Taking the High Road: off roaders introduce disabled to the back country
Robbi Rishel gripped the dashboard of the jacked-up jeep and held onto her dog Ginza as they bounced around, trudging through the back country.
Just off the Cisco Grove exit on Interstate 80 lies some of the gnarliest off roading terrain in Northern California. This was Rishel’s first time four wheeling, yet it was far from a standard trip.
Last weekend, members of the Sierra Treasure Hunters Club, a four wheeling group based in Sacramento, the Grass Valley Four Wheelers, Disabled Sports USA representatives and 11 very eager people who were about to take their first four wheeling ride through the Sierra high country congregated at Fordyce Lake. Rishel was one of the lucky few.
In January 2001, Disabled Sports USA’s Far West program received a grant from the state of California to implement an off highway motorized vehicle program into their curriculum.
Jason Berger, the program’s coordinator, recruited the manpower and vehicles from the Treasure Hunters and Grass Valley Four Wheelers to assist in two days of off road trips with disabled people from all over California.
Rishel, a Tahoe Vista resident for more than seven years, is a successful graphic artist who gets around in large part because of her 15-month-old dog Ginza. Rishel is deaf and Ginza is one of only 1,500 hearing aid dogs in California. Teamed up with her driver Chris, Robbi and Ginza set out to tackle the rocky Fordyce trails.
“I had never worked with disabled people before, but after watching their faces, well that just makes it,” said Steve Medley, president of the Sierra Treasure Hunters. Twenty-six four wheel veterans from the two clubs made the trek up north to volunteer their time, get in some off roading and perhaps even improve the sport’s tarnished public image.
“There are all types of perspectives about the sport of four wheeling, most of them are bad. Events like this are important to show what we are really about,” said Grant Rubino, a volunteer driver from Grass Valley.
OHV (off highway vehicle) enthusiasts have fought for years against environmental groups and irresponsible four wheelers to protect a sport that they say adamantly supports responsible back country use.
“This is a passionate group, but also a very responsible group. Off roaders are really doing good things for the community, it is just unfortunate that many people refuse to even come and see the work we do,” said Jack Raudy, public relations representative for California OHV organizations.
Nationally, four wheeling clubs have been responsible for implementing the “Adopt A Trail” program, which clears trails for hikers, equestrians and off road vehicles while preserving the natural environment. Many clubs like the Sierra Treasure Hunters consist solely of families who practice responsible off road recreation and disallow venturing off the trail, littering or smoking while in the back country.
“We are not out here to show off; we take our time and stay on the trail,” said Berger.
In addition to reinforcing the altruistic and conservative face of four wheel groups, the volunteers came away with a few unexpected benefits.
“Until last weekend, I had never realized the extent that we would all emotionally benefit from this experience,” said Jim Bramham, a volunteer driver.
“How do words express the joy of witnessing the laughter or smile of a person experiencing riding in a four wheel drive vehicle for the first time in their life and looking down from the top of Signal Peak to the valley below? Those experiences are taken for granted by most of us, but we saw they really meant something to our guests.”
Drivers changed a flat tire in the fashion of a NASCAR pit crew, held their passengers’ hands, assisted severely disabled riders into the jeeps and laughed the entire time.
Thirty-seven year old Chris Snell of Menlo Park, Calif., was not scared for a minute, as the wheels spun madly beneath him.
“I told Jim what to do the whole time, that’s how we did it,” he laughed, making noises as he illustrated the proper way to shift and steer up the gnarly gap.
Snell has Down syndrome and has participated in several Disabled Sports programs.
“I am not scared of anything. I’ve been rafting and cross country skiing and I roller-skate all the time,” he said.
Michael Anderson of San Mateo, 28, was not quite as bold as Snell. When asked if he would do it again he said, “I don’t know. It was pretty scary.”
Participants in the maiden trek ranged in age and severity of their disabilities. This posed a challenge for Berger and the volunteers who were combining disability with the sport of four wheeling for the first time.
“We usually don’t wear harnesses when we go out riding because it restricts your ability to move with the vehicle,” said Berger. For the weekend trip he built a modified belt to hold the riders in the jeeps.
“Some of these people cannot control their bodies as well – especially their necks. That is why it is important to strap them in carefully.”
Of course, Berger was not expecting Victor Martinez, a rider with a severe case of cerebral palsy who likes to shift gears while the vehicle is in motion.
“Apparently his brothers taught him how to shift and they let him do it sometimes,” said Berger.
Despite these small obstacles, the weekend ran smoothly and every participant and volunteer headed home on Sunday sufficiently dirty with a big smile.
“I don’t think we could find any better PR people for OHV than everyone that was here this weekend,” said Raudy.
More trips in this same area are scheduled for later this summer as well as one in conjunction with Sierra Trek. Depending on the success of this pilot program, it is also slated to go statewide beginning next year.
“The smiles and responses from all the participants will make it very easy for the volunteers to return with a friend,” said Bramham.
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