Sunny skies, warmer weather - let's hit the beach!

Holland State Park’s mile-long white sand Lake Michigan beach is enjoyed by more than 1.5 million visitors each year. In the two summers since the state park purchased a $2,500 all-terrain wheelchair, a growing number of people who use wheelchairs have actually been able to get down to the water.

For most of the park’s 88-year history, people in wheelchairs had to be content to admire sailboats and sunsets from the parking lot.

An 8-foot wide concrete sidewalk from the parking lot and along Holland Channel to the pier was the focal point of a remodeling project in 2001. Visitors got their first up-close-and-personal contact with the shoreline in 2000, when a 450-foot sidewalk made of interlocking plastic planks was donated. That seasonal sidewalk is reassembled over the sand in May, and packed away again in mid-September, before fall and winter storms would bury it. 

“Those things have improved access to the lake a lot,“ said Erik Bailey, Holland State Park’s lead ranger. “It couldn’t be described as perfect, though. While our beach wheelchair can get wet, it doesn’t float.”

In other words, a person using the park’s beach wheelchair could get their feet wet, but couldn’t be immersed unless he or she could transfer from the chair.

Bailey said the Plainwell State Park District, which includes Holland State Park, considered purchasing another type of beach wheelchair that floats, but chose the all-terrain chair because its wheels are larger and thicker, making it easier for an assistant to wheel a rider over the sand. 

“Our beach chair was in use six to 10 times a week last summer,” Balley said. “A lot of times it’s young kids pushing their grandparents and that’s really neat to see.” 

There were also questions about liability with the floating chairs, Bailey said. 

An assistant has to push the person in the chair – which has armrests and a pivoting front fork wheel that float -- into the water and wade while he or she floats. There are several makes of floating wheelchairs. Then to be steady in calm waters, but a big wave could cause them to tip, making an attendant essential.

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

“Water is freedom for someone who can’t walk because it’s a zero-gravity environment,” said Sabastien Ragon, of AccessRec LLC in Union City, NJ, which markets a floating wheelchair called WaterWheels. “A lot of parks, resorts and attractions on the water have these to assure accessibility to the water, which is always their biggest drawing card.” 

The WaterWheels is fashioned from a lightweight aluminum bicycle frame. It sells for $1,700, making it one of the more economical chairs of its type.

Grand Haven State Park got its first all-terrain wheelchair a year ago. Longtime Holland State Park Supervisor Joyce Rhodes brought the idea when she was transferred because of its popularity in Holland, Bailey said.

Discussions about whether Saugatuck Dunes State Park should have a beach wheelchair “never went anywhere,” Bailey said, because it is almost a mile from the parking lot to the beach. That’s a lot of sand to traverse in any kind of chair." 

Before the beach wheelchairs, park personnel would drive visitors who use wheelchairs who asked down to see the water in an all-terrain utility vehicle. However, it is important to reserve “the Gator” for emergency use, Bailey said.

Holland State Park charges no fee and imposes no time limit for using the beach wheelchair, although Bailey said staff like to get an idea of when it will be returned in case another visitor requests it.

Public access to the Holland Channel will be further enhanced by an extension of the Ottawa County Parks Department’s boardwalk and fishing pier into Holland State Park. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has awarded a  $250,000 grant for the project and construction could begin as early as fall 2014, Bailey said. 

Do you think Holland State Park should add a floating wheelchair to make it possible for people who need wheelchairs to actually get in the water?