By Ashley Harrell,
On an unseasonably cold December afternoon in Southern California, most Angelenos have retreated to their homes. But at Miramar Park, a narrow strip of green space overlooking Torrance County Beach, Robert Kapen and his wife Nelly are out for an adventure.
For Kapen — whom Nelly is pushing in a special, off-roading wheelchair — wintry weather is a relatively minor obstacle. During the first 23 years of his life, Kapen was a healthy, outdoorsy person. Then in 2011, he suffered a brain stem stroke that left him paralyzed.
Doctors told his family that he had a 1% chance of survival, and that if he lived, he’d likely be in a vegetative state. Kapen beat those odds. His mental faculties were unscathed, and he slowly regained some movement and speech through therapy. Eventually, he was able to communicate, eat, operate a motorized wheelchair and write a book. He had another big dream, too.
“Growing up, I fell in love with hiking, being outdoors and the beauty of nature,” he says. That was taken away from him for 10 years, Kapen says, but very recently, a new set of wheels has allowed for his return. It’s called the AdvenChair.
The orange, “all-terrain” wheelchair is human-powered and designed to help people with mobility challenges to venture into the wild. Its wheels, tires, brakes and handlebars are all premium mountain bike parts, and the large tires and suspension system offer a comfortable ride. Thanks to a versatile system of pulleys, bars and straps, teams of one to five people can assist in navigating the AdvenChair over just about any landscape.
The AdvenChair recently enabled Kapen to visit Machu Picchu. Over in Palm Springs, Floyd McGregor — who has an autoimmune disease of the muscles called myositis — is raising money for an AdvenChair pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. Isaac Shannon, a Southern Californian with mitochondrial disease, has been using his AdvenChair for regular jaunts around Southern California.
“It’s rejuvenating to be outside, especially as a person with a disability, because these resources are not exactly the most accessible,” Shannon says in a video created for the Denver Channel. “So when there is a tool that allows a person to be able to experience life in the most average way possible, I think it’s healing, and it’s nice to be out in nature where you’re not around people.”
The man behind AdvenChair is Geoff Babb of Bend, Ore. He grew up backpacking, climbing and mountain biking, and worked as a fire ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management. At age 48, a blood clot in his brain caused a brain stem stroke, and just like Kapen, he nearly died. Babb lost the ability to walk and much of his strength, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him from visiting the outdoors.
Babb started looking around for a wheelchair that could help him navigate rugged terrain, and found a couple of options: the GRIT Freedom Chair and the Mountain Trike. The designs were good, he says, but they didn’t work for him.
“They all relied on the rider having enough upper body strength to push the levers,” Babb says. “But myself and a lot of people, we don’t have the body strength.” So Babb decided to invent his own.
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