Twin Cities resident who uses a wheelchair for mobility, the availability of the park district’s adapted programs has changed the way he and his family spend quality time together. After seeing a Three Rivers summer program catalog with a cover photo of a person who uses a wheelchair getting in an adapted kayak, Ryan’s mom, Elaine, immediately called the park’s Outdoor Recreation School to find out which of its programs her son might be able to participate in. “There are so many places that have wonderful programs that Ryan can’t participate in. And when there are programs that he can participate in, they are usually four hours away, so this is really cool,” Elaine says.“This has been a long time in coming, and we’re so excited!”

Ryan began with an adapted kayak lesson that included his friend and father. He was paired with an adapted instructor who also used a wheelchair for mobility as well as another paddling instructor from the Outdoor Recreation School. Elaine says, “When he went the first time and he called me afterward...the enthusiasm that he had was something that I don’t often hear from him. To be able to participate in a sport and do it independently, and we’re trying to catch up with him, it’s completely unheard of. It’s such a cool addition to his life.”

With several kayaking lessons under his belt, Ryan also participated in many of the park district’s other adapted programs, including archery, mountain biking and Nordic skiing. He has also recruited friends who use wheelchairs and with similar ability levels to participate in the park programs. When asked for his advice to others regarding participating in some of his new favorite activities, he says, “Do the other adapted sports, like mountain biking, archery...do it all if you can! I just want people to know that I’m really grateful for this program.”

Nestled in the midst of Minnesota’s most populated region, Three Rivers Park District strives to provide a vast array of educational and healthy recreational opportunities for people of all ability levels. The state’s natural beauty and its emphasis on health and wellness through the provision of an abundance of multiuse trails, parks and natural resource education are assets from which everyone can benefit.  Click here for more information on Three Rivers Park District, the Outdoor Recreation School and its adaptive programs, or call 763.694.7720. 

Tracy Tabaka is an Outdoor Recreation Educator with the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota.