By Paul A. Smith
Mcfarland, Wis. — Monica Kamal isn’t one to sit still.
That was true before a 2001 skiing accident left her paralyzed from the chest down.
It’s true today as she conducts life from a wheelchair.
Bird watching, hunting, teaching and touring natural areas are all parts of her life.
“There isn’t any substitute for getting outdoors,” Kamal said. “It’s therapy for every part of my being. I know it helps others, too.”
Kamal, 49, is a founding member of Access Ability Wisconsin, a group formed last summer to help people with physical challenges enjoy outdoor activities in Wisconsin. The organization is a sub-chapter of the Dane County chapter of Pheasants Forever.
Since her injury, Kamal has learned firsthand the obstacles people face when trying to engage in outdoor activities in wheelchairs.
The wheels on most chairs aren’t suited to travel over sand or gravel or long grass. The chair itself often isn’t stable enough for safe movement across rugged or uneven ground.
But the right piece of equipment can solve all those issues.
That’s why Kamal and Access Ability Wisconsin are so excited about an all-terrain, motorized wheelchair called Action Trackchair.
Designed and manufactured by Action Manufacturing Inc. in Marshall, Minn., the chair features tanklike tracks instead of wheels.
It’s the ultimate “off-road” wheelchair, Kamal said.
“It opens up so many possibilities,” Kamal said. “It allows people to focus on what’s possible instead of what’s not.”
Kamal is a DNR-certified hunting safety instructor.
Before she had access to an all-terrain wheelchair she could lead the classroom portion of the curriculum but wasn’t able to teach the field components.
“I’m not half an instructor anymore,” Kamal said.
The chair is the brainchild of Tim Swenson, a Minnesota businessman who spent 30 years in the recreational motor sports industry before focusing his efforts on an all-terrain wheelchair. Swenson has a son who uses a wheelchair and knew “people would love the freedom of mobility to go hunting, hiking, fishing, going to the beach and much more.”
The Action Trackchair is powered by two 24-volt batteries and can travel at speeds up to 4 mph.
When fully charged, the batteries can run the chair constantly for four to five hours. If turned off while in a blind or during a break, the charge can last an entire day, Kamal said.
Kamal used the chair to track a deer last fall. Earlier this year, she used it to hunt pheasants in a field of corn stubble.
In April, she used it to travel across farm fields on a turkey hunt in Iowa County. Hunting from a ground blind near Blue Mounds with her partner, Steve Spaeni of McFarland, and Bill Alber, also of McFarland, Kamal shot a longbeard.
“It provides independence,” Kamal said. “It’s superior to having someone drive you on an ATV. With this chair, you are in control.”
The chair features a joystick and push buttons for controls. It can also be fitted with a “puffer” for people without the use of their hands.
Kamal said the chair wasn’t just for those unable to walk. It can be used by anyone — whether through age, injury or disease — who is unable or unwilling to walk over rough terrain.
“We’re losing hunters and other outdoors people because they’re getting older,” Kamal said. “With this chair, they don’t have to quit.”
With an electric power source, the chair runs quiet as a whisper.
It allows a hunter or wildlife viewer to change position without spooking animals.
The ability to adjust the seat position — from tilted slightly forward to a deep recline — adds a measure of comfort and safety.
When going uphill, the user tilts forward. If going downhill, backward. The chair can also turn in a tight radius.
Critical to those who spend their day in a chair, the movements also allow the user to change positions and alleviate pressure points on the tailbone, back and thighs.
One conservation organization has started a program Kamal would like to see modeled throughout the state.
The Eden chapter of Wings Over Wisconsin purchased an Action Trackchair and makes it available free to disabled people.
The organization only requires users to have a vehicle capable of towing a trailer and for the chair to be returned “clean.”
Access Ability Wisconsin would like to see all-terrain wheelchairs available for loan at sites throughout Wisconsin.
Never content with the status quo, Kamal muses: “Wouldn’t it be great if every Pheasant Forever chapter in the state had one? Or every conservation group? Or every state park?”
Access Ability Wisconsin is holding a fundraiser this month to help it buy an Action Trackchair. The cost of a standard chair is $10,200, Kamal said. Access Ability Wisconsin would own the chair and loan or rent it for use.
“Getting outdoors on this chair increases independence and decreases depression,” Kamal said. “Those are the two keys.”