Newport Friends Welcome More Help to Build Accessible Boardwalk

Mary O’Grady calls Newport State Park her “playground,” and she wants to make it possible for more people to experience it.

For the past two months and for the next year, O’Grady and fellow nature lovers who make up a pool of about 80 volunteers are completing an elevated boardwalk to make Newport’s wheelchair-accessible Fern Trail truly accessible to all.

“It’s a nice, short, 1.2-mile loop that people, no matter what, can use,” O’Grady said of the trail, which gets its name from a section where approximately an acre of various native ferns grow up to four feet tall.

After snow melt and spring rains, however, the trail becomes very wheelchair unfriendly during some months of the year where it passes through ephemeral wetland, O’Grady said.

This past spring, 22 inches of water covered portions of the trail, including a spot where a Lions Club had donated informational signs that include an interactive audio component for the blind and visually impaired.

O’Grady said people with disabilities sometimes can’t access the peaceful trail when wildflowers, red osier dogwood and roundleaf dogwood are blooming in the area. At times, they can’t traverse the trail past the 500-yard-long patch of ferns to the point where huge hemlocks and pines grow either.

Rick Foster of Ellison Bay sets down planks for the volunteer-built Fern Trail accessible boardwalk at Newport State Park. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

When asked why Fern Trail, Newport’s flattest, received the wheelchair-access status 20 years ago, volunteer and project manager Gene Kenny said, “This is a relatively flat trail, and it’s a wide trail, six to seven feet wide, so it accommodates strollers and wheelchairs really easily. There’s very little stone or tree roots in the way, so it makes it very easy for accessibility.” 

The boardwalk will be 1,800 feet long, said Kenny, who’s also a member of the Newport Wilderness Society’s board of directors. He has a list of about 84 volunteers, and 20-25 show up almost every workday. They will rack up about 2,000 person hours before completing the work in the fall of 2023 or the spring of 2024.

“What started this project was a matching grant from the Knowles-Nelson grant program through the DNR,” Kenny said. “We have an application in right now for another Knowles-Nelson grant for Phase II,” and notification will come in January or February.

“During the pandemic,” he said, “wood prices became so high that what we’ve already raised in funds would have paid for the project two years ago. Now we’re $75,000-$80,000 behind. It probably will cost $225,000-$230,000 by the time we’re finished with it.”

The Knowles-Nelson program allows the volunteer group to count volunteer hours toward the dollar value needed to match the grant money.

“By keeping track of volunteer hours, we get credit for that,” Kenny said during the group’s sixth workday on Oct. 20, by which time the volunteers had already completed the first 400 feet of boardwalk, driving decking screws and using galvanized bolts to attach hangers and decking to posts.

The volunteering opportunities will likely dwindle by mid-November, and then the assembly work can resume in the spring. Between those times, Kenny can continue to construct wooden framing in his shop.

He said volunteers can work for just a few hours, all day or every work day, and he welcomes more workers. To help, sign up at the website of the Newport Wilderness Society, the oldest state-park Friends group in Wisconsin. Or, find the Newport Wilderness Society on Facebook, like retired medical-malpractice defense attorney Rick Foster of Ellison Bay has.

“I worked today, and I worked last Friday,” Foster said. “Whenever you can, try to find something useful to do.”

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