MANOTICK, June 17, 2021 – A former world ski champion and James Bond stuntman is hoping to turn Baxter Conservation Area into Eastern Ontario’s most accessible natural paradise.
Ottawa Sports Hall of Famer Mike Nemesvary was third in the world in freestyle skiing when he broke his neck in a training accident in 1985, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down at age 24. But his spinal cord injury hasn’t quelled his adventurous spirit, and now he wants to share his love of the outdoors with others with disabilities.
“I think nature and wilderness should be for everybody,” said Nemesvary, who has been visiting Baxter in his power wheelchair for more than 20 years. “To live a complete life, you have to get out of your comfort zone, whether you’re able-bodied or have a disability. That’s where you begin to find yourself, when you can get into nature and be at one with yourself.”
Baxter Conservation Area is located in the southernmost reaches of the City of Ottawa along the banks of the Rideau River. Featuring forest, wetland and marsh habitats, five kilometres of boardwalk and dirt trails, several scenic lookouts, a sandy beach, large frog pond and several picnic areas, the site offers an intimate nature experience away from crowds.
But visiting with a mobility device can be a challenge, especially when the trails are muddy.
“We’ve gotten stuck in the mud so many times where Mike’s wheels were just spinning,” said Mary Anne McPhee, Nemesvary’s partner of 19 years. She recalled one time having to create a makeshift ramp out of nearby branches to get his chair onto the boardwalk to go home. “That would discourage a large segment of people with disabilities. Creating a safe space where a person can enjoy the beautiful surroundings of this gem of a conservation area is the key to bringing people here.”
That’s why Nemesvary and McPhee have spearheaded Nature For All, a volunteer committee working with the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority and Rideau Valley Conservation Foundation to transform Baxter into an accessible nature haven.
Truly accessible natural areas and parks are few and far between, which leaves people with disabilities or mobility concerns stuck on the sidelines. This multi-phase project aims to change that by upgrading Baxter’s trails, boardwalks, programs and facilities to the gold standard of accessibility. A certified accessibility consultant has vetted all designs to ensure best practices for everything from slope grades to handrail heights to board widths are in place.
The timing is right, as the site’s boardwalks and marshland bridge have reached the end of their life cycles. Replacing them is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve Baxter’s infrastructure to welcome people of all ages and abilities to experience a natural wilderness setting.
“I really think that what we’re going to do here with Baxter Conservation is to make it a model of accessibility for other conservation areas,” Nemesvary said. “People from all across Canada can come here and see how much effort and time was put into the planning, and that the planning has really paid off.”
The Nature For All project is now fundraising for Phase 1, which includes the bridge replacement and the development of a mobility trail with a widened boardwalk, railings and accessible slopes. The RVCF offers custom corporate sponsorship agreements and donor packages, with benefits to organizations such as media recognition, team building opportunities, naming rights and on-site signage.
More about Mike:
Mike Nemesvary was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1961. As a teen he was a rising star in freestyle skiing, winning the Ontario Winter Games in 1976 before taking home several Canadian titles and moving to the world circuit. By the mid-1980s Mike had won three world cup championships and made the world podium 18 times.
He was also making a name for himself as a stunt skier in film and television, appearing in multiple commercials and the opening sequence of Roger Moore’s final James Bond film, A View to Kill.
His life changed in an instant during a trampoline training accident, which left him paralyzed. But he wasn’t down for long: he soon commissioned a modified car to get him back on the road, and then took up sit skiing.
Turning his sights to advocacy, he founded the Back-Up Trust, a UK-based charity that has now raised more than 20 million British Pounds ($34 million CDN) to help people with spinal cord injuries thrive. In 2001 Mike was also the first quadriplegic person to drive unassisted around the world. He travelled more than 40,000 kilometres through 20 different countries over six months, enduring extreme weather and facing major accessibility barriers along the way. He raised $1.5 million for spinal cord injury research throughout the campaign.
Mike has been recognized for his service to the accessibility awareness cause with a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada and Ottawa’s Key to the City.