To say it’s been a busy summer for Ian Mackay would be an understatement.
On June 21, the Port Angeles, Washington resident set the world record for the greatest distance traveled in a 24-hour period by a motorized wheelchair when he rode 184.4 miles in one day.
In August, Mackay completed the Sea To Sound, a 74-mile, three-day, multi-modal group ride spanning the entire length of the Olympic Discovery Trail, an annual fundraiser for Mackay’s nonprofit organization Ian’s Ride.
And on Thursday, Mackay walked about 40 miles, including part of the Montour Trail in Allegheny County, on the eighth leg of a 475-mile hike from Washington, DC, to Ohio on the Great American Rail Trail to raise awareness of the to sharpen the importance of access to nature for people with reduced mobility and other disabilities.
“After my injury, being outside brought me a joy I couldn’t find anywhere else,” Mackay said. “I think it’s important to me to show what’s possible out there on different trails in our country. And I think it’s good for society to see someone with paralysis doing adventure sports. But for me it’s just an adventure. It’s so much fun and I’m so excited.”
Mackay was cycling home from class at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2008 when he hit a patch of sand on a steep descent, was thrown from his bike and crashed headfirst into a tree.
The impact left Mackay, a biology student and self-proclaimed “plant nerd” who loved being outdoors and planning to become a botany professor at community college, paralyzed from the neck down.
After rehab, Mackay moved to the Pacific Northwest with his mother and stepfather, and the once-independent outdoor man fell into a depression.
“I tried to redefine myself. But you don’t have to reinvent your passion. That’s what I tried in the beginning,” Mackay said. “For the first few years I was miserable, watching The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy and playing video games, but it wasn’t me.”
Nature, it seemed, was the best medicine. He was drawn to the Olympic Discovery Trail, a rail-to-trail that runs near his home.
Using an electric wheelchair that he maneuvers with suck-and-puff controls, the bird watcher and nature lover ventured back outside.
“When I finally got on the trail and saw the first goldfinch of the season come in or a crocus bloom, I realized, yes, I can still appreciate the things I loved before I hurt myself,” he said.
He was soon doing up to 20 miles a day in his chair, and after two years he decided to find something more challenging.
In 2016, he completed a 335-mile wheelchair ride across Washington state. Along the way, other wheelchair users and cyclists joined Mackay.
Mackay followed up the 2018 Washington ride with a 500-mile jaunt from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Port Angeles.
He also founded Ian’s Ride, and over the years that followed, Mackay became a leading advocate for access to the great outdoors for all.
“He’s become a role model for a lot of people,” Josh said. “Dr. B” Blaunstein, one of Mackay’s former college professors, who befriended Mackay and accompanies him on his trips.
Mackay used to hang out at Blaunstein’s house, playing ping-pong and accompanying Blaunstein and his daughters on hikes where “he showed him all the cool biological stuff because he really loves plants.”
Another frequent riding companion, Jimmy Quinella, met Mackay at UCSC, where they were both majoring in biology.
The crew assist Mackay with mechanical and medical problems that arise and point out the physical challenges he faces, including reduced lung capacity and an inability to regulate body temperature.
“I liked him from the day I met him. He was gregarious and very friendly and I was blown away by how cool and genuine he was. There were tough times after his injury but ‘encouraged’ is a word that comes to mind about Ian now,” said Quinella. “I’ve seen Ian make sense and find goals and goals and discover he could go out and still do things.”
On Thursday’s Montour ride, Mackay was joined by his “Dream Team”: Quinella and Blaunstein, his mother, Teena Woodward, who drives the support vehicle, and his father, Scott Mackay.
“I’m very happy and I know it. I have this wonderful support team and I couldn’t do this without them,” he said.
Also driving along with Mackay was Rebecca MacTaggart of Washington, volunteer advocacy coordinator for the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Spinal Association.
MacTaggart’s son Jackson, paralyzed after a beach accident in 2016, is an advocate for accessible outdoor infrastructure.
“Pittsburgh has amazing trails and amazing opportunities, and we decided to focus our efforts on that. Most of the people in our chapter are from this area and were recreationally active prior to their injuries,” said MacTaggart. “The world wasn’t built for wheelchair users, and it’s starting to become something that people are becoming aware of and trying to fix.”
The United Spinal Association has worked with the Montour Trail Council to improve parking, create accessible restrooms and improve trail crossing warning systems on roads and trails on the Montour.
The non-profit organization Always B Smiling offers an adaptive driving program on the Montour Trail in Cecil Township.
United Spinal is also pushing for legislation to repeal Medicare’s “household rule,” which limits Medicare coverage of wheelchairs and wheelchair components that are designed to function outside of a person’s home, including outdoor areas.
Mackay advocates posting signs at trailheads that identify trail surface type, grade and incline, and length.
On the ride, Quinella and Blaunstein donned black-and-white plaid helmets and wore black-and-white Vans sneakers, a nod to Mackay’s love of Vans shoes.
Wrapped up in a raincoat, wool gloves and weather chaps, Mackay wore a beanie over his ankle-length dreadlocks, which he’s had for 19 years (they provide extra warmth, he said).
He has driven at least a mile every day since October 31, 2016.
On the Great American Rail trail, Mackay has traveled at speeds in excess of 7 miles per hour for approximately eight hours a day.
He’s encountered rugged terrain on sections of the C&O Trail and ridden sections of the Great American Passage, where he’s found “highway-sized trails with the smoothest surface.”
Along the way, he’s spotted turkeys, coyotes, a baby black panther, and other wildlife. He has ridden through downpours and crossed puddles. Eventually, he encountered steps along the way, and his team built a makeshift ramp out of a well cover and bricks.
He’s looking forward to finishing Sunday’s ride in Columbus, Ohio.
After completing Thursday’s stage, his team and members of the United Spinal Association of Pittsburgh met at a restaurant in Robinson Township, where Mackay enjoyed craft beers and talked about the ride and the importance of pushing boundaries and comfort zones to leave.
“Too often people think about the things they can’t do instead of the things they can do,” Mackay said. “Make sure you’re not stagnant, that you’re trying to grow, and that you’re living life out there.”