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User-Friendly Cabin

How to welcome all ages & agilities

By Fran Sigurdsson
Published: January 21, 2010
Is your getaway hard to get to? Often, the very features we seek – proximity to lakes or peaks, great views, privacy – pose barriers to access. Sure, climbing hills or sidestepping boulders is all part of the wilderness experience. If you’re young and fit, that is. But for those of us facing physical challenges, disabilities, the limitations that may come with old age or just plain old creaky knees, the cabin landscape can seem more like an obstacle course.

But roughing it doesn’t have to be rough on a body. With a little ingenuity, a cabin can welcome all ages and agilities. Modifications like incline trams, ramps, easy walkways – even the Gazeboat – can help level the playing field.

As you’ll see from the following examples, a cabin’s recreation opportunities can be open to all without compromising the site’s natural beauty, or screaming “accessible!”

Level Best
Steve Reiman and his first wife fell in love with a ramshackle camp on Lake Iroquois, Va., in 1970. The land plummeted about 60 feet to the camp from the end of a bumpy dirt road. “It was rough,” recalls Reiman. “Roots, rocks, then three steps to an awkward side deck.” From the camp, rickety boards doglegged another 50 feet down to the shore.

Over the years, Reiman has made major improvements, with an eye toward the future. “We thought about making it accessible to us as we got older – as well as for our kids and our parents.”

The first things to go were rotting side and back decks. Reiman built a bigger, stronger deck and added a back porch.

His wife, Lessie, was the activities director at a retirement home. To facilitate resident outings, Reiman replaced the entry steps with a ramp.

Wide, flat-threshold sliding glass doors can now accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. One set beckons guests from the deck to the porch; a second invites folks from the porch into the camp. “We love to have them out for lunch,” says Reiman. “They can roll right in.”

The next phase improved lake access. Reiman added a handrail rope and laid tons of fill and gravel to form an L-shaped path.

Today, the Reimans host loads of friends and family, including grandchildren and elderly in-laws.
Gene Luoma invented his Gazeboat; half pontoon boat, half gazebo.
Is it a pontoon boat? Or is it a gazebo? It's actually a bit of both. Gene Luoma invented this "Gazeboat," as he calls it, to make life easier for himself, his daughter Kim and his son Brian, all three of whom have muscular dystrophy. Now family and friends all enjoy fun and fishing on the craft. Pictured: Gene, center, with two family friends who were helping Gene with yardwork before they took a fishing break.
Photo by Kathie Luoma
Look! Out on the lake! It’s a boat! It’s a deck! It’s a … floating gazebo?

Gene Luoma’s patented Gazeboat may not be faster than a speeding yacht. But the motorized craft is powerful enough to carry 20 or so family and friends onto little Lake Bernice. You won’t find Bernice on a map, though.

“In Minnesota, lakes this size don’t have names,” says Gene. He dubbed the 10-acre, 25-foot deep pothole on his property in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region in honor of wife Kathie’s Norwegian mother. “She was always fishing,” he recalls. Kathie, not so much.

But Gene likes to fish, as do son Brian and many of Gene’s nine siblings and 45 nieces and nephews. Kathie’s five siblings and their families enjoy the water when they visit, as do the Luomas’ older son, Kevin, their daughter, Kim, son-in-law, Doug, and granddaughter, Karsen.

So when the Luomas wanted to add a gazebo by the lake, Gene got an idea. Why not put the gazebo on a floating deck so it could be on the lake, too?

Over the winter of 2006, Gene designed an 18-square-foot deck that would support a 10-foot hexagonal gazebo. His brother, Rudy Luoma, owner of a construction company, scraped the ice flat on the frozen lake and started building. By spring 2007, the Gazeboat was afloat.

The deck is level with the Luomas’ dock, allowing Gene and two of his children, Brian and Kim, to drive right on with their electric scooters. The three family members have muscular dystrophy. Brian, who lives next door to his folks and is a co-owner of a printing company, gets around by scooter. Gene and Kim still walk, but rely on scooters to cover any distance.

As if a day on the water in pleasant company wasn’t enough, the Gazeboat offers a fringe benefit that the real Bernice would have loved.

“One thing nice about a large platform: When you take it out and anchor it, after a half-hour, or so, the fish congregate,” says Gene. “Fish like to be under stuff. All you have to do is drop a line over the side.”

So Inclined
After years of vacationing on Burntside Lake in the Upper Midwest, Pat and Virgil Leih found their dream retreat in 1989. The 20-acre plot atop a peninsula offered spectacular views of the north arm and the main lake with its rocky ledges and islands. “Once we had seen this site, it was hard to look at something else.” says Pat.

Surrounded by water and state and federal lands, the only access to the 20 acres is by boat. But the lack of roads was not a deterrent. Nor was the 110-foot climb from the shore to the lot. “My husband said, ‘It’s worth the extra work,’” recalls Pat, “even if it means a tram.”

But the Leihs had to consider their young daughter. Corbin is unstable on her feet. The first thing Virgil did was build a deck so Corbin could walk over the rocky shore.

The tram came next. Virgil poured concrete piers, laid down I-beams turned on their sides, and developed a car to roll over the steel rails. A few years ago, the couple called on a tram company, Marine Innovations, to retrofit parts and build a new winch to move the 5-passenger car up and down. The car ascends to a long platform leading into a walkway that goes directly into the cabin.

Twenty years later, the Leihs still feel it was worth the extra work. Corbin, now 25, participates in the Special Olympics. Thanks to the walkways and tram, she can invite her teammates up to share in the fun. “Our daughter just loves this place,” says Virgil. “It was designed around her needs from the beginning.”

The accommodations also allow the Leihs to host family reunions on both Pat’s and Virgil’s sides. “We celebrated Virgil’s mother’s 90th birthday with a family reunion,” says Pat.

Frequent contributor Fran Sigurdsson joins the Cabin Life staff in extending sincere sympathies to the entire Luoma family for their recent loss of Rudy Luoma (the builder of the Gazeboat shown on page 54).

Other ideas for making your cabin accessible
Photo by Roger Wade

Other Ideas
Some other ideas for making your cabin accessible:

  • Large covered patio or deck areas for outdoor seating.
  • Walkway lighting.
  • Chair-height transfer benches let wheelchair users stretch out and sunbathe.
  • A hydraulic seat can ease folks into a hot tub.
  • Z-shaped paths achieve the necessary rise without becoming too steep.
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