THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO --- March 26, 2015 ----- I spend most of my life living in a world that is not designed for me. I have Multiple Sclerosis and an acquired brain injury, similar to Cerebral Palsy. I use a power chair to move through life and a hospital bed to rest at night. Throughout my days, I encounter “accessible” businesses that have no power doors or have “just one step to be lifted over.” I use sidewalks that suddenly dip to one side when I get to driveways, or that have curb cuts with large bumps at the end. I go to restaurants, malls and even the regional hospital that have washrooms with tiny stalls and low toilets from which I could never get up. I visit my friends and family members in their yards because their homes are not wheelchair accessible. I try to move through my city on a transit system that includes buses upon which people who use mobility devices must ride backwards, a practice that all of my doctors say is dangerous for me. I get motion sickness and because of weak muscles, I also get neck and back injuries.
If I want I can book a ride on our parallel transit system, Lift Plus, but if I don’t book it a week in advance, I cannot be sure I’ll get my ride. Those vans, however, are very rough for people in wheelchairs, let alone high power chairs like mine. One week every year, though, all of this changes! That’s the week my mother and I go to Wilderness Discovery Resort, run by HAGI, an organization run by people who have various disabilities. Since neither Mom nor I can drive, we take the HAGI van to camp. They pick us up & will return us at the end of the week. We bring our food and a few personal items, including my spare manual chair, which I bring just in case my chair breaks down or a friend with a disability comes and needs to borrow it to go to the beach. We also use it as a deck chair, if we need an extra one.
The cabins are all named after local wildlife: The Bear’s Den, Cougar’s Cave, Wolf’s Den, Moose Manor, and the Eagle’s Roost. I like all of the cabins, but I have to say the Cougar's Cave is my favorite. It has a nice little sunroom in the back that faces the lake and the zip line, which is a very popular attraction for kids. The five cabins, the main lodge, and the office all face what I call the town square, a small square of land with a playground and a field which is great for volleyball, bocce, lawn bowling, or just a good game of tag.
The first thing Mom and I do, after dropping off our clothes and putting the food away, is head for the beach! Since the camp is situated on a cliff, there's a nice long ramp that we take down to the beach. There are adjoining ramps to the zip line starting point, or to a smaller children's park, complete with a play castle and slide. What makes this ramp unique is the fact that it turns into a floating dock, upon which one can sit and enjoy the waves, fish or gain access to the pontoon boats. There is actually a ramp built onto the dock to allow people who use wheelchairs to be able to wheel onto the boats.
In the evenings, we sit around the campfire, right on the beach. We are on a peninsula, so the fire pit is surrounded by the beach on three sides.
The worst time I had at camp was when my chair wasn’t working right and I needed to be pushed up the ramp. I’d stay up at the cabins all day on the deck and then in the evening, I’d venture down to the camp fire. It wasn’t the most fun I’d had at camp, but it was still a lot of fun.
Part of the fun of camp is not knowing who will be there. I’ve never met anyone I didn’t like while there. Some people we met were from out of town and others live here, but we rarely see them. Others, like my young friend, Connor and his parents, have become family friends that we love dearly. This is the third year since we met and we now try to be at camp at the same time. It’s nice to have someone we just like to be around and to be silly with.
Another fun part of camp is inviting friends and family for visits and knowing that I can do everything they can do, except the zip line, which is for kids, anyway. I love watching them fly by!
Mom and I are both avid swimmers, so getting into the lake is a big deal. The camp used to have a hoyer lift on the dock and I was hoisted into and out of the lake. The hoyer has since broken down, but a tarp was laid out from the beach into the lake and I can be pushed out into the lake in a manual chair and then I can slide out of it and walk and swim. It’s not perfect, but if HAGI is going to lose the camp, why spend the money to install a ramp from the dock? They were looking at doing that for the past few years.
Another thing I enjoy is playing pool and air hockey in the games room. There are laundry machines in the games room, as well, so we often do our laundry while playing impromptu air hockey tournaments with fellow campers.
At the end of the day, Mom and I return to our cabin for a well-deserved rest. She sleeps in her own room, which contains 2 beds and I nestle down in the hospital bed in my room. If it’s chilly, we turn on the heat or we can run the air conditioner, if it’s hot. Usually, we just open the windows and let the breeze cool us down. Sometimes a shower in the wheel-in shower stall helps draw me toward dreamland. It’s hard to sleep with visions of the adventures tomorrow will bring, but after a day filled with swimming, boating, wandering around and eating BBQ for two meals, out in the sunshine or even while darting between raindrops, I often find myself drifting off before I realize it.
As I reflect on my time at Wilderness Discovery Camp, it saddens me to know that this could be my last year there. The Ontario government has been leasing the land to HAGI and they are planning to sell it. This would be a huge loss. Some of the people who have gone to the camp can go other places, since the camp is open to everyone, able-bodied as well as those of us who have a disability. Some people who have a disability even own their own camp, but for most of us, many of whom are living on a low income, this camp is the only place we can go. I’ve heard about another public camp at Chippewa park that has accessible cabins, but when I looked at them, I saw that they were very small cabins and do not have washrooms in them. One must venture out to a public washroom that I found was not accessible to me. I could not use the toilet there. The nearest accessible washroom I could use would be almost a mile away, at the other end of the park, near the Wildlife Exhibit. That’s too far for me! Wilderness
Discovery would be a very heavy loss for everyone. I do hope the government extends HAGI’s lease or that they will see what a value it has for HAGI’s campers and will donate that land to them so that those of us who do have extra struggles in life can enjoy a little time off.
By: Tracy L. Hurlbert
From Change.org page
For years, HAGI Community Services For Independence has managed and developed the facility, and been great stewards of the camp. But now the Ontario government has decided not to renew their lease and wants to sell the land for an asking price of $866,000, more than seven times what they were asking for just five years ago, and far more than the non-profit HAGI can afford.
As HAGI’s Executive Director David Shannon told the CBC, losing the camp “would be a true tragedy for, not just the disability community, but everyone in northwestern Ontario. It’s one-of-a-kind in the world.” What's going on here? Why would the government rather sell it privately to some millionaire? It just doesn’t seem right.
Every year, Wilderness Discovery welcomes many Canadians, Americans like us, and others from around the world. Kirk travelled the globe during his Navy days, and he says it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. While it’s certainly scenic, part of what makes it beautiful is the experience the camp represents for its patrons. We’ve found our Canadian neighbors to be among the nicest and most welcoming people in the world, and I believe every Ontarian should be very proud that your province is home to such a unique and wonderful place. (Trust me when I tell you that we have searched extensively for anything similar and nothing else compares.)
https://www.change.org/p/kathleen-wynne-and-the-legislative-assembly-of-ontario-save-the-wilderness-discovery-resort-for-the-disabled?recruiter=7249565&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=share_facebook_responsive&utm_term=des-lg-share_petition-no_msg&utm_content=ci_fb_share_title_text%3Adm_sIf they sold the land at asking price and distributed the proceeds to you, every Ontarian would get just over $0.06. Is that 6 cents worth depriving the disabled of having their camp? I hope we’ve convinced you that Wilderness Discovery, and everything it means for the disabled people who visit, is worth more than your 6-cent share from a possible private sale. Keeping this camp open would mean the world to us, and to so many others.