Politicians, philanthropists and lovers of the outdoors came together Thursday afternoon to celebrate the completion of a seemingly paradoxical concept: a wheelchair-accessible backcountry trail.
The Murdock Creek Trail north of Ketchum can now accommodate wheelchairs and all types of users with limited mobility, due to a partnership between the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, created with the help of Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Erik Schultz of the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation.
Though the trail is only seven miles north of Ketchum behind the SNRA headquarters, Schultz said it's hardly a typical wheelchair trail.
"This is not a paved stroll in the park," he said. "When people think of a wheelchair trail, they think of a paved bike path. My goal has been to show that it doesn't have to be like that."
The upgraded part of the Murdock Creek trail measures just over one mile, with two stream crossings on wheelchair-accessible bridges and a short trek through an alpine meadow. In order to be considered accessible for people with limited mobility, the trail should be at least three feet wide, be as smooth as possible without any hazards such as rocks or tree roots and have a gentle slope.
"Of all the projects I've worked on during my 23 years here, this is by far my favorite," said Ed Cannady, recreation technician for the SNRA. "You see these people on the trail, and there's no other trail they can hike, but they can get out and enjoy that magical experience."
The trail was designed with wheelchair users in mind, but Cannady said it's also perfect for formerly avid hikers who are now advanced in age, but still want to get out and hike.
"There's that community of people who love mountains and they live here for that reason, and this is a trail they can still do," he said. "It's really gratifying providing great trails for young fit people, but it's especially gratifying making trails for people who were in their day young and fit."
Cannady said he ran into one man on the trail who was using two hiking poles and likely should have been using a walker, but who had obviously been an active hiker in the past.
"He was loving it," he said. "He was beside himself that there was a trail he could still hike."
The trail itself was seven years in the making, originally introduced by Simpson as part of his early Boulder-White Clouds projects. Murdock Creek was identified as a potential option for an upgrade in 2005, which is when Schultz worked with his family foundation to fund an environmental assessment for the project and get the process going.
Simpson secured federal funding for construction through an appropriations bill in 2008, and construction began in earnest last year.
Schultz said he was especially excited to see this backcountry trail completed. Schultz has used a wheelchair since a skiing accident seven years ago paralyzed him from the waist down, but hasn't let his limited mobility keep him from getting into the backcountry as much as possible.
"I used to be an avid mountaineer, backpacker, and just the idea of being able to get out again in a backcountry setting in my wheelchair was appealing," he said. "It can be a trail that allows more people with mobility challenges to be able to experience a real backcountry hiking trail."
Schultz traveled the trail in his chair at least a few times with Cannady before the upgrades were completed, even crossing the lower part of the stream in his chair unassisted during high water, the creek swirling at waist-height.
"We don't use Erik as our benchmark," Cannady said. "Just because Erik can do it doesn't mean anyone else on earth can do it. He knows very few barriers."
Murdock Creek is not the only wheelchair-accessible trail in the region. The 18-mile Harriman Trail along the Big Wood River, the Wood River Trails and the Boundary Creek trail off Trail Creek Road are all possibilities for those who don't mind front-country hikes. But for wheelchair users who crave the backcountry, Murdock Creek and the recently completed Phyllis Lake Trail just south of 4th of July Creek Road are some of the only options in the nation.
"Wilderness and backcountry hiking trails always get spun as discriminatory toward people with disabilities," Schultz said. "This is one more thing that makes this place a go-to destination for people with mobility challenges who want to get outside."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com