By Scott Rains
In May 2008 the chartered yacht Sea Wolf cast off from Gustavus,
a l a s k a , t o e x p l o r e G l a c i e r B ay w i t h s e v e n p a s s e n g e r s , m y s e l f i n c l u d e d .
This small community—held together by a thin wooden hull as it passed
between icebergs, fjord walls, and near beach-patrolling grizzlies—be-
came its own ecosystem, and a sort of freedom machine for disabled
and non-disabled alike. a trend in modern history led me there.
Parents once packed kids away in the back seat tipped off that something out of the ordinary is
of the car with the family trailer in tow. Later, about to happen. In real-life encounters with pro-
a generation retired to the road as RV nomads, found transformation the props rarely give away
while the romantically inclined rediscovered the the story beforehand, but the Sea Wolf gave me a
rails. Meanwhile, cruising became king on itiner- few hints.
aries such as alaska’s Inside Passage. My trek began with a slightly goofy-looking
Megaship floating resorts won young and old black dog bounding toward me down the boat’s
alike to the “unpack once and let the ports come ramp as I sat on the dock in my wheelchair. I
to you” travel style, and the adoption of Universal felt more like I was entering a cartoon than what
Design—land-based design guidelines developed was to become something of a mythical odyssey,
in the seventies by quadriplegic architect Ron where seemingly simple questions get unexpect-
Mace—and acceptance of its counterpart, the Way- ed answers. Questions like “For a quadriplegic, is
point-Backstrom Principles of human-centered getting a new wheelchair closer to putting on new
maritime design, allowed seniors and others with clothes or adding a new body part?” Maybe the
disabilities to travel freely. yet a “small is beautiful” dog’s name, Boo, should have been the first clue
movement to minimize megaship anonymity and that the answers would be surprising.
to maximize intimate ecological contact evolved all human beings use tools to extend their ca-
among pioneers. naturalist Kimber Owen is one pabilities. For someone like me, with a mobility
of them. impairment, equipment that allows for increased
She customized her 97-foot, wood-hulled WWII mobility can be seen as the aforementioned free-
minesweeper, christened the Sea Wolf, to accom- dom machine. That equipment—along with the
modate slow and non-walking passengers on all built environments and attitudes one encounters—
three decks. To do that she drew on the nautical represents real gateways to be negotiated on the
technical expertise of paraplegic entrepreneurs path to participating in life as a full human being.
like Mike Passo, owner of Elakah Expeditions, Tools that equalize opportunities can take on the
and partnered with the yacht broker industry’s naturalness and intimacy of a limb over time. I
only certified accessible travel specialist, Sherri had never thought of a boat in those terms before,
Backstrom, who is also director and co-owner of though.
Waypoint yacht Charter Services, which is based We left from Gustavus, as I’ve mentioned, which
in Bellingham, Washington. Owen picked her is a small community located inside Glacier Bay
crew with an eye for that “something extra.” In national Park. Crystalline air and near-artic light
the end she has achieved something characteris- surrounded us with spring-like alaskan weather
tic of this movement; full programmatic inclusion on our departure. a week of clear skies and a hint
of people with differing abilities that goes beyond of unseasonable warmth were an added bonus.
mere physical accessibility. Intentional, systemat- Heading four hours up the bay, our first stop was
ic social inclusion is the genius of this movement. the Reed Glacier.
Stories of magic and adventure often begin with Glacier Bay is a place apart. Formed by the
a mysterious beckoning path, a magic bridge, or fastest receding glaciers in the world, this 60
maybe a doorway of no return. The reader gets mile-deep network of fjords in Southwest alaska
016 | January/February 2009
Aboard a 97-foot accessible vessel exploring
Alaska’s Glacier Bay, the author ponders
the meaning of inclusion and the guiding
principles of Universal Design.
Whales breach, sea lions sun,
otters entertain, porpoises
taunt boats to go faster, and
harbor seals shyly peek up
once they’ve passed.
venturetrav.com January/February 2009 | 017
literally did not exist when the first European
explorers—led by Captain George Vancouver—
passed by in 1794. Where seawater still sloshes
under the calving tongues of glaciers, there is
more to be revealed. The bay continues grow-
ing. Grizzlies and black bears prowl anxiously
each summer, exploring the addition to their
territory that comes with glacial retreat.
Humans have two fundamentally different
ways of being introduced to the primitive en-
clave that is Glacier Bay. approaching from
the Pacific Ocean reveals an ecosystem of ma-
ture forests and a diversity of land and marine
wildlife. Bears rule the land, while signs of na-
tive alaskan culture still linger in the woods.
Offshore whales breach, sea lions sun, otters
entertain, porpoises taunt boats to go faster,
and harbor seals shyly peek up once they’ve
passed. We were introduced through the oppo-
We started at the barren end, where life
scratches for a foothold on land. There, alien
landscapes held frozen and scrubbed barren
under up to a mile of ice emerge for a second
life after hundreds of years. The birth of ice-
bergs into the sea means the rebirth of that
time-suspended glaciated land.
The interdependence of it all is starkly appar-
ent. Seabirds nested on the high fjord walls cap-
ture, and then predigest, nourishment for their
chicks. as if following the same script, glaciers
spew powdered and dissolved remnants of the
walls themselves where they meet the sea and
form teeming marine nurseries, nourishing the
At top, the harness used to hoist kayaks—and our author—from the ship’s deck hungry new life gathered there.
where guests explore the shoreline in tandem boats, center. At bottom, the 97-foot Here the near-freezing water is far too cold
World War II minesweeper Sea Wolf is retrofitted for accessibility. for sustained human contact, so the proper
tool for participation in this “mountains-into-
the-sea” encounter at the mouths of glaciers is
a sea kayak. The same winch aboard the Sea
Wolf that lowered the boats from their storage
on the third deck to the water below “flew” me
down to my own kayak. While the way I entered
was not the same as those who could walk, the
tool required for everyone’s kayak to enter the
water was the same one that I used. The first
of several “inversion of perspective” moments
created by the ship’s singular environment oc-
curred when I realized that the ladder down the
side of the ship was a “special accommodation”
for the walking guests. My needs, it seemed,
were not really so “special” after all.
as a quadriplegic with an unreliable grip,
someone else needed to paddle, so a tandem
kayak was the appropriate design for me.
Through the wisdom of the Sea Wolf crew my
paddle-wielding companion, Sarah Betcher,
was also a young and perceptive naturalist.
Primary photography by Scott Rains
018 | January/February 2009 venturetrav.com
The following accessible motor and sailing vessels are available through Waypoint Yacht Charter Services for itineraries found
around the world:
Argyll (motor vessel, or M/V): staterooms. Dedicated to charter ports in England, Wales, Ireland, and
153’ for 10 guests, five cabins. Caribbean, holidays for guests of all abilities. Belgium.
New England, and Bahamas.
Tenacious (S/V): Verity K (S/V):
Kona Aggresor II (M/V): 164’ with eight wheelchair berths, 35’ for five guests, three staterooms.
80’ for 14 guests, six staterooms. Built in individual bunks. Sails from various
1995, this dive boat explores the rugged,
beautiful western coast of the island of
La Reine Pedauque (M/V):
128’ for eight guests, four staterooms,
including two accessible suites. Cruises the
scenic Burgundy Canal in France.
Savoir Faire (M/V):
132’ for 12 guests, six staterooms. Choose
from seven itinerary choices in France,
Belgium, or Holland.
Sea Wolf (M/V):
97’ for 12 guests, six staterooms, including
three that are fully accessible. Guest areas
include a dining room, main viewing salon,
and a covered aft viewing/dining deck.
Seadream I & II (M/V):
344’ for 110 guests, with 55 staterooms.
The ultimate private luxury yacht
experience for corporate groups, family
events, and reunions.
Shannon Princess II (M/V):
106’ for 10 guests, five staterooms. Built
in 2002, she cruises along the lower
Shannon in Ireland.
Islander (motor sailing vessel):
192’ for 10-12 guests, five staterooms.
Luxury cruising at its best in the
Lord Nelson (sailing vessel, or S/V):
137’ with eight wheelchair berths,
individual bunks. Sails from various ports
in England, Wales, Ireland, and Belgium.
Solis Invictus (S/V):
43’ for six to eight guests, three to four
venturetrav.com January/February 2009 | 019
I know people who swoon at the idea of being poled itations and freely share—and draw from—our differing
lazily in a gondola through the canals of Venice. not me. abilities. We progress best when practicing this inter-
I am not a passive participant in the outdoors. I grew dependence. In fact, the event made its way into the
up hiking, skiing, camping, or eco-volunteering into the current version of the Waypoint-Backstrom Principles
Cascade Mountains at least once a month throughout (the complete document can be viewed on the Waypoint
my youth. So it was a measure of Sarah’s skill that I YCS Web site, which accompanies this article):
could be satisfied contributing no physical effort to our
kayak’s graceful forward motion while she explained Maritime practice traditionally assigns clearly-defined
the chemistry that colors glacial ice, the anatomy behind shipboard roles and responsibilities. Design assump-
the unique sound of a surfacing Harbor seal’s breath, tions follow. assumptions about the abilities (physi-
and how the vegetation on the land to either side of us cal, mental, or sensory) of the idealized role-holder as
broadcast the exact date when the glacier melted per- they are designed into products, spaces, and practices
manently, exposing a particular patch of land. may prove to be disastrous in emergency situations.
I did make a contribution, however, and that was to be In such cases the only person available to fulfill a life-
the person that the Titanic lacked; the man at the bow saving task may not share the ability set assumed in
guiding our thin shared skin safely past razor-sharp the design whether that is through temporary injury
icebergs. Once, when we were safely past a “tiny” piece of the crew, or substitution of a child, elderly person,
of ice, we turned to watch it demonstrate the law of or person with a permanent disability. Designing for
physics that keeps at least 90 percent of its mass below extraordinary conditions is a principle that accepts
the surface… most of the time, at least. Behind us we current evolving definitions of disability as the inter-
watched as the backpack-sized protrusion of ice we’d action between ability (functionality) and environ-
just disturbed flipped on its axis, flailing sharp edges as ment (design; social response to variety in human
it spun. In the process it exposed the submerged body, functionality). It “imagines” disability as a normal
which was much larger than our boat. consequence of life and designs for it proactively.
That lesson in survival through interdependence
brought me back to the core of disability culture: We Inclusion is transformation of the world through imag-
progress best when we acknowledge our personal lim- ination. Travel agents know that they sell dreams, not
020 | January/February 2009 venturetrav.com
Wildlife abounds in Alaskan waters.
tickets. They wrap destinations with imagination and equally disabled hands reach in and accomplish the
invite customers to picture themselves there. archi- task because they were marginally better; they pos-
tects know that built barriers are nothing but a failure sessed the right tool for the moment.
to imagine users properly. The U.S. national Home In the end, the question still lingers: “Change of
Builders association knows that their industry’s fast- clothes, or change of limbs?” Maybe that’s part of the
est growth sector is rebuilding homes on the princi- mystery of inclusion through Universal Design. May-
ples of Universal Design as homeowners “re-imagine” be the whole message is how fundamentally true it is
themselves aging in place. Robotic exoskeletons that that we are all part of one body, and we all succeed
respond to the wearer’s brain waves are available for together.
rent in Japan, erasing differences between disability
and superhuman strength. The manufacturer of the
SeaLegs amphibious boat knows of one customer in
new Zealand with limited mobility who heads straight
to town in his boat to pick up his mail and do errands.
nobody considers glasses or contacts a prosthetic
device anymore, where a “difference” has simply be-
come a part of life. Imagination applied to the world
as we find it is making small intimate spaces—like a
97 foot-long community amid icebergs—the first in a
For me the most enduring moments on Glacier
Bay were not seeing the mountain goat families with
their kids, the roaming wolf pack, the golden sunset
and green aurora Borealis, or the bears up close.
The birthday parties, gourmet food, and shared slide
shows remain vivid, but secondary. Halibut fishing,
shoreside excursions by wave-tossed skiffs, and con-
versations over shared bottles of wine were enjoyable.
The most enduring moments flowed directly from evi-
dence of prior planning; the application of imagina-
tion to building a boat standing as concrete proof that
all passengers were of equal worth.
as the environment and crew wrapped itself around
the three passengers with declared disabilities, those
with hidden disabilities felt free to reveal themselves,
and the circle of warmth, humor, and humanness
grew. The tempo of communication changed. Priori-
ties became more immediate and satisfying. Where I
would usually experience frustration at the weakness
of my gnarled, bony fingers, I saw someone else’s
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