Water Trail Accessibility

Assessing and Creating More Accessible Facilities and Programs

This course is designed to help water trail managers and outfitters improve opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities to enjoy water trails.

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Event Details

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May 24, 2012

10:30 AM to 12:00 AM (Pacific Time) {more time zones}

11:30 AM to 01:00 AM (Mountain Time)
12:30 PM to 02:00 AM (Central Time)
01:30 PM to 03:00 AM (Eastern Time)


FREE for members
FREE for nonmembers

Learning Credit Cost:

  • CEUs are FREE for this webinar.
  • Note:

    Closed Captioning is NOT available for this webinar.
    Learning Credits are NOT available for this webinar.


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    Webinar Outline

    photo credit: Mike Passo


    This course is designed to help water trail managers and outfitters improve opportunities for people of all backgrounds and abilities to enjoy water trails.

    The webinar includes a 75 minute review of adaptive program principles, principles of assessing existing water trails to provide critical information to all users, how to create water trails out of urban streams, and real life examples and case studies of water trail challenges.

    Join us for discussions and case studies, and take away valuable tips and techniques for creating new oppportunities for paddling and water trails for people of all abilities and skill levels.



    Mike Passo, Executive Director, American Trails
    Bellingham, WA

    Mike Passo is the Executive Director of American Trails. Mike has also served as the Executive Director of the Professional Trailbuilders Association and the owner and operator of a sea kayak outfitter called Elakah Expeditions. Mike has led groups of all backgrounds, ages and abilities on sea kayak expeditions in the San Juan Islands of Washington, Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Mike has conducted an extensive study of outdoor developed areas nationwide to determine the cost implications of construction according to proposed Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and a Congressional study on improving access to outdoor recreational activities on federal land. He has a B.S. in Recreation Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, including three years’ coursework in Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering. He has presented on Universal Design and Programming at several national conferences and served on the Board of Directors of American Trails since 2000. His love of the outdoors and his own paraplegia has given him a great interest in the creation of an accessible outdoor environment that does not ruin the characteristics and value of that environment.


    Doug Alderson, paddling trails coordinator, Florida Office of Greenways and Trails

    Doug Alderson works as the assistant bureau chief for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails, part of DEP’s Division of Recreation and Parks, helping to coordinate the planning and promotion of non-motorized trails throughout the state. Prior to his current role, he mapped the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail and he continues to coordinate the state’s designated paddling trails. In his free time, he is an avid cyclist, hiker and paddler. He has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, coordinated a group walk across the United States, and backpacked through Europe. He is also an award-winning author of several published books, including A New Guide to Old Florida Attractions, Wild Florida Adventures, andThe Great Florida Seminole Trail. In 2015, he was awarded the first ever Environmental Leadership Award by Paddle Florida.


    Robert (Bob) Searns, Owner, Robert Searns and Associates, Inc.
    Littleton, Colorado

    Robert Searns is a trail and greenway planner/designer/developer and has a four-decade award-winning history in trail planning and implementation. He has worked with communities to visualize concepts, win support and get projects built. He co-authored Greenways: A Guide to Planning Design and Development (Island Press)—Published in the U.S. and China and contributed to Greenways: The Beginning of an International Movement (Elsevier Press). He has written for Planning, Landscape Architecture, LA China, and American Trails Magazines.

    Bob has authored a number of trail management and sustainability articles and reports including recently serving as a principal author of a trails management and sustainability guidelines report for The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area (U.S. Forest Service).

    He served as Chair for American Trails and helped found the World Trails Network. He has produced and moderated Webinars, policy guidelines and other products for American Trails.

    Bob holds a Master of Architecture from The State University of New York.

    Bob is currently writing a new book with Island Press on close-in trails and walking routes. The publication date will be available later in 2022.


    Webinar Resources

    QUESTIONS and ANSWERS from Webinar on Water Trail Accessibility

    Q. Are all accessible launches expensive to build?

    Similar question: What if you just don't have a lot of money to highly develop a water trail launch?
    Mike— I am of a firm belief that providing good, objective information about the key elements of a launch can increase the accessibility by 80% without spending a dime on changing the launch at all. Admittedly, if you have a highly developed launch site where the level of expectation of the visitor is that a highly accessible situation should exist.
    Doug— As I showed in my PowerPoint presentation, there are number of “soft” launch options that are very inexpensive. Many of these launches simply make use of the natural shoreline features, or sand, gravel or heavy crushed stone such as granite are added. If the shoreline is very steep or otherwise unsuitable, this is where some of the more expensive options come in.

    Q. What are the major safety and liability concerns with urban paddling?
    Bob— Water is always potentially hazardous. Key hazards are hidden hazards like keepers at dams, strainers like fallen trees and unskilled users. Alcohol can also be a danger. Key is to plan to remedy hazards that can be fixed, have safety signage and paddling instruction programs. In some instances, public announcements of river dangers during high water (and possible “closures” may be in order though this can be controversial.)

    Q. What about people who don't have canoes, kayaks, or rafts?
    Doug— I would suggest renting a boat from an outfitter or joining a guided trip (especially if you are a beginner). Also, many waterfront parks these days have canoes or kayaks for rent at reasonable prices.
    Bob— Rentals, programs for canoeing and rafting, commercial float trips and many people in some cases can use tubes.

    Q. I am interested in recommendations for a beach mat that could be used to increase access to the water's edge. Someone answered: “Mobi” as an option.
    Mike— Yes, Mobi-Mat (www.mobi-mat-chair-beach-access-dms.com) is one of the best products that I have seen in providing access over sugar sand and other very soft surfaces.
    Also, a more portable and much cheaper (and also less useable) option can be roles of snow fencing, as well.
    Doug— I’ve seen mobi mats used successfully to make beaches more accessible, and they have uses in other terrains as well. Here is their website: http://www.mobi-mat-chair-beach-access-dms.com//prod_overview.php. I’m sure other companies make similar products as well. They can be used for temporary access, or anchored down for more permanent access. If sand shifts over them, the sand can be shoveled or swept off, or the mat can be pulled up and placed on top again. They are less expensive than boardwalks, but not as permanent.

    Q. Recent guidelines I've encountered for accessibility of outdoor recreational areas seems to address getting users to the high water line for beaches onto the boating dock, but don't seem to address transfer into the boats at that point. Am I reading this right? Are persons with disabilities on their own at that point?
    Mike— That is true, the current guidelines for Beach Access Routes do only address getting people to the high water mark. This is largely because it turned out to be extremely difficult to deal with the complexity of that portion of the access route. However, managers do still have the requirement of provide equal programmatic access to all of their activities. So if a manager provides boat launching opportunities to the public, then they need to do their best to address access for people with disabilities. I think that the best way to deal with the route to the water and possibly below it (for the transfer area) should as closely as possible follow the guidelines for the Beach Access Route up to the high water mark. In other words, try to hit 8% grades maximum, 2-3% cross slope, 60” flat resting spots at strategic locations, and as firm and stable a surface as you can accomplish given the environment you are working in.

    Q. Please discuss your experience with programmatic accessibility.
    Mike— Mike Passo is the owner and operator of Elakah Expeditions LLC. Since 2002, Mike has led groups of all backgrounds on sea kayak expeditions in the San Juan Islands of Washington, Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and in Glacier Bay Alaska. Mike has been the project director for all of Wilderness Inquiry’s trails and facilities assessment and Universal Design training projects—a program known as Access Outdoors. While with WI, Mike also took groups of people of all abilities on lakes, rivers and oceans all over North America. Mike has conducted an extensive study of outdoor developed areas nationwide to determine the cost implications of construction according to proposed American's with Disabilities Act standards, and a Congressional study on improving access to outdoor recreational activities on federal land. He has a B.S. in Recreation Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, including three years coursework in Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering. He serves on the Board of Directors of American Trails, a nonprofit trails advocacy organization. His love of the outdoors and his own paraplegia has given him a great interest in the creation of an accessible outdoor environment that does not ruin the characteristics and value of that environment.

    Add 550 paracord to your adaptive tool kit!
    Mike— Excellent Idea…useful, doesn’t take up much room… I like it.

    Q. Do you know if any of the EZ dock systems have been used in environments other than flat water? We are in SF Bay with tides, currents, sometimes waves, and I worry this system has not been tested in this environment.
    Similar Question: Do you know if any of the EZ-Dock-type transfer systems have been used in exposed marine environment with success?
    Mike— This, I believe, is the primary problem with that system. I have seen it used in salt water environments with tides very effectively, however, they are all in protected areas like Marinas and other areas that are thoroughly protected from wind, current and waves. I do not think it would hold up well in open water environments unprotected by a break wall. It appears to be possible to deal with tides by adding traveling pylons, however, it is hard to stabilize the railings going out into the water in a tidal or water level fluctuation situation (they are a little floppier, and therefore may not be as durable).
    Doug— I spoke with a representative with EZ Dock and they confirmed that installing their docks is similar to installing any type of floating dock. It all comes down to the anchoring device used--whether or not the dock can stay above the surface by moving up and down along tall pilings. Deadweight anchors and stiff arms are other anchoring options. Currents and extreme tidal fluctuations shouldn’t be a big issue if the dock is anchored properly and allowed to move up and down, according to the representative.

    Q. Do you have any advice on providing access to reservoirs where water level varies greatly throughout the recreation season?
    Similar Question: How do you deal with tidal or river level changes of over 15 feet?
    Mike— Large water level fluctuations are some of the hardest situations in which to provide consistent access according to established standards. The Accessibility Guidelines for Boating Facilities (pdf 2.1 mb) has addressed this issue by requiring that the gangways/ramps down to the dock should meet the 8.33% grade requirement at all water levels, but are not required to be over 80 ft long. At water levels below the point where an 80 ft ramp is steeper than 8.33%, the ramps are exempted and may be steeper. This is a good time to provide the information to the public about how steep the ramps may be (maximum AND average).
    Where docks are not present, the best access seems to be the graduated ramp made of a durable material (concrete, stone, etc.). Putting resting (flat) spots every 2-3 feet of rise will allow a reasonable transfer area. A good design drawing can be found on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website at http://www.iowadnr.gov/riverprograms/watertrails.html . And if the graduated ramp does not work due to excessively steep banks, the next step in accessibility is probably moving to the stair step design for steeper banks (again, see the IA DNR website listed above for a good design drawing).

    Q. For public docks (where tidal conditions exist), would you consider it acceptable to design a facility recognizing that a person using a mobility device will require some assistance? For example: would the person leave a mobility device on a dock unattended, when they leave to paddle?
    Mike— In many locations, it will be necessary for a person with a disability to require help in order to negotiate a launch. This would especially be true where the extended stair step launch system is used (see answer below). It is entirely up to the person with a disability whether they would trust leaving a wheelchair or other adaptive equipment behind at a launch. On the whole, I would not recommend leaving one unattended. However, I often do just that on some of the beaches I use for kayaking.
    As with all launches, you should make every attempt to design a facility for INDEPENDENT use by as many types of users as is possible (this is “Universal Design”). If that proves challenging due to terrain, difficult activities, challenging participants, or a lack of appropriate resources, then it is acceptable to design to the next best level of universal design. Throughout the process, your goal should be providing access to as many types of people as possible. Where more difficult access is required, provide the public with the key information so that they can choose for themselves whether that launch is suitable for their situation.
    Doug— I would suggest bringing a lock cable to lock a chair to a piling, tree, or some other permanent object. While it is unlikely that someone would steal a wheelchair, it could happen. In many cases, however, people do not paddle alone and a friend can bring the chair back to a vehicle.

    Q. How does a person who uses a wheelchair use the stair-step launches that were shown in the webinar as being accessible?
    Mike— Hopefully, as we discussed above, the designers tried hard to provide a design that is suitable for independent use. If the terrain does not allow this (i.e. steep and unstable banks), then sometimes the most accessible situation might be a set of steps with 9” risers (the height of a transfer step as outlined in Play Area Accessibility Guidelines). If possible, providing a run of 36” would allow a wheelchair/walker/etc. to rest upon each step. A person with a disability would then be able to (with assistance) negotiate multiple steps to get down to the water level. If terrain does not allow for 36” run, then a person could use each step like a transfer step and work their way (out of their mobility device) down to the water’s edge. Steps will almost always require assistance for people with mobility impairments, but overall, it can be the most accessible way to design a difficult launch. And, as I have said before, the best thing to do in this situation is to provide information to the public about the characteristics of that launch.
    Doug— Mike can probably better answer this one, but obviously a person would need to get out of the chair and move down each step. A rail is helpful and having a ramp option with rail is even better if the grade is not too steep.

    Q. What are the methods for providing the information to the users? Is there a standard like the “Trail Access Information Strips” for overland trails?
    Mike— There is no sample method yet, and definitely no standard. We’d love to develop a standard as we go forward. Right now, the Water Trail Assessment Form is the closest we have come to developing a standard set of data. American Trails has also provided a link to the Water Trail Assessment form. We’d love to work with groups like Beneficial Designs (developer of the Universal Trail Assessment Process, upon which this system is based) or other interested parties to develop some standardized formats for disseminating this information.
    Bob-Good question! I am not aware of systems like that but it is an interesting idea. At a minimum, information kiosks with maps at key entry points and safety signage/info such as need to wear life vests and that current can be hazardous are a must.

    Q. Can we get a copy of the presentations to share with other staff and water trail stakeholders?
    We have recorded the webinar and all attendees should have received a link to the archived webinar. If you did not receive that link, please email us at [email protected]. American Trails is committed to providing useful resources and a meaningful webinar series. However, we hope attendees understand that this is also a way for American Trails to raise funding in order to continue to provide you and the trails community services and resources into the future.

    Yes, you may share the webinar link within your immediate staff. We would, however, ask that you recommend to your stakeholders and peers that they purchase the webinar from our Online Store. We have purposely kept the registration fee purchase price low. And again – members save 45% off the cost of the webinar!

    $25 for Members
    $45 for Non-members
    The archive of the webinar is available for purchase in the American Trails Online Store.

    Q. Are there classes available that can train planners and others about paddling accessibility?
    American Trails offers a “Water Trail Assessment and Adaptive Paddling Workshop
    ,” featuring Mike as the lead instructor.
    Janet Zeller, in conjunction with the American Canoe Association, also offers “Adaptive Paddling Workshops” around the country.
    See the American Trails “Calendar of Trainings,” along with the American Trails Water Trail Resources web pages, to learn about additional trainings scheduled throughout the country and to access a myriad of resources. Check back often.


    Water Trail Accessibility Resources (pdf 49 kb)
    Steps to Developing Nondiscriminatory Essential Eligibility Criteria (pdf 61 kb)
    Accessible Boating Facilities: A Summary of Accessibility Guidelines for Recreation Facilities (pdf 2.1 mb)
    Canoeing and Kayaking for People With Disabilities by Janet Zeller
    Why water trails are better than land trails: by a kayaker with a disability (Mike Passo)
    See more resources on accessible trails, ADA requirements, and current news...

    American Rivers Blue Trails Guide
    Florida State Designated Paddling Trails
    Guidelines for Developing Non-Motorized Boat Launches in Florida (prepared by FL Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission)
    National Water Trails System
    Water Trails/Blueways: National Park Service Partnerships and Resources

    Water Trail Accessibility and Assessment Workshop (pdf 180 kb) from American Trails is available for local sponsors to host in your area
    Accessible paddling workshop: set the stage for water trails, by Mike Passo
    American Canoe Association Adaptive Paddling workshops
    See the National Trails Training Partnership calendar for currently scheduled training opportunities...

    Water Trail Site Assessment Tool (pdf 61 kb)
    Florida Guidelines for Paddling Trail Development
    Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network: Water Trail Toolbox
    Iowa DNR Water Trails Toolkit
    Minnesota DNR Water Trails Program
    Logical Lasting Launches: Design Guidance for Canoe and Kayak Launches (pdf 7.1 mb)
    AccuDock, Kay-aKcess kayak dock system
    E-Z Dock, canoe/kayak dock launch system


    While we may individually agree (or disagree) in whole or in part with any or all of the participants, the views expressed in these webinars are not necessarily representative of the views of American Trails as an organization or its board and staff.

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