Camping by Myself as a Quadriplegic: The Pinnacle of Independence

I developed a love for nature at an early age. As a student at Paul Smith's College in the summer of ’92, I was introduced the lean-to lifestyle. Grab some food, sleeping bags, maybe a few flashlights, and off we went into the woods.

The simple life.

When I broke my neck in a diving accident in 2004, the furthest thing from my mind was getting back into the woods. I had to learn to sit up, feed myself, and just do regular activities of daily living that we all take for granted. I was paralyzed from the chest down with limited arm and wrist movement, and no independent movement of my fingers.

A man in a wheelchair and an individual standing fish from a wheelchair-accessible pontoon boat.

Back to nature

International Paper-John Dillon Park is a true wilderness experience. The site was chosen before it was determined to be accessible. Most places that are accessible are close to the road. This is two miles off of the main road outside of Long Lake in the least populous county of New York state, and the geographic center of the Adirondack Mountains. Talk about wild!

International Paper-John Dillon Park operates through an endowment from International Paper to offer free camping and day-use to the public. The park has been managed and staffed by Paul Smith's College since 2006. Last year they added St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center’s to offer more programming and to increase the utilization by people with disabilities.

I discovered John Dillon Park in 2015. My first trip was just for the day; at that time I didn’t think it would be possible for me to spend the night camping. Eventually I gained the courage and had plenty of help to attempt it in 2016. I returned in 2017 and twice in 2018. That was when I inquired about getting involved. In the spring of 2019, I attended a board meeting and talked my way into the job of Outreach Coordinator. With a background in independent living and a degree in human services, I had the missing link to the operations piece.

A wheelchair and handicapped accessible lean-to in the forest.

At John Dillon Park

In 2021, I camped on 10 different occasions and a total of 25 nights. Four of those trips were entirely by myself. The services and amenities at John Dillon Park are what make it all possible. It starts with the staff transporting your stuff to your lean-to. The trails are exceptionally accessible. The main campground is a 1 mile loop. The trail is 6 feet wide of level, hard packed stone.

All 9 lean-tos have ramps into them, and there are sleeping platforms that are attached to the wall or portable ones, depending on where you are and what your needs are. This means that you don’t have to get down on the floor and back up again. There are plenty of people who might have difficulty doing this, but the only way that I can get from my chair to a sleeping bed is to use what’s called a slide board. Basically, a bridge that I put between my chair and the bed to slide across.

A wheelchair-accessible sleeping area in a lean-to

The lean-tos are set up in pairs to accommodate larger groups, except for the only one that is accessible by car. Two are located close to the upper parking lot. There are two that face the water and offer beautiful sunset views. For the truly adventurous, there are two located 2.5 miles down an accessible trail, away on Handsome Pond.

I use a motorized wheelchair. The park has portable charging units so that guests can charge their chairs while they're sleeping at night. These can also be used to operate a CPAP machine, an alternating pressure mattress, or whatever medical device you might need.

The author grilling over a specialized, accessible outdoor camping grill.

The fire pits are specifically designed to be accessible. They consist of two metal rings with ventilation, and there is sand in the bottom so that you don’t have to bend over all the way to the ground. The fire pit unit even includes a grill that moves effortlessly to the outside, making it easy to load it up without having to reach across the fire.

Firewood is delivered every day, as is kindling, which is not only convenient, but makes it so that people don’t go off the trail and through the woods. The layout of the park is built into the landscape as to not disturb the natural contour of the land.

Two photos of individuals in wheelchairs fishing.

There is a viewing platform that overlooks the lake and provides beautiful sunsets beyond the mountains. On Grampus Lake, we offer accessible fishing, a place to launch your canoe or kayak, and tours of the lake on our accessible pontoon boat.

Canoeists on a tranquil lake with mountains beyond.

In the news

The highlights of last season included a visit by Cory Lee, of "Curb Free with Cory Lee” and renowned accessibility travel blogger, and the first annual Disability EmpowHer camp.

A group of women from a disability rights group at a campground.

Last year we also added St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery to provide a more detailed approach and to include programming.

Accessibility has also been featured in many news stories and essays highlighting John Dillon Park.

The cover of the magazine Adirondack Explorer, showing the author in his wheelchair.

Explore more!

There are many other places to camp with accessible features. I have only explored a few Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) campgrounds: Lake Eaton, Lake Durant, and Lewey Lake. There are accessible features at all of them. Lake Durant and Lewey Lake have new shower units that offer individual rooms, including accessible ones. You can find a list of all state campgrounds online that includes specific outlines of accessible features.

A wide view of canoeists paddling on an Adirondack lake.

What's next?

In addition to being the Outreach Coordinator at John Dillon Park, I am also the Chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Committee to the DEC. We are advocating for more accessible features all over the state. We recently spoke to the newly appointed Chief Disability Officer and look forward to continuing the conversations with other officials, like the Commissioner of the DEC. Our goal? To establish a simplified system by which people can find accessible features all over New York state.

Every trip to the Adirondacks should be fun and filled to the brim with opportunities for everyone. There are a variety of experiences across the Adirondacks that are welcoming and designed with visitors with disabilities in mind, and offer beauty to all travelers. Adirondack Wayfinder offers a specially designed road trip trail highlighting accessible camping, historic sites, attractions, and more!

Whether you're here for a few hours, a few days, or a few months, there are places to stay, delicious meals waiting to be discovered, and plenty to do in the small towns & big outdoors of Hamilton County.