A visit to Strouds Run State Park for Davey McNelly often involves sitting in his car reading a book rather than taking part in events on the beach and hiking trails with his friends and family.
McNelly, a disability rights activist, was unable to use many of the trail systems and other features of the park because they were not accessible to people with mobility disorders. That changed Friday, however, when the new Blackhaw Trail at Strouds Run State Park had a grand opening ceremony. The half-mile gravel trail, which runs along the north shore of Dow Lake, allows for wheelchair use.
“Often, people with disabilities are segregated from the community without people realizing that it's going on,” McNelly said. “It’s so nice to have one locally that I can get to in 10 minutes rather than driving 45 minutes to get to.”
The Blackhaw Trail grand opening was held at 10 a.m. at the Bulldog Shelter House on Strouds Run Road. The event was organized by Friends of Strouds Run, or FOSR, a community organization that works in tandem with the park to raise money and do improvements projects.
About 40 people showed up to the grand opening and got to do a group hike on the trail. During the hike, park employees and members of the board of FOSR showed off the trail’s features, which includes a nature observation platform which doubles as a fishing platform.
Meredith Erlewine, the former president and current board member of the FOSR, said the trail was originally intended to provide a safer connection between the two parking lots. If people were without a vehicle, they had to walk on the road to get between the two areas.
“We wanted views of the woods, views of the lake and we wanted to not disrupt any native plants,” Erlewine said. “We wanted people to be able to see as many views of the woods and lakeshore as possible.”
FOSR raised about $40,000 for the trail through contributions from OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, Athens County Foundation, Rocky Community Improvement Fund, Lance’s Bunkhouse and Quidel. Dirt Artisans, a natural surface trail design and construction firm from Kentucky, constructed the trail with planning assistance from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR.
The trail was not originally intended to be accessible, but ODNR asked for that to be put into the plans when FOSR came to it with its plans for the trail. The construction and planning for the project took 4 1/2 years.
Trails with accessibility features are rare in Athens County and people often have to travel all the way to Hocking Hills State Park to access trails that allow for wheelchair use, McNelly said. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway and the new trail are some of the only local options for Athens residents with mobility disorders. Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow are two options at Hocking Hills.
“I just love this park, and I go here all the time because I only live three miles from it, and I hadn’t really taken the time to think about how lucky I am to spend so much time in the woods,” Erlewine said. “I’m excited that more people can enjoy the woods now.”
Athens City Councilman Peter Kotses, D-At Large, said Erlewine, his wife, was heavily involved with overseeing the project. Having this trail and Strouds Run be so close to the city of Athens is one of the reasons they love to live in the area so much, Kotses said.
“The thing that I like about (the trail) is that it gives a completely different vantage point than any of the other trails in the park and it really takes advantage of the lakeviews,” Kotses said
The Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities, or ACBDD, was also involved with planning the trail and helped to make sure it was accessible. Employees of the board came to the event to assist people with mobility disorders participate in the group hike.
“I was worried about pushing wheelchairs on this but the gravel is packed down good enough,” Sue Orth, an employee of ACBDD said. “As long as it's not real wet or rainy it should be fine.”
Since the trail is located on the lake’s shore, it will not always have the correct conditions to be accessible to wheelchairs, Erlewine said. Flooding, heavy rain and winds can cause the trail to be inaccessible to most users.
McNelly said the trail is a huge game changer for Athens County and he hopes it sparks a change in how projects plan on being inclusive to people with disabilities.
“I think it shows when people think inclusively ... and listen and talk to people in the community and try and be more inclusive, you get something like this which is better than what is was originally intended to do,” McNelly said.