Avid hunters and anglers who've been deterred by physical disabilities and uneven terrain have a high-tech ally to get them outdoors again.
South Dakota Game Fish & Parks partnered with South Dakota Youth Hunting Adventures to obtain an all-terrain track chair, which is available for use free of charge. The chair provides safety, stability and mobility on flat terrain, rugged ground or hills to people with disabilities.
"It’s for those that are disabled that can’t walk or who are in a wheelchair or would have a hard time walking a long distance," said Tyrel Schmelz, program manager Habitat at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City. "It's another opportunity to get your outdoors enthusiasts outdoors. For those who think they're not able to, or if they couldn't afford a chair (like this), it's another option for them."
The chair and a solar-powered trailer to transport it are housed at the Outdoor Campus West. The chair can be checked out for up to two weeks. Hand-held controls adapt the chair for going over hills and terrain, or flat country, while accessories make the chair practical for hunting and fishing. The chair is equipped with pouches for carrying guns, ammunition, binoculars, fishing poles and other gear, leaving the user's hands free to operate the chair's controls. A rifle rack stabilizes the hunter's gun for more accurate shots.
Becky Noble is one of the chair's most avid users and advocates. A car accident when she was 17 left her paraplegic. Noble, the club membership manager at Cabela's in Rapid City, said using the chair has given her new freedom to hunt big game, turkeys and doves, and to simply enjoy the outdoors.
"A few years ago, I went on an antelope hunting trip to Nevada, and I was able to use a track chair, and it was the coolest thing I have ever used," Noble said. "I can hunt from my vehicle but it's not the same. Having access to a track chair allows me to do more things on my own, and I can get to different places than I would be able to with my pickup."
"When I first got on the track chair, I could feel nature under my feet again, even though it wasn't my actual feet. I was able to hear the sounds of nature, instead of (being inside) my pickup. It was a very emotional, moving experience for me just to be able to access things on my own," Noble said. "I wish I could use it every day!"
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The Outdoor Campus West staff recommends that people with disabilities be accompanied by a non-disabled adult who can load and unload the chair, and who can accompany and assist the person using the chair. The solar battery-powered chair travels at a speed between three and four miles an hour, and can run between five and eight hours, depending on amount of use and the kind of terrain it's on.
Before checking out the chair, individuals watch a training video and are encouraged to practice using the chair — either outdoors at home, at a familiar location in the Black Hills, or by traversing the nature trails at the Outdoor Campus West, Schmelz said.
"We want people to have a safe and successful hunt," he added.
Noble is a mentor for South Dakota Youth Hunting Adventures, but she encourages the community to see the many potential benefits of a track chair. For example, Noble used the track chair when she was a bridesmaid at an outdoor wedding, at a location difficult to navigate by wheelchair.
"You could take the track chair out on a trail. Take Grandma or Grandpa out. You could do a section of the Mickelson Trail. You've got the family walking along side you, and Grandma or Grandpa is enjoying the view with no effort except moving the joystick," Noble said. "What a great opportunity for somebody like that."
For more information about the track chair, or to reserve it, call the Outdoor Campus West from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 394-2310.