Since he began using a wheelchair, the bumpy ground of Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve has been untraversable for Ben Trockman. But this month, Wesselman Woods opened a free-to-use American Disabilities Act-accessible trail so visitors of all physical abilities can enjoy the nation’s largest urban old-growth forest.
For Trockman, an advocate for people with disabilities who also represents the First Ward on Evansville’s City Council, this trail represents one of those “small examples of accessibility and inclusion that will hopefully set an example,” he says.
“This is accessibility at its finest.”
Its benefits were seen immediately following an Aug. 26 ribbon-cutting ceremony, as Trockman and Kenny Page Jr., who also uses a wheelchair, tried out the .12-mile trail that begins just beyond the nature center. It takes about a minute to go around, says Page, who adds he hopes the nature preserve receives funds to build longer accessible trails.
Like Page, Jerry Rairdon, Wesselman Woods’ director of development, hopes this is the first of more accessible trails to come at Wesselman Woods.
“That way, I could spend half an hour or so. It would be nice,” Page says.
Efforts at accessible trails at Wesselman Woods have been attempted before. In 1968 — before ADA guidelines were mainstream — a dozen Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts created a mulch pathway with the dream for it to become an accessible trail with braille signage. Asphalt eventually was applied to the trail, but through the years, tree root growth made it increasingly difficult to traverse.
The new trail features signs asking a question, with an interactive component that reveals the answer or provides context for the surrounding plant life. It also takes users past the Vanderburgh County Champion Tulip Tree and Alcoa Raptor Building housing a bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and great horned owl. A bench on the trail soon will display two plaques, in English and braille, honoring Eugene “Buzz” Latham, who passed away in early July as the result of a bicycle-car accident.
Page has been out on the trail just about every day since it opened. For some, it will be the first time they get to experience nature up close safely.
An AARP Community Challenge grant funded the new trail. Trockman connected Addison Pollack, AARP Indiana’s director of community engagement, with Zach Garcia, Wesselman Woods’ executive director. Out of 3,600 applications submitted nationally, Wesselman Woods was one of only 310 chosen, and one of seven selected in Indiana, receiving $15,000 from the grant.
While the trail can be used by anyone — those looking for a short walk, babies in strollers, and people with limited mobility — Trockman hopes this will inspire more dedication to accessibility and inclusion throughout Evansville.
“Having the accessibility to make it out into the woods is incredible,” he says. “I hope to see more examples across Evansville.”