If you are an able-bodied person in Humboldt County, it is not difficult to get to the beach. But if you use a wheelchair or walker, or are blind, it is a lot harder. Hard enough to effectively keep most disabled people away from the beach, said Alissa Norman, community advocate for Tri-County Independent Living, an advocacy organization for the disabled community.
To remedy this situation, the county Parks Department is installing a long plastic mat made of separate plastic sections along a flat and well-used trail at Clam Beach. The trail begins at the paved parking lot just off Clam Beach Drive, about a half-mile south of the Crannell Road intersection. It crosses about one-tenth of a mile of soft sand that's easy enough for dogs, horses and able-bodied humans to traverse, but an impenetrable barrier for anyone in a wheelchair.
The Parks Department had previously purchased some beach-accessible wheelchairs but discovered they were only usable on wet, hard-packed sand near the shoreline. Those wheelchairs have been temporarily removed from service.
Now, the department has purchased the mats, made of recycled polyester fabric, to cover the soft sand on the trail. The flexible individual mat sections are fastened to the ground by spikes and have tiny filter holes that allow sand grains to pass through the porous surface.
"These have already been successfully used at Muir Beach and Stinson Beach and in southern California beaches, as well," said Karen Clower of the county's ADA Compliance Team.
The county held an open house on the beach Feb. 17 and Feb. 18. One section of mat had been laid down near the parking lot; Clower said there were two others farther down the trail, but the work was obviously just in its beginning stages. The project is expected to cost about $30,000.
A few beach patrol officers from the county Sheriff's Department gave their thumbs up to the project. A small group of equestrians were less pleased, saying that the shiny fabric spooked their horses. Although the trail seemed wide enough for a horse to pass without stepping on the mat, the equestrians worried about a possible conflict between riders and wheelchair-users. Others said the mats would soon be buried by the blowing sand that characterizes Clam Beach. Uri Driscoll, a spokesperson for the equestrian group, wondered if all the necessary protocols had been followed in terms of getting a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
Hank Seemann, deputy director of the Environmental Services Division of the county's Public Works Department, said there was no record, either from the county or the state, of endangered snowy plover nests being found close to the trail.
These issues did not seem to bother the three representatives of Tri-County Independent Living who attended the open house. Juliannah Harris, the organization's assistive technology coordinator, and her guide dog Guthman stepped out onto the mat and walked to the end of the section. Harris described herself as having both low vision and a mobility problem.
"It's like night and day," Harris said about her short walk. "Walking the mat was nice. It was firm and stable. I felt very secure. I was able to follow the mat with my cane, and my guide dog understood the edges of the mat. I could also follow the edge of the mat with my cane and walk in the sand alongside it without fearing that I would go astray."
Her only suggestion was the Parks Department add a tactile sign for the benefit of the visually impaired.
Once the trail is completed, mobility-impaired people will again be able to reserve one of the county's beach wheelchairs by going to https://humboldtgov.org/2526/Beach-Wheelchairs or they can use their own personal devices, which Clower said would work on the mats as well.
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.