British Columbia

'Frustrated' wheelchair user calls for ramp at hot springs after he can no longer access pools

People with disabilities are being denied access to the soothing waters of Canada's second largest hot springs, according to one wheelchair user, whose petition for a ramp has attracted thousands of signatures.

Petition draws thousands of signatures; B.C. Parks says there's 'more to do' for accessibility at Liard River

The natural pools at Liard River Hot Springs are set in the boreal forest of northeast B.C. According to B.C. Parks, they are the second largest hot springs in Canada. (Lorraine Bumstead)

A man who uses a wheelchair says Canada's second largest hot springs is keeping people like him out of the water. Now his petition to build a ramp into the natural pools at Liard River Hot Springs has attracted thousands of signatures.

Tanner Whidden says he was a frequent visitor at the Liard River Hot Springs — along the Alaska Highway between Fort Nelson, B.C., and Whitehorse — before he started using a wheelchair in 2017 because of cancer.

The only access to the hot spring pools is via stairs.

"It is a big loss," said Whidden, 35. "It's like going to an amusement park and not being able to ride the rides. "You don't get to get in the water and get the healing benefits of the springs."

Whidden first visited the Liard hot springs as a one-year-old and became a regular visitor well into adulthood.

But all that changed in 2017, after he found he had a rare form of spinal cord cancer. He spent 20 hours in surgery, underwent 28 rounds of radiation and spent 160 days in hospital.

Tanner Whidden has used a wheelchair since surviving a rare form of spinal cord cancer in 2017. (Tanner Whidden)

The man who once managed a trucking company and a golf course gets around in a wheelchair — and he says there's no way he can get back to the natural hot pools he loves so much.

There is a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk along the boreal forest path to the hot springs, but no way to slip into the water from there.

"It's so sad," he said. "You look down and there's three or four different sets of stairs to get down into the pool, and absolutely no way to get a wheelchair user down to the water. 

"It is frustrating, especially when people have the ability to change it."

'Ramps help everyone' 

Access B.C., an initiative of Spinal Cord Injury B.C., audited Liard River Hot Springs for disabled access.

It found water access via several stairs "did not meet code." But the audit noted that wheelchair users with good upper body strength could "bump their way down into the pool" in one area.

But Whidden says a ramp is necessary, not only for those using wheelchairs, but seniors and people with injuries or mobility problems.

"Ramps help everyone, while stairs only work for some," he said.

Several thousand people have now signed Whidden's online petition calling for a ramp.

Stairs at the Liard River park give able bodied users access to the hot springs, but there are no ramps for wheelchair users. (Lorraine Bumstead)

B.C. Parks may consider ramp

In a written statement, B.C. Parks, which operates the Liard River Hot Springs, said it's working with the Rick Hansen Foundation and Spinal Cord Injury B.C. to improve access, but "we recognize there is more to do." 

B.C. Parks says a ramp may be considered during future upgrades, but notes that "winter conditions can freeze ramps and introduce challenges to getting out of the pool in winter."

"B.C. Parks is open to exploring other methods ...other than a ramp," it said.

Whidden is slowly learning to walk again, but he hasn't given up the hope of visiting the hot springs in his wheelchair.

"It's the hottest bath you've ever been in, but it has a lot of therapeutic benefits," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

With files from Pamela McCall

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