John Dillon Park welcomes all

LONG LAKE – Valerie Hunsdon was in a car accident in 1992 that left her without the use of her legs. Since then, it’s been difficult for her to experience the backcountry.

But that changed last summer when Hunsdon visited John Dillon Park, outside of Long Lake, for the first time.

The park is designed under guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means the trails are flat and wide and free of obstacles such as roots and rocks. Some sections of trail are covered with gravel while other places consist of long wooden bridges over wetlands.

For someone like Hunsdon who uses a wheelchair, these types of trails are invaluable.

“I have complete freedom,” the Crown Point resident said. “I could go anywhere.”

Hunsdon said she’s gone to other places where she can get around, but traveling on paved surfaces doesn’t provide the same backcountry experience she gets at John Dillon Park.

“When it’s paved it’s accessible,” she said. “When it’s not, that’s way more adventurous and exciting.”

John Dillon Park opened in 2006, touting itself as the first park in the country that provides a wilderness experience for people with disabilities. It was made possible by International Paper, which donated a conservation easement on the land to the state of New York. The park is named for retired International Paper Chairman and CEO John Dillon, a Paul Smith’s College alumni. The college now manages the facility, using an endowment fund and donations to keep it running. The costs of running the park are kept down because it is solar powered and off the grid.

Hunsdon said she went on two camping trips to John Dillon Park last summer, including one in July with her boyfriend Jim McLaughlin and her son Travis. Both trips consisted of three-night stays in a lean-to.

The lean-tos are larger than your normal backcountry ones. They have ramps for wheelchairs and each one has a bed platform that folds down from the wall. The platforms are a great place to put an air mattress.

“I was completely independent,” she said. “I could go up the ramp. Go in the lean-to. (I) kind of played house. It was a nice little space where we could put our clothes and all of our stuff.”

For eating or just hanging out, there is a picnic table close to the lean-to. Wood is stored in a small shelter that is refilled by park staff members.

Outhouses are larger than normal, and food storage facilities are available to keep it away from animals.

The property has nine lean-tos and one tent site. Seven of the lean-tos are located along the trails near Grampus Lake, but two are 2.5 miles from the welcome center on Handsome Pond.

The pair of lean-tos on Handsome Pond are there for people who want more of a backcountry experience.

“The lean-tos are in pairs to accommodate large groups,” said John Dillon Park manager Stephen Ellis, who has been working in the park since 2006 and has been the manager since 2009.

Ellis is in charge of many of the services that the park provides free of charge.

“I tell people it’s like effortless camping,” Ellis said. “You come here, and I’ll take care of the rest. You just have to come here and enjoy yourself. I’ll come and stack your firewood. I’ll clean your outhouse. I’ll take your trash out for you, and it’s all free.”

Ellis and his staff also have a golf cart and another small vehicle to bring visitors’ camping gear to the lean-tos. They can also provide battery carts for charging medical supplies and wheelchairs. He also takes guests out on a pontoon boat for sightseeing or fishing tours on Grampas Lake.

But even with the services the park offers, it doesn’t have the feel of a crowded campground or RV park.

“This is a quiet facility, truly,” Ellis said. “We get a different demographic of people. We’re not getting people who are bringing their pop-up campers or fifth wheels and whatever else. This is really bringing them back to the rustic camping of sleeping in a lean-to that people would have done in the 1880s.”

Ellis said the park attracts a variety of people, including those with disabilities, families with small children and locals looking for someplace quiet to go. Most of the visitors are day users but the lean-tos are popular on weekends.

One recent visitor was Jensen Kohler, a 7-year-old from Cambridge, New York, who came with his family and some friends for the day.

“We took our canoe out and we went fishing and caught about seven fish,” Kohler said.

His mother Kelsey Kohler said her family has been to the park several times and said it’s a good fit for little kids.

“We came because we knew we could do some hiking on the trails,” she said. “They’re very accommodating for littler kids. We have some small kids with us and also it’s challenging enough for the bigger kids to be able to get out and do some independent things.”

Another frequent visitor is Janet Van Staalduinen who brings groups of people with disabilities to the park on a regular basis as part of Heritage Christian Services. The group uses the facility for day trips because they have a retreat for people to sleep at in Inlet. She really appreciates the way people are able to enjoy nature at the park and also the way visitors are treated by staff members.

“They greet our people with great dignity,” she said. “To me, that means the world to me.”

Hunsdon echoed those thoughts and noted that the fact that the services and park is free is very important because not everyone can afford to pay a lot of money for having these types of experiences.

“That alone limits people. I know that it does. Like medical equipment limits people from being able to go and do things like able-bodied people,” she said. “So for them to have a place that is so accessible for me and my manual wheelchair, with it being near the water, with it being in the woods, the trails. It’s definitely an amazing place and just a wonderful experience and opportunity for (people).”