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Local non-profit makes it easier for wheelchair users to experience nature 

Through NatureTrack, Austin Zimmer was able to try Freedom Trax on the sand in Pismo Beach.
Beth Thornton
Through NatureTrack, Austin Zimmer was able to try Freedom Trax on the sandy beach in Pismo.

Eleven years ago, Sue Eisaguirre founded NatureTrack, a non-profit that connects K-12 students to nature through hikes and field trips on the Central Coast. She recently discovered a device to make visits in nature more accessible for individuals using wheelchairs.

Eisaguirre said Freedom Trax are manufactured in Colorado using a design with continuous treads like what you see on military or construction vehicles.

“It will take a manual wheelchair and transform it into an all-terrain, battery-powered, joystick operated vehicle,” she said. "It’s able to go on sand, on rocky trails, in snow, so it really opens up a whole new area for people who are in wheelchairs.”

With grants and donations, the organization purchased ten of the portable units. They cost about $6300 each which Eisaguirre said is still far less than the cost of a motorized wheelchair.

NatureTrack volunteers bring the Freedom Trax systems to local beaches for wheelchair users of all ages to try. In Pismo Beach, Donald Chan had the device attached to his wheelchair for a beach experience.

“It felt great. It felt nice to be so close to the ocean. We don’t normally get a chance to do that,” he said.

Austin Zimmer from Santa Maria tried it with his wheelchair, too. He said he enjoyed being on the beach in the sand rather than watching from the pier.

“It has given me a lot of freedom to explore the beach and get out and about,” Zimmer said.

Eisaguirre said NatureTrack is now expanding their opportunities for outdoor activities beyond K-12 students.

“We still do our K-12 program during the traditional school day and should there be either teachers or students in wheelchairs, we’ll have the Freedom Trax available for them, but now we also offer trips on weekends,” she said.

The organization plans trail outings for wheelchair users throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and they visit a different beach each month.

For more information, go to NatureTrack.org.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.