Making tracks

Published 6:49 pm Friday, December 10, 2021

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Nature Center track chairs a new option for  people with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors


A strong advocate for the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, Jacques Chipault believed it should be available and open for all people to use and enjoy.

He would have been proud of what was unveiled Thursday at the Nature Center as it gave the public its first look at two of three track chairs that will be available for use by those with disabilities and mobility issues.

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Director/Naturalist Luke Reese said of Chipault during the event that he was heavily influential in: “making sure that this would be everybody’s Nature Center. I look at this as the next step to improve access for everybody.”

The chairs, built by Action Trackchair out of Marshall, Minnesota, are meant to allow greater mobility over rougher terrain that wouldn’t normally support regular wheelchairs.

The track chairs run on treads where wheels normally would be on a wheelchair.

Those with wheelchairs have really only been relegated to the paved trails, including the Jacques Chipault Memorial Handicapped Access established in 1992, but now far-ranging sites including the Nature Center’s tower are opened up.

“It has opened up a lot more opportunities than I thought. That I haven’t had in a long, long time,” Kittleson said. “This track chair has basically opened the door wide open again.”

It was Kittleson, who has Rapid Onset Dystonia Parkinsonism, who first brought the idea forward. Using a motorized wheelchair to get around, Kittleson found himself still limited in what he could access at the Nature Center.

“These chairs are really good for people with disabilities,” Kittleson said. “I actually got stuck in this chair before. I needed to get something more than this chair.”

Eventually, Kittleson raised the necessary funds to get his own track chair, but he thought of expanding the idea to the Nature Center.

In May, he brought his idea to Reese, who in turn brought it before the Friends of the Nature Center Board.

“It was a great idea,” Reese said. “Not being a disabled person I don’t always think about the challenges and the opportunities that exist.”

The idea quickly took old and in quick fashion the funding was secured and the chairs were ordered. The only real hang up came from something outside of the Nature Center’s control. Supply chain issues resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented delivery of the chairs until November, when it was initially hoped they would arrive in October.

The treads of the track chair will allow people with disabilities to go places they normally couldn’t during a visit to the Nature Center. Eric Johnson/

Even then, the Nature Center only received two of the three, with the other expected soon.

Still, it was an amazingly smooth process.

“This was one of the easiest fundraising experiences I’ve ever had,” Reese told those in attendance Thursday.

Later he spoke directly to how impressive it really was to have this whole project come together like it did.

“It makes me feel great about the community of Austin,” he said. “It’s also a reminder, I think, why it was so easy because most of us know somebody who could benefit from something like this. You hear about it and it’s a no-brainer.”

Funding for the chairs came from a variety of sources, including a hefty $25,000 donation from Paul and Joanne Worlein.

For the Worleins, this was a cause they could get behind, because the Nature Center has been a place that sticks close to the heart of their family.

“We wanted to do something involving the Nature Center as far as making the donation because we haven’t done much here,” Joanna Worlein said. “We heard about the chairs and we thought that sounds interesting. It made sense.”

But the Worleins were quick to point out that this project was a team effort.

“Thank you for the opportunity to do what we could,” Paul Worlein told those gathered. “Everybody who is here has done a lot to get these here. We’re just glad to be a part of it.”

Funding also came from Austin Eagles Lookout Aerie ($7,065), Friends of the Nature Center ($7,000), Mayo Clinic Health System ($1,000) and Freeborn-Mower Cooperative’s Operation Round-Up ($500).

While people can reserve the chairs for two hours at a time, they will also be used for visiting school children.

The Nature Center runs a regular curriculum that opens up the center to schools from around the area. These chairs will ensure that all children will be able to participate in that programming.

“We have many students who are able to access this wonderful facility,” said Austin Public School’s Sherri Wilrdot, director of Special Services. “They’ve always been very gracious about being able to try and help our students with disabilities access their facilities. This will increase their experiences so much.”

Kittleson agreed.

“I just think it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “At least the kids can join in with the classes and they can go on these trails. Some kids have severe disabilities and they weren’t able to do this at all.”

The chairs have a maximum speed of 3 mph. The reason the Nature Center is limiting the reservations to two hours at a time is to get them further familiarized with how long the chair’s batteries can last and taking away the risk of the battery dying on the trails.

The chairs can be guided easily with a control stick on either arm. One of the controls can even be detached to allow for the operation by another party to operate the chair for a disabled person who can’t.

Broadly speaking, these chairs are about opening worlds.

“The Friends is about enhancing the Nature Center and making the experience enjoyable for everybody and this is doing that,” said Friends President Tim Ruzek. “The board was really excited about the idea John brought forward.”

“It’s just going to open up so much more out here for everybody,” he added.

To learn more about the chairs, including reservations, call 1-507-437-7519.