Making Adventure Travel Accessible
Traveling with Multiple Sclerosis brings a set of challenges not typically encountered by the fully able bodied. Accessible accommodations, fatigue, adaptable transfers and excursions, loading the scooter, there’s a lot to think about!
Now consider adventure traveling to Alaska, America’s final frontier, Described by World Atlas as “rugged and wild with glaciers, countless rivers and lakes, majestic mountain peaks, some active volcanoes, and nearly 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline,” you might not be thinking, “Hey you with the limited mobility, load up the Travel Pro and come explore?” But think again!
There are all sorts of challenges that arise with traveling – and traveling with multiple sclerosis and limited mobility definitely raises the stakes on challenges. However, we have found that one of the most important ways to keep the positive mental model that helps Dre overcome his MS on a day to day basis is making sure we are getting out and experiencing all of the things we want to do in life to the best of our ability.
Alaska was absolutely on our bucket list, and we knew we needed to get up there while Dre’s MS is in a place that still allows for it, and before climate change altered any more of the phenomenal landscape of this beautiful state.
So what are some of the key things we did to make sure Alaska was truly the adventure we wanted to experience and became our next trip of a lifetime? Here are some things to consider.
Check out our Alaska Adventures on our YouTube Channel! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsXM8lPqAknP7Tiw_3EOS7
Do your research
For anyone who loves traveling, getting on the computer and searching for your next destination is definitely a part of the fun. Figuring out where you want to go, what you want to eat, what specific destinations you want to see… so much fun!
Traveling with multiple sclerosis adds a crucial layer of research to the process. With the modern ADA laws, there are many places that are accessible for scooters and wheelchairs. We’ve had very little problem traversing through most American cities – however, when you start wanting to explore off the beaten path… accessibility becomes much more difficult.
When we started looking at the different options for our Alaska trip we eliminated some immediately. A back country hiking and fishing expedition wasn’t going to work. And while cruise ships are accessible and convenient, we didn’t want to spend the majority of our time on the boat and confined to their options for excursions, which didn’t really get us into the Alaska interior.
After perusing multiple websites and tour options, we found ourselves continually coming back to the Alaska Railroad Wildlife Safari package. The package offered a nice balance of excursions that would get us out to see the incredible wildlife and geography of Alaska while also giving us the freedom to be traveling as a couple and not with designated tour groups. We also liked that we would get the opportunity to travel through a huge expanse of Alaska land and enjoy the scenery without having to worry about driving or loading Dre’s chair in and out of a car multiple times.
However, we didn’t stop our research there. Each excursion was operated by a different vendor that wasn’t connected to the Railroad and each had its own obstacles, which meant our research had just started.
Communicate with excursion operators!
Traveling with multiple sclerosis means good communication. Before booking the trip I did a lot of talking with the Railroad to let them know about our need for accessibility, Dre’s physical limitations and that we would be needing to transport his scooter. These initial conversations were crucial to have, to make sure we would be able to travel with his scooter and have accessibility on different rail cars. We also needed to make sure that there would be transportation for Dre’s scooter between the train and hotels, find out if there were excursions that would require or not allow for the scooter, etc.
The railroad also got me in contact with specific outfitters that would be guiding our excursions to make sure they would be accessible for Dre. The railroad tour operators were very knowledgeable about the different excursions, and they recognized that they weren’t knowledgeable about our specific needs for each of these outings, and I appreciated their willingness to make sure we had spoken to outfitters to make sure Dre would be able to participate.
These conversations caused some adjustments that made a huge difference in our vacation. Probably the biggest and most important change we had was when I was doing research on our bear viewing excursion with Rust’s Flying Service. We knew that Dre would be able to get in and out of the plane that would take us to the bear viewing, but as I was continuing to do research on the actual tour that we had gotten booked on, it looked like there was quite a bit of walking on a beach. I called the railroad, which got me in contact with the operator. Sure enough, the excursion would have had us out on a fairly rocky beach walking roughly a mile or so, looking at bears. Nothing about that seemed like it was going to be a good for us – but we really wanted to see bears!
Rust’s was able to switch us over to their other bear viewing excursion, which was perfect for us! This excursion put us on a boat heading out to a Bay where Dre did not have to walk other than to and from the boat and the water plane, and there was no concern of his gait causing alarm for a feeding bear. We also ended up seeing one of the most beautiful, serene places we could have ever dreamt of, filled with bears and bald eagles. So it was a win, win.
Be upfront about challenges and ask questions
I’ll be the first to admit, I asked a lot of questions and was very upfront about Dre’s mobility in the booking of this trip – and I’m glad I did!
Once tour operators started hearing my questions, they were able to ask questions of their own; Can he handle three stairs getting into the plane? Is he able to take the stairs up and down the bus? Can he get on and off the boat alone or will he need assistance? Can he walk forty yards on a somewhat rocky beach to get to the raft?
Their questions helped us understand what sort of physical activity Dre would need to be ready for and think ahead about what shoes to wear, if the cane would be enough of a support, if we’d need an additional person to help balance… those types of questions.
It also gave the tour operators an idea of if they could accommodate us. Can’t go wading? OK, we’ll do some boat fishing and throw a folding chair on the boat and find a spot where we can shore fish with the chair. What was very apparent was that all of the operators wanted us to enjoy the tours, and they appreciated Dre’s willingness to overcome his challenges, so they were very happy to help – we just needed to be ready for whatever came our way.
Check Transportation Shuttles for accessibility
This was probably one of our biggest ahas. Many of the shuttle busses that took us to and from excursions were not handicap accessible. Because Dre is able to get up and down minimal stairs with railings and/or help, this did not hinder our trip. If a lift is required for you, double check with operators.
When we wanted to go out on the town or cruise around, we found ourselves calling for a Lyft that would accommodate Dre’s chair. There were some hotels that did have lifts available on their vans, but we needed to call the front desk ahead of time and schedule the correct van. Others were able to fit the scooter in the luggage holding area, but we had to make sure the scooter got loaded first, which caused a couple of waits when the vans were full.
Traveling with Multiple Sclerosis Requires Flexibility
Any planner knows, things never go as planned. Even for all of the conversations, communication, questions and details, we hit some bumps. If we were going to enjoy the trip, we needed to take the bumps in stride and work around them.
When booking our excursion to the Wildlife Conservation Center (a wonderful excursion that we highly recommend), we were told we would have a wheelchair available for us when we arrived. There is a lot of walking on that tour and we weren’t able to bring Dre’s scooter on the van. When we arrived, there was no wheelchair, not even one available, and if it was available, it wouldn’t work. The road leading through the center is dirt and bumpy and did not lend itself to pushing a chair.
Our van driver instead made accommodations for us to ride through the center with him, getting us pretty close to most of the exhibits. Dre was able to pick and choose which exhibits he wanted to get out of the van to see and was also able to rest in the van when he didn’t want to get out.
Plan for both of you
Perhaps the most important aspect of traveling with multiple sclerosis that allows Dre and I to travel together is that we really work on creating itineraries that work for both of us. Sometimes there is an assumption that because one person can’t do something or doesn’t like it, it shouldn’t get done. That would really limit a lot of the things we end up loving to do.
I love to hike. Dre loves to fish.
Obviously, hiking isn’t on Dre’s to do list, but this doesn’t mean he ever would keep me from finding a mountain to climb. What we look at in building our itinerary is when will Dre need time to rest to keep from getting too fatigued on the excursions. This is usually when I build in my time to hike.
Typically when we first got to our destination Dre would take some time to rest and I would head out and explore. This also allowed me to find areas that are accessible to him that we can explore together later on. I was able to find some accessible trails in Denali that we were able to hike together and places accessible places for us to cruise with the scooter to dinner.
And when we booked our fishing trip with Great Alaska Adventures, I grabbed the camera and binoculars and spent most of my time taking in the scenery and pretending to fish while Dre actually did the work.
Enjoy your Adventures!
MS teaches its lessons, and it definitely changes how you do things. There are days it’s not going to let you get out of bed, and days frustration takes over because what was once so easy, just isn’t any more. But as Dre shows me every day, that doesn’t mean adventure is over. It means how you do it will change, but the reward will still be amazing.
Please visit our Resources page if you are interested in finding some of the tools and gadgets Dre uses to make living and cooking accessible while combatting MS.