Accessibility to waterways becoming a priority in state and local parks

For many, summertime in Michigan means spending time in the water, whether that’s at Lake Michigan, inland lakes or the rivers that feed into the lakes. But for those with limited mobility, this summertime recreation traditionally has been off limits. Fortunately, more communities are putting a priority on making waterways accessible to those who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues.

In Ottawa County, the village of Spring Lake emphasized accessibility in the redevelopment of Tanglefoot Park which has allowed the public to reclaim the use of this waterfront property. 

A universally accessible kayak launch was central to this project because when Tanglefoot Park committee members began discussions of what a new park could look like, they wanted to make sure it was open to all, says Stefanie Herder, Spring Lake’s downtown development director. 

The park also has accessible parking, restrooms and water fountains. There will also be outdoor seating options with accessible picnic tables. The installment has been delayed by supply chain issues. 

“We worked with a local resident on how the park could be made more accessible and enjoyable to someone with a mobility issue,” says Herder. “An accessible kayak launch makes it easy for everyone to launch and dock their kayak.”

She says the universally accessible kayak launch includes an ADA transfer bench, which allows those with disabilities, as well as children or seniors, to feel confident transferring into their watercraft independently by providing extra stability when launching or docking. 

“There is nothing like a calm day floating on the water, and we want everyone to have the chance to experience that,” Herder says.

The Spring Lake park is an example of how thoughtful planning can make facilities accessible for everyone, says Stacey Trowbridge, Director of Community Development at Disability Network Lakeshore.
 
“DNL couldn’t be more thrilled to hear about Tanglefoot Park’s commitment to change its layout," says Trowbridge. "These additions are critical to ensuring that the entire day on the water is accessible and enjoyable for all. An accessible launch is wonderful, but if someone in a wheelchair can’t use the restroom or park near the launch, they are unable to participate independently in this popular activity.”

Priority in the state

Accessibility to waterways is becoming a priority in state and local parks. Michigan Water Trails has mapped out the ADA accessible locations across the state. Here is what you’ll find in West Michigan:

The Grand River Greenway in Ottawa County has a waterway with several accessible or universal kayak launches, including:
 
In Michigan state parks, track chairs have played a key role in bringing people with mobility issues closer to the water. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that a growing number of state parks have all-terrain chairs that can be reserved. Most have been added as gifts from donors.  

GR's first accessible launch

In Grand Rapids, the city recently unveiled its first accessible canoe and kayak launch. The EZ Launch, located at the Riverside Park lagoon, 2001 Monroe Ave. NE, provides barrier-free access to the lagoon and Grand River for paddlers of all abilities.

The new accessible launch is an important piece of the city’s vision for a River For All as the Grand River restoration work continues, says David Marquardt, the city’s parks and recreation director.

The City of Grand Rapids' first accessible canoe and kayak launch is at Riverside Park.

“Canoeing and kayaking are ranked among the top recreational activities for Grand Rapids residents, and this important project makes paddling activities more accessible to our entire community,” Marquardt says.

In addition to the launch, accessibility improvements in this project include the replacement of a portable restroom near the parking lot with an accessible portable restroom, new accessible parking spaces, and 8-foot-wide paved pathways from the parking lot to the launch for barrier-free access.

The improvements will benefit everyone, not just those with disabilities, says David Bulkowski, Executive Director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.

“The accessible kayak launches are really about inclusion and better access for everyone. Take it from me, a very novice kayaker who does not have a disability, who loves using the accessible kayak launches to get in and out of the water myself. I find kayaking way more fun when I stay dry. I’m guessing others without disabilities are discovering the same joy," Bulkowski says. 

The accessibility improvements were funded by a $150,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources recreation passport grant and $80,000 from the city’s parks millage fund.

Michigan has more than 500 miles of water trails, and that number will be growing as more rivers are put through the application process.

In order to be designated as a Pure Michigan Water Trail by the DNR, a river must have Water Trail access points accessible by everyone and be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Grand River trail has 19 points that are accessible in Kent and Ionia counties and 13 with accessible parking, according to the 2020 WMEAC Water Trails Report. West Michigan sites with universally accessible boat launches include the Lowell City Ramp in Kent County; Lake Odessa Municipal Beach in Ionia County; and Historic Bridge County Park and Paddlers Grove Water Access in Calhoun County.
 
This article is a part of a year-long series exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.