In 2017, avid outdoorsman David Hatrick received a devastating diagnosis.
Doctors told Hatrick he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and only a short time to live.
After the shock wore off, Hatrick resolved to continue doing the things he loved as long as he could, regardless of weakening muscles and nerve damage.
But he still faced a challenge: How to hunt or navigate a rocky path in a wheelchair?
The answer was a special battery-powered wheelchair that uses snowmobile-like tracks for wheels, making it capable of going rougher places. Hatrick and a friend, Steve Furst, immediately started to raise the necessary $20,000.
“It was a big headache,” Furst said.
The friends held a rummage sale but only made $3,000 and were left with more stuff at the end than when they started. So they changed gears.
“We contacted some amazing people and put together a poker tournament, dinner and auction event and raised enough money for David’s original track chair and our youth track chair,” Furst said.
Hatrick died a few months after that success. But friends say he’d made it clear he wanted other people to benefit.
“David wanted another person to have the track chair,” Furst said. “I said ‘What if we could make it to where multiple people can use the track chair by borrowing it for a day or a week?’ because track chairs often sit in a shed because people do not have a way to get them to the places they wish to use them.”
So they started the nonprofit David’s Chair, which now has seven chairs scattered around Oregon and one in Texas. People can turn up with a tow hitch and take some of them wherever they want to go. Use of the chairs is free. The nonprofit also has two “ParaGolfers,” special carts that allow a disabled golfer to take a full golf swing.
This past month, two new chairs were added in Manzanita and Seaside.
“They invited me (to use one) and I ended up driving it all the way down from the visitors center … to the beach,” said Alice Yates, a retired bank worker from Nehalem.
She said the chair was easy to use and a vast improvement over how she used to get her husband out and about.
“My husband was in a wheelchair, but he died before any of these chairs existed,” she said. “I used to get him on the beach by putting him on a tarp and pulling him down a little bit, so he could enjoy the sand and stuff.”
David’s Chair aims to avoid potential indignity and inconvenience for people with disabilities by providing tough, chunky, get-anywhere wheelchairs.
“It’s giving people that sense of freedom again,” said Dan Haag with the Tillamook Coast Visitors Association.
His group helps people access the new chair at the Manzanita Visitors Center, just a block off the beach.
“You kind of take for granted that you can move on your own,” said Haag. “But just the whole idea of getting out on the beach and moving without someone pushing you, and just creating that independence.”
The chair is stored in a shed; visitors book it online. It’s camouflaged in green and brown hues, with tracks that look like they came off a small tank.
“I believe the tracks are similar to what are utilized in snow mobiles,” said Haag.
The chair runs on two rechargeable car batteries, rather than an engine, so it’s relatively quiet and simple to operate. Haag said users just need to figure out the joystick. It needs to be pushed forward to go forward and to either side to turn.
“It’s one of those things where it’s like this is too good to be true because they provide the chair. They raise all the funds for the chair. They cover the liability. They do all the major maintenance, and they do all the training,” said Haag. “All they require is a place to store it so people can check it out.”
The nonprofit is funded by donations, grants and sponsors.
Tourist destinations often struggle to make beaches and wilderness areas accessible. But many are working to improve access. Tillamook County officials recently bought nine wheelchairs with fat traction tires and placed them in parks and near beaches. They also installed a special boat launch to help people with disabilities get in and out of kayaks.
Haag said the new chairs are another move in the right direction to ensure everyone has access to outdoor recreation opportunities. “We know there’s still a long way to go,” he said.
Over the next few years, David’s Chair hopes to place more devices at American Legions, VFWs and Elks Lodges, so more young people and veterans can take them into nature to hunt and fish.
The chairs can be booked at davidschair.org.