People with disabilities water ski, Jet Ski, ride tubes, kayak and do other water activities at the 21st annual Day on the Lake on June 2, 2017, at Bartlett Lake Marina in Carefree. Rob Schumacher/

For two weekends a year, a reservoir deep in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest becomes a haven for people with physical and neurological disabilities.

There they can water ski, kayak and speedboat surrounded by clear skies and beautiful mountains. For some, it’s the first experience of its kind in their lives.

For others, it’s the first water-sports excursion since they were injured.

Adapted water sports are just as they sound: Water sports that have been adapted for people with disabilities.

Sometimes that involves gear, such as a single, wide water ski with a chair on it. Other times it means having a hydraulic lift to hoist people out of the water or onto a boat or jet ski. 

The event is the product of a unique pairing: Bryan Church, who uses a wheelchair, built and runs Bartlett Lake Marina with accessibility in mind. Jo Crawford works with the Barrow Neurological Institute, which is considered one of the country’s leading hospitals for neurology.

Together they have hosted “Day on the Lake” for more than two decades, enlisting dozens of volunteers and drawing hundreds of participants twice a year for up to three days of outdoor fun that many — for reasons such as cost, accessibility or self esteem — can’t do otherwise. 

‘I just forget that I’m in a chair’

For 15-year-old Grace Ehmke, Day on the Lake is almost as great as Christmas. Not quite, but almost. 

“It’s one of the only times I can spend just quality time with my dad, just like me and him having a good time, you know? It’s just great,” she said, smiling at her father, Jason Ehmke. 

Grace has mild cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Friday was her fourth time attending Day on the Lake.

“I like water skiing because it makes me feel like I just forget that I’m in a chair, like I’m part of something more than just being a girl in a wheelchair,” she said. “I just feel like I can actually do things.”

She said the experiences have helped her get out of her shell a bit, though, “I still am a bit feisty when it comes to my parents forcing me to go on scary rides at Disneyland so they can cut the line,” she said, giggling. 

As for her four sisters who were “really jealous” that she was going water skiing without them? “Well, they get to walk all the time, so I guess it’s fair.” 

Ultimately, she said she feels pure gratitude to be able to have new experiences and make good memories with her dad. 

“It has led me to do things I never thought I could do,” Grace said. “I just feel so free.”

A marina designed with wheelchairs in mind

Bartlett Lake Marina is one of the most accessible marinas in the state, and has been since Church had a vision to build it in the 1980s after a construction accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. 

Accessibility, Church said, is about the details: Multiple wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and showers. Sidewalks paved with switchbacks instead of stairs. No ruts in the ground. The hydraulic Hoyer lift is a big plus. 

“I’d be surprised if 5 percent of marinas in the country have them,” he said in his office on the marina, where his cellphone rings constantly.

“It’s nice to pat yourself on the back and say that you’re a wheelchair-accessible place, but in all honesty … if I went to any marina around here I could get around OK, but a lot of it has to do with the personal services and the attitudes,” Church said.

“I think our attraction to the folks is we understand what we can do to help you out, and we have the equipment here to help you out.”

The marina itself does draw some people with disabilities, usually elderly people, Church said, but it’s Day on the Lake that attracts people from across the state, and sometimes other states and countries. 

Some events and programs across the country are similar in scale, including the one that inspired Crawford to work with Church to start Day on the Lake: the Mission Bay Aquatic Center’s Day on the Bay in San Diego. 

Crawford is a recreation therapist by trade and a program coordinator for Barrow Connection, an affiliate group of Barrow Neurological Institute that works to enrich the lives of people with neurological disabilities. 

Barrow Connection conducted research that found 65 percent to 70 percent of the people who go to Day on the Lake initiate something new with their life, such as asking someone on a date, learning to drive, taking up a sport or changing careers. 

Crawford said one Thursday participant told her, “This is the most fun I’ve had in 10 years!”

“Some of these folks don’t know that they can play,” she said.

Finding peace on a water ski 

Although she cycles, swims and kayaks on her own, Day on the Lake is the only time each year that Jennifer Chaillie water skis. 

“I’m an outdoors person, and it’s a great opportunity to be outside and be safe and get to do all this fun stuff that would be very hard to do on your own,” she said.

Six years ago, Chaillie broke her neck while diving into a hotel pool on Memorial Day. She said she is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair. 

To participate, Day on the Lake attendees must be one year post-injury and be able to pass an intake test, during which they’re placed facedown in water and have to hold their breath for 10 seconds before flipping themselves onto their back.

Chaillie, now 35, was water skiing almost exactly a year after her injury. This is her fifth time attending, and earlier this year she completed El Tour de Mesa, a 50K bike ride. Her wheelchair bears a sticker that says, “Roll it like you stole it.”

On Friday afternoon, she dipped into the water for a final go on the monoski, a wide water ski with a chair attached. Last year she rode for the first time without outriggers, which are like training wheels for water, and this year she wanted to go a whole ride without falling.

The boat took off and she popped up onto the water. She lacks strength in her hands, so she focused on gripping her wrists under the rails on the chair. Two pairs of people on Jet Skis followed behind her, ready to jump into the water to help her if she fell. 

She balanced easily as she rode along, appearing to use immense core strength that she doesn’t have — instead, she flexed the muscles in her arms and shoulders to steer the ski, leaning gracefully into turns.

After about 10 minutes, the boat approached the marina, slowing down to let her sink into the water. She hadn’t fallen once. 

“The word that comes to mind is just ‘alive,’ ” she said. “I feel free. It’s just peaceful.”

Day on the Lake

When: The next event is Sept. 7-9.

Where: Bartlett Lake Marina, 20808 E. Bartlett Dam Road, Carefree.

Cost: $50 per participant. Free for family members and volunteers. and


The story of Bartlett Lake Marina begins with a typewriter

Scenic Drive: Bartlett Lake

2016’s Day on the Lake

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