Carole E. Barrowman
It is affectionately referred to as the ET3 by those closest to it.
First built in 1914, demolished and reconstructed in 1932, and demolished again in 2016, the third iteration of the Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park in Door County opened in May, but celebrated its official opening on July 9th.
When I first saw the massive structure when it opened, I thought of George Lucas and not Steven Spielberg. With a wide canopy walkway stretching 250 feet through the trees, the muscular tower structure looks like it belongs on Endor, the Ewok planet from “Return of the Jedi.”
The 63-foot Eagle Tower, with its breathtaking views of Green Bay and its Canopy Walkway, is not only a formidable imagination, but also an outstanding example of comprehensive accessibility planning. The tower offers everyone, regardless of mobility, a unique experience in Peninsula State Park.
If a person with restricted mobility – whether a wheelchair, rollator, walking stick or stroller – is standing in front of a staircase, they will notice a sign that says “You are not welcome here”. People with restricted mobility are regularly discriminated in this way, with a view of stairs, narrow entrances and high stone walls at lookout points. ET3 had to be different.
By and large, the ET3 planning and design team went beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which “just says the website is accessible,” said Nick Zouski, accessibility coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources . The ADA requirements are very general and “represent the bare minimum,” said Zouski.
From the start of the project, the engineers, Friends of Peninsula State Park – the nonprofit group that raised $ 750,000 of the $ 3.5 million needed to complete the project – and Zouski were themselves agreed that “we had to do more”. Because whether we want to face it or not, “most people will have mobility problems at some point in their lives”.
If you climb this tower as a teenager, Zouski wants you to be able to experience the panoramic views again at 80.
When planning for the new building began, the only two options for accessibility were an elevator or a ramp, according to Peninsula State Park Superintendent Eric Hyde. The idea for an elevator was discarded early, said Hyde. The electricity costs for the construction site were prohibitive and it was not possible to “dig into the bedrock so close to the cliff to stabilize an elevator.” This also included the ongoing maintenance costs for an elevator. Not only for wheelchair users, but also for families with strollers, said Hyde, “the ramp was the right choice.”
“There is also an elevator separating people,” said Zouski. “It also limits the experience for anyone with mobility problems,” sends a message that this elevator may not have the same experience as everyone else, “but it’s good enough”. . “
That wasn’t good enough for Zouski and the project’s design team.
Create a sense of awe
ET3 was the first major project Zouski worked on. From the very beginning, Zouski said, the engineers, DNR property managers and DNR disability advisory board knew that they had to do more than just rebuild the tower.
“This is the only place for people with disabilities to overlook the Great Lakes,” said Zouski. “We knew it was an experience everyone deserved.”
“I can’t imagine anyone visiting this building not being in awe,” said Zouski.
During the opening, families stopped at the curves of the Canopy Walkway and took in the landscape at different heights.
“The ramp is at least half the fun of the tower,” said Zouski. “It’s no longer just a view. It’s a walk through the tops of the trees. “
ET3 is “the only wooden tower of this height in the country,” said Missy VanLanduyt, director of leisure partnerships at DNR. “It is the only one (tower) that offers families with prams and visitors with reduced mobility the same barrier-free experience.
While we were talking at the top of the tower, Zouski turned his wheelchair towards Horseshoe Island, which was floating like a puzzle in the bay, and pointed out one of many smaller decisions by the project team that had a big impact: a piece of wire railing instead of the usual wood .
“High railings are a problem for disabled people. I am tall, even in my chair, but if you are not, when you are a kid in a chair, ”or even if you are just smaller,“ you are doing the great climb, then you can no longer look over the walls. “
Zouski added: “Once all the interpretive signs are added to the structure, it will be a unique experience for many people.”
The views are breathtaking not only from the top of the tower, but also from the ramp that winds through the lush tree tops. Initially there was a pushback to the sidewalk.
“We have received complaints that the ramp would destroy the natural view,” said Hyde, but “now that the vegetation has regrown and we have planted more trees, we have received far fewer complaints about the aesthetics of the ramp.” In fact, Hyde said, he recalled one of the recent complaints from a visitor trying to lead his dog up the ramp – only service animals are allowed.
On my way down the sidewalk, I passed an elderly man who was driving up the ramp in an all-terrain wheelchair with a Go-Pro camera attached to the handlebars, and his wife behind him.
The all-terrain wheelchairs are another way the project team goes beyond the ADA requirements. According to Zouski, the Wisconsin Manual Code was updated in July 2020 to remove the requirement for track chairs to obtain a motorized mobility permit.
“It’s not about giving a person an advantage,” said Zouski. “It’s about giving everyone equal access.”
The all-terrain wheelchairs will soon be available to borrow free of charge at the foot of the building and in other state parks as part of the DNR’s Open the Outdoors initiative. They need to be reserved in advance, and the process for doing so isn’t online yet, but in the meantime, visitors can borrow a chair and trailer for free from Access Ability Wisconsin (608-886-9388, accessabilitywi.org) and haul it into the park .
Open the Outdoors also offers adaptive kayaks and cross-country sit-down skis on some state properties, including Mirror Lake and Lapham Peak (most adaptive gear must be reserved in advance). Many government properties also have accessible cabins for camping.
At the bottom of the ramp, I was talking to a family who were visiting the tower with their elderly mother, who was in a wheelchair. The family planned to recreate a photo they took as a young woman in the original building. The sidewalk offered each of them an important shared experience, an opportunity to make new memories.
“Nature is nature,” said Zouski, “and that means that not all aspects of it will be accessible.” But he firmly believes that the places in Wisconsin State Parks where it is possible everyone has the opportunity to have their own close encounter.
More information: The new tower and treetop path is open to visitors during the regular parking hours from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Strollers, wheelchairs and service animals are allowed, but bicycles and pets are not.
A state park entry sticker is required to enter the park. Annual passes are $ 28 and are available online (yourpassnow.com/ParkPass/wi), in state properties, and by calling a real estate office during opening hours. Day passes for the peninsula are $ 8 and are available in the park.
Peninsula State Park is located at 9462 Shore Road, Fish Creek. Call (920) 868-3258 or visit www.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/peninsula.