About 20 years ago, Carol Rogers fell and injured her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. She has been using a wheelchair since then.
Fast-forward about 14 years, and Rogers found herself out of her wheelchair and in a kayak for the first time, and not a regular one either – a racing kayak, far more narrow and unstable than the traditional craft.
“It’s a great sport for adaptations,” she said. “It’s a great equalizer. Once you’re out there, you don’t look any different from anyone else. After the first time, I was hooked.”
But for Rogers and most other parakayakers, canoers and other water athletes with disabilities, it has been impossible to get on the water without help. They have had to drag themselves along sandy embankments, use stools and have other people help maneuver them and their craft.
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Now, they can do it on their own right in the center of the Triangle at Lake Crabtree.
Most docks, even those that have been retrofitted to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, are 18 inches to two feet from the water.
“That’s hard even for an able-bodied person to get into a kayak,” Rogers said. “For (people with disabilities), you always have to have someone with you. You couldn’t do it alone.”
A new wheelchair-accessible dock at Lake Crabtree is just a few inches from the water, and it rises as the water does so it’s always accessible.
It’s the most accessible dock in the country, said Ashley Thomas, founder and executive director of Durham-based nonprofit Bridge II Sports and a parakayaker herself.
It’s the first low-profile dock in the country installed by EZ Dock, a Missouri company specializing in floating docks.
The dock has a specially designed transfer system that enables paddlers with disabilities to enter the water independently. There are slips for kayaks, canoes and other craft as well as a rolling system that can push kayaks into the water unassisted.
Rogers, who competes internationally, said it’s by far the best dock she’s ever used, and it’s the only one she can use without help.
“This is the only place I know of in the world where I can do it on my own,” she said.
Rogers did just that on Saturday, wheeling down the gently sloped dock, lifting her kayak into a slip, securing her life jacket and hat, lifting herself into the narrow racing kayak, securing her legs and heading out onto the lake in a matter of minutes.
“This dock is a symbol of true access,” Thomas said. “The plan took five years and a team of experts, including representatives with a variety of disabilities, to come together as a community with the goal of creating water access for everyone.”
Work on the project began in 2011, and Bridge II Sports, Wake County and other partners including MetLife hope that the dock will bring more paddling competitions to the Triangle and that more people of all abilities will visit the lake.
The nonprofit hosts Valor Games Southeast, a three-day introductory adapted sports competition for more than 100 veterans and members of the military with disabilities. Thomas said the new dock will be a game changer.
A MetLife official said the dock was a good fit for the company.
“MetLife has a long history of supporting people with disabilities, with our first policies insuring Civil War soldiers against wartime-related disabilities,” said Eric Latalladi, senior vice president of engineering for MetLife Global Technology and Operations, which has offices overlooking the lake and new dock. “Today we’re continuing that commitment not only through the products we sell, but also by actively recruiting people of differing abilities across MetLife.”
The dock isn’t all that’s new to Lake Crabtree County Park. The county funded a new accessible path – at an ADA-compliant grade and wide enough for wheelchairs – leading to the dock. The county also upgraded the restrooms, making them ADA-compliant. A new boathouse is planned, too.
On Saturday, members of Bridge II Sports, parakayaking athletes and coaches, representatives from Wake, MetLife and the Duke Energy Foundation gathered for a ribbon cutting at the dock followed by a paddling fundraiser for the Bridge II Sports parakayaking team.
The project is estimated at $600,000 in public-private investment, Thomas said.
“It is our responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way,” said Wake Commissioner James West.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
For more information on Bridge II Sports or to donate to the ongoing boathouse project, go to www.bridge2sports.org. For those who donate, write “for the boathouse” in the comments section.