Rolling Toward the Pacific

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Participants in last Saturday’s “Wheels to the Sea” event finish their five-mile hike through Sycamore Canyon by crossing over PCH to celebrate with a beach barbeque. 

Pacific Coast Highway was closed for a short time earlier this month to allow 27 intrepid wheelchair-bound military veterans and scores of volunteers and family members to cross to the beach safely. They were part of the twice-yearly “Wheels to the Sea” (WTTS) program, which takes individuals in wheelchairs, especially military veterans, and offers them a challenge hike in the local mountains. The five-mile hike begins at Danielson Ranch in Point Mugu State Park, continues along Big Sycamore Canyon Trail, and ends with a family-style barbeque at Sycamore Cove State Beach.

The hike is led by naturalists, and volunteers are available to push wheelchair-users who want assistance over rocky terrain. On the beach, specialized beach wheelchairs are made available for sand. The Nov. 4 outing had only about half the usual number of participants because a chance of rain was in the forecast.

Malibu local Sonia Ottusch has volunteered at this event for years with the Mountain Bike Unit (MBU), an arm of the parks services. “This latest WTTS was especially difficult,” she wrote. While MBU volunteers typically work shifts of two to four hours when accompanying the wheelchair hikers during this particular event, they ended up working for nine hours, beginning from the time they met the buses of participants in Satwiwa (in Newbury Park) at 8 a.m. until the time they got everyone safely to the beach.

“We were wiped out, but glad to have lent a hand,” Ottusch wrote. “As always, the wheelchair bound and volunteers were split into two caravans. Larry Koch (another Malibu volunteer with MBU) was at the head of the first caravan and I was at the rear of the second caravan. My group was slowed by six wheelchair repairs on the trail—we used duct tape, zip ties and a Leatherman each time to fix the recalcitrant wheels. My group also had a blind veteran that walked the whole way at one mile per hour.”

Two other Malibu volunteers, military veterans who helped push the wheelchairs, were Dennis Torres and Rex Levi. 

“In our case, we should have called this ‘Two Flat Wheels to the Beach,’” Levi joked, “but we and the wheelchair made it! It was lots of fun.”

According to The Wilderness Institute, one of the sponsors of Wheelchairs to the Sea, “All who participate will benefit from the physical challenge, social interaction and camaraderie.

“The trail includes rocky terrain, slopes and mud or stream crossings in times of wet weather, which provide challenges and opportunities for teamwork and trust-building,” The Wilderness Institute continued. “This activity is especially designed to introduce individuals in wheelchairs to the natural environment by traveling dirt trails along Sycamore Canyon stream, including 11 stream crossings, through a designated wilderness area.”

Ottusch also recalled volunteering on another particularly challenging WTTS event. 

“Many years ago, when the rain flooded every dip along Big Sycamore Trail, a few days before the event, I rode in to measure the water depth and length to help assess whether the WTTS was still feasible that year,” Ottusch described. “The wheelchair pushers had to use a pair of long, sturdy poles to carry the wheelchair-bound with their wheelchairs over the seasonal streams.”

The event was coordinated by California State Parks, California Highway Patrol, Los Angeles County Mounted Sheriff, National Park Service and the volunteer Mountain Bike Unit. Several area Kiwanis Clubs and other local sponsors provided breakfast and barbeque.

“Wheels to the Sea,” in its 34th year, is funded entirely by donations and organized by the Malibu location of the nonprofit The Wilderness Institute.

To register for the next hike on May 5, 2018, go to meetup.com/Wilderness-Adventures/events/244777725/ or wildernessinstitute.com  or call 818.483.6570. Non-wheelchair users with minor traumatic brain injury, PTSD, blindness, deafness or debilitating illnesses are also welcome to push a wheelchair or join in the event. Transportation is provided from locations in Woodland Hills and Newbury Park.