by: Nerissa Cannon
One of the original Freedom Chair Trailblazers, Nerissa, now works full time with GRIT! Her own journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life in spite of a disabling condition.
"The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime."
-Henry David Thoreau
I've spent most of my life living in land-locked states. High mountain deserts have been my proving ground. There are photos of me as a 3-year-old standing in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but I don't remember much of that time. I never equated the Beach with Summer. The only real time I have spent at any beach was when I briefly lived in South Australia. Beaches are a way of life in Australia, and I was delighted by the energy and activity of the coast. That was long before I was having to deal with my mobility challenges, though.
I hadn't yet had the opportunity to visit a true beach setting in the years since I first became sick. When my birthday rolled around while I was working in Boston, my friends decided to treat me to what a New England beach had to offer. I gladly accepted the invite as was to be the first opportunity that I would get to try out my GRIT Freedom Chair with my new Beach Wheels. I'd spoken with many people about how it is possible to use the Freedom Chair on the beach, but I hadn't yet been able to personally experience it. I was eager for this new adventure!
I was just barely through the parking lot and past the concessions stands and knew I was in for quite a work out! The sand was loose and thick. I was heading towards an uphill battle with a dune. I left deep, rutted tracks as I pushed forward. Was it tough? You bet! There is a reason why many athletes train in sand. As much effort as it took me to keep moving forward, the important thing was that I kept moving forward. I was not getting bogged by the sand. I was not stuck. Slowly, I inched my way towards a temporary saving grace: the access mat.
Many beaches are starting to implement these mats for wheelchair users. I see it as a wonderful addition not just to benefit those in wheelchairs, but also anyone with a mobility challenge for whom walking in sand is challenging. Even parents with strollers or groups with rolling coolers filled with drinks and snacks for the day will be grateful to come across this walkway on the loose sand. It most definitely cut down the effort I had to expend and got me closer to the water that much sooner. I had this vision of racing full tilt along the ramp all the way into the sea. The only downside is that it didn't go ALL the way to the water. I guess they knew adrenaline junkies like me would cause a high speed safety issue, ha ha!
At first I was a little annoyed that it didn't get me as far through the challenging sand as I hoped, but that's all part of the adventure! I took a deep breath and prepared myself for another set of coastal chest presses! I was making progress, but I felt bad that I was slowing down my friends. One offered to push me which I at first declined out of habit. I'm fiercely independent, but I've been trying to let myself accept help in certain circumstances. It's still tough for me to do so; however, being able to see the ocean made me eager to get to the water's edge ASAP. I struck a reluctant bargain with my friend: I would carry her shoes in my backpack, she would push me, and I'd still help by pushing with the levers so that not all of the effort of moving me was put on her. Working in tandem got us to where we were going MUCH faster than if I had remained stubbornly independent.
Together, we reached the last dune peak before I could do a straight shot down to the water's edge. It was a relief to be through the hardest part, and exciting to finally be able to find a spot on the beach and hit the water! It was a truly beautiful day to meander along the shore. About 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but slightly cloudy so the sand was cool to the touch. A chill breeze meant you stayed comfortable even without getting into the water.
The only hazard on the beach I had to stay wary of as I pushed along were all of the holes dug by the many child visitors. Luckily, I didn't fall into a sand trap! We all set our things down eagerly, and I got my Service Dog, Cash, settled in. Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts was not a "dog-friendly" beach at this time of the year. He was there in an official work capacity if I needed him in any way, but he wasn't free to play and explore. He didn't seem to mind too much, though! As I said, the day was a beautiful temperature, and so he didn't seem to mind watching me and the curious seagulls from the sidelines.
Once Cash was settled on the beach, it was time for me to literally hit the surf! Now that we were past the loose, thick sand of the dunes, it was quite easy to push my Freedom Chair. The incline and the wet, packed sand made me itch to just bomb it down into the water. I took it at a pretty good speed, but still erred on the side of caution the first time, not knowing if there were any hidden obstacles under the water. What joy! It was way too fun to hit the water and have it splash back at me. The water was VERY cold. Most people were only wading as it was, so I was on the same level as the majority of the other beach visitors. I was able to wheel into the water up to the back of my seat pan, the front tire fully submerged in the ocean, and STILL I could move the Freedom Chair around on my own! I did attempt to get myself further into the water by using the front arm of the Freedom Chair as a brace and lowering myself in, but I couldn't get past my belly button with how cold the water was. Oh, well! I still had an incredible time playing in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.
I had no trouble getting from the water back up to our claimed place on the beach. After making several runs from our spot back down to the water (mostly just to be able to feel the thrill of hitting the water at a high speed), I decided to relax for a while listening to the sea birds, the waves, and enjoying the sun and the feel of sand underneath me. It was also a good opportunity to utilize my Service Dog's skills as a pillow!
Eventually, we all started to get hungry. The plan for my birthday dinner was going to offer me my first taste of New England fried clams. We packed up our things, but I started to be concerned that by the time I manually pushed myself back up the sand dune we wouldn't get there before the restaurant closed. Fortunately, on our way in, a member of the staff working the beach saw us and told us I could hitch a ride back to the parking lot in their John Deere Gator. All I had to do was get a lifeguard at the tower to radio for it, and my chauffeur would come to pick me up. I took advantage of their offer, and it was actually pretty fun! How many people get to ride a 4WD vehicle over the dunes on a busy public beach? My driver had never seen a wheelchair like mine on the beach and was impressed with it, asking me lots of questions. He easily helped me unload, and my friends and I made it to the restaurant in time for fried clams (though, they were sold out of the fried oysters by the time we got there).
I had a fantastic time on my birthday beach adventure! I've done a lot of rocky trails and woodland hikes in the Freedom Chair, so the sand and ocean was a new type of challenge for me. As difficult as it was, it didn't dissuade me at all from this type of terrain. On the contrary, now that I'm back in Utah I'm already planning to visit many of the sand dune areas near me. It will be a great way to strength train while also enjoying some stunning scenery.
None of this would have been possible without my GRIT Freedom Chair. Every day I use it I'm grateful to the designers, but when I overcome a new obstacle like a beach I'm overcome with appreciation. My Freedom Chair is the reason that my chronic illness hasn't kept my from living an active and adventurous life. I look forward to many more "GRIT" days in the future!