It could be any other lake in Nova Scotia. A black duck flies overhead, a loon cruises on the water, a paddler guides a red kayak across Round Lake. But Jerry Lawrence Provincial Park, in Upper Tantallon, is different.
For many people with mobility issues, natural spaces are completely out of reach. Trails and beaches are difficult, if not impossible. Accessibility is what’s brought fishermen Todd Rhude and Tom Cole here today for their first visit.
Hiking trails are wide and well-marked. There’s a scenic boardwalk that runs along the shore. The pit toilets have ramps and wide doors for wheelchair access, and visitors can drive right up to some of the picnic areas by the water. And then there are the fishing piers, which extend quite far out into the lake and, unlike floating docks, don’t sway on the water.
That’s a crucial consideration for Cole, 50, who is on leave from his job in plant operations at the IWK because of a back problem.
His friends call him “Sticky” because he walks with a wooden cane. The one he’s sporting today has a snake’s head he carved himself. He is missing a piece of his femur and right knee from the time he drove a go-kart under a mobile home as a teen, and has had multiple surgeries on his shoulders and back. Chronic pain hinders the mackerel fishing he loves, but catching rainbow trout here is a pretty good substitute.
“It’s a great spot. I love the access,” says Rhude, a 49-year-old welder who worked on the Big Lift. “I’ve fly-fished every little stream, brook, you name it, all over Nova Scotia. But after getting six stents in the heart I had to slow down a little bit. This is wicked. We’re out, we’re deep in the water. Some of the barrier-free fishing sites I looked at, you’re only in like three feet of water. Here, there’s six, seven feet down there, right? And then there’s another pier just down there, so if you don’t have luck here, you can take a little jaunt down to that one.”
The park got its accessibility makeover in the mid-1980s, at the urging of then-Minister of Government Services Jerry Lawrence. Lawrence, who had polio in 1951 as a child, used crutches and braces for 35 years, then switched to a wheelchair. “When I was first elected [in 1979] there was nothing really accessible,” he recalls. “As a cabinet minister, different times we’d go to places that weren’t accessible and other ministers would have to pick me up and pull me over the stairs.”
Lawrence, who doesn’t fish himself, still visits the park “a couple of times a year, to look around, wheel around.”
He does think there is still room for improvement though. “[I’m] disappointed they didn’t pave the pathways, because in the spring you have a tendency to sink down if you don’t have a wheelchair with pneumatic tires,” he says. “But the squeaky wheel gets the oil in most cases so you have to keep pounding them and pounding them to get it done.”
The city and province could both do more to make it easier for people to enjoy the park. For one thing, there’s no transit. And then there’s the short season—from May to October.
After Thanksgiving weekend, the park was closed during weeks of gorgeous fall weather. People can still walk in, but the kilometre-long hike along a gravel road to the lake means Jerry Lawrence is inaccessible to those with many disabilities. That bothers Ralph Wheadon. He worked for the Department of Natural Resources for 35 years, and was one of the people who first built the park.
“It just drives me up the wall. They could keep them open at least til the end of November, so people could have access to it. You can still get access to it, but you can’t take a vehicle in. So where does that leave paraplegics? Out,” Wheadon says. Nobody from the provincial government would talk for this story.
While Rhude and Cole fish, retirees Keith and Susan MacRae walk Brandy, their duck toller, along the Round Lake boardwalk. They peer into a sheltered area where rainbow trout sometimes congregate.
The MacRaes, who live in Glen Haven, come to the park two or three times a week in summer. They like the quiet, the lack of ATVs, and the shade it provides on a summer day.
“And in the spring you see lots of wildflowers,” Susan says. “There were lots of pink lady’s slippers a few weeks ago.”
They sometimes visit in winter, walking in from the road, but don’t do it as often as they used to. “When we were more active we would cross-country ski in from the car in winter,” Susan says.
As mid-day approaches, the fish are biting less, but Rhude and Cole don’t mind. Cole leans against the barrier that runs along the pier and takes a sip of his Tim Horton’s coffee. “You can lose sight of gratitude for the simple things in life, like nature and family. The pain kind of tries to take over,” he says. “But so long as you keep your spirits up you’re pretty good. Fishing, the tranquility of it, I don’t even care if I catch anything. I just like to get out and do it.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Jerry Lawrence Provincial Park is a 20-minute drive from the Armdale Roundabout. Take Highway 103 to Exit 4, turn left when you get off the highway and continue on Highway 3 west for about six kilometres. The entrance to the park is on your right and is very well marked. The park is not accessible by public transit, although people in the St. Margaret’s Bay area can arrange transport through the nonprofit Bay Rides service. The park is open May to October. You can visit off-season, but must park by a barrier about a kilometre from Round Lake.