FRANCONIA, N.H. — Construction of an Appalachian Mountain Club hut came to a halt last week after the U.S. Forest Service realized it was not wheelchair-accessible.
But after a redesign, building resumed Thursday on the Galehead hut in the White Mountain National Forest.
The hut, considered the club’s remotest, is 3,800 feet above sea level and 4.6 miles from the nearest access road.
“It was our understanding that because it was a back country hut, we didn’t need to have wheelchair ramps and the like,” said Walter Graff, deputy director of the AMC.
“But new buildings on public land have to be compliant” with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said.
The Forest Service gave approval to the original hut plan when it renewed the AMC’s permit to operate in the national forest. The shelter is intended to replace a 67-year-old log building on Garfield Ridge in the Franconia Range.
But work came to a standstill Sept. 16 while the AMC redesigned the hut to make it completely accessible. The new features will add an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 to the $400,000 cost of the new building.
“In the end, we moved a bunk room, reconfigured the bathrooms and removed some stairs,” Graff said. “We’ll have a porch out front and some form of ramp to allow for wheelchair access. It will probably be an earthen ramp.”
The hut is one of eight AMC shelters in the forest, each about a day’s hike apart. Each building includes a kitchen, dining area, bathrooms and sleeping areas.
The most direct access to Galehead, which can bunk up to 38 people, is the 4.6-mile hike on the Gale River trail, with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet.
The hut is so difficult to get to that the redesign may seem unnecessary at first glance, said Janet Zeller, a civil rights program manager with the Forest Service’s eastern regional office.
But there are no exceptions to the Americans With Disabilities Act for new construction on public lands. And disabled people will take advantage of the access sooner or later, she said.
“People will go through great hardship to get to a setting” for recreation, she said. “If someone wants to carry his child and a wheelchair to Galehead, he expects that the child will be able to push around there.”
Tina Robbins, program manager of Outdoor Exploration, a Medford, Mass., outfit that offers hiking trips to people with and without disabilities, says no one should assume that disabled people won’t use the remote hut.
“My partner uses a wheelchair and we hike all the time to places [where] people never thought they would see us,” she said. “We get to a lot of places you wouldn’t think we could get to.”
Graff said that at first the design changes made no sense, but once club officials talked them over, they realized the redesign would make it a better building for everyone.
“We support universal access and will continue to make the effort to make all our buildings accessible,” he said.
And, as Zeller noted, the building will stand for decades. Meanwhile, technology to help people with disabilities maneuver in difficult terrain is getting better all the time.
“Technology for mobility aids is changing rapidly,” she said. “What may seem impossible today may not be in 20 to 30 years.”