By Scott Thomas
A couple hundred yards down river a beautiful bald eagle scooped a small fish out of the bend, then gently soared up river over our heads. Once the eagle had vanished into the distance I returned my gaze to the mesmerizing water below. Crystal clear, shimmering river rocks, schools of fish darting through the shallows. A perspective only attainable when one is sitting on the water itself. This was my recent experience, me and my 350lb power wheelchair floating the Bitterroot River on an accessible raft. Hard to believe it’s possible, but it is.
This year, a new partnership established between MonTECH at the University of Montana’s Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities and Missoula Parks and Recreation, allows more people with disabilities to recreate in Montana’s wilderness and parks. MonTECH received a grant from the Rehabilitation Services Administration funded adaptive recreation equipment in 2009. After funding ended in 2012, the program relied on volunteer support. This new partnership has increased participation by providing easy access to adaptive rafts, fishing equipment, and now bikes due to a grant from the Reeve Foundation for Wheels Across Montana.
Our trip was a testament to how easy the process of using the adaptive equipment can be. The float trip was planned to perfection. It was smooth and easy to get on and off the raft. In our accessible van we parked right next to the boat resting on the edge of the water at Bell Crossing. I drove my wheelchair off the van ramp onto the raft ramp, once on the raft, Tyler, from Missoula Parks and Recreation, secured my chair. Then once we docked in Stevensville, I again drove off of the raft ramp into the van. My entire effort involved two fifteen-foot drives. The effort was easier than I envisioned, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.
The raft consisted of two inflated pontoons held together by a heavy metal frame. I sat at the front facing outwards. When I tilted my chair back my feet blocked the floor of the raft, giving the illusion I was floating in the water. The heavy raft was surprisingly agile, moving through the shallow water with ease.
Following us was a caravan of friends and family. In all, we had three rafts, two kayaks, and a canoe. Part way through we pulled into a calm eddy, and had a gourmet burrito lunch. In between the conversations and water wars I took the time to close my eyes and become immersed in the moment. Feeling grateful to be back on the Root, and pondering my next opportunity to get back on the water.
While I was feeling thankful, our incredible guide Tyler offered his much appreciated outlook, “we live in Montana because outdoor recreation is important to us, and it’s important to me that everyone is able to get out and enjoy.” I couldn’t help but be impressed by his comment. He didn’t believe he was doing me a service; just a good guy who enjoyed sharing his passion.
Because of the new partnership between Missoula Parks and Recreation and MonTECH, accessible rafts are scheduled through Meg Whicher at Parks and Recreation. Email Meg at MWhicher@ci.missoula.mt.us to schedule a time to book the raft. A Parks and Recreation employee will be there to help guide and assist throughout the day. Click more information about MonTECH and Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.