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Emily Hartley, Published August 12 2010

Pier adds accessibility

Hankinson, N.D. - Rocky Kath was in his element Wednesday morning: the sun shining, a light breeze blowing and the fish biting.

Sitting at the end of the wheelchair-accessible walking pier at the American Legion Outdoor Learning Site, Kath used his mouth to maneuver a rod that pushed a lever forward on his fishing reel. The spinning reel pulled in an empty line, but Kath, a quadriplegic, was content to wait for his second catch of the day.

“I always enjoyed fishing,” said the 43-year-old, who was paralyzed by an accidental gunshot at age 13. “Even before the accident, I always had patience.”

Kath was trying out his new fishing equipment and fishing hole at the American Legion site along the shore of Lake Elsie, about two miles south of Hankinson and about 55 miles south of Fargo. The handicap-accessible pier and a walking path were completed last fall and have been in use this summer.

“Last night I was out here at 8, and I couldn’t believe how many people went by,” said Dwight Boucher, co-chairman of the American Legion project with Arnie Althoff.

The half-mile walking path and the pier connect to 15,000 feet of bike paths that run through Hankinson. They’re part of a 17.7-acre conservation project that began in 2005 and is hoped to culminate next summer.

For Kath, completion of the pier brings a chance to enjoy fishing away from the shore or a boat landing, something he can normally only do on a pontoon with a good ramp.

He also gets to use the equipment he bought last year after friends at a lake cabin told him about the device. With the equipment, his neighbor, a nephew or his mother, Marilyn, casts the rod, and Kath uses his mouth to reel it in.

“We called the game warden, and he said, ‘As long as you can reel it up, you can have a license,’ ” Kath said. He caught a 14-inch catfish Wednesday that he figured would be fried for supper.

Next month marks 30 years since Kath’s accident, but his mother, who lives with him in Hankinson, said they’ve tried to move forward since then.

“We always thought things would get better, but they don’t, so you have to get out and see what you can see,” Marilyn Kath said.

“Rocky is a special individual,” Boucher said. “He participates in every Oktoberfest; he goes to ball games in town.”

And Kath figures he’ll be going to the American Legion site more once the weather cools off, too.

“If nothing else, just to be out in the country and enjoy the scenery,” he said.

Project update

The planned six-year project that began in 2005 at the Hankinson (N.D.) American Legion Outdoor Learning Site should be 90 percent complete by the town’s 125th anniversary next summer, said Dwight Boucher, co-chairman of the project.

So far, volunteers have put more than 10,000 hours into the project, which involved planting trees and grasses, stabilizing the Lake Elsie shoreline, installing irrigation, and completing a parking area, walking path, pier and bridge.

Project leaders hope the 17.7-acre site, which was given to the American Legion by Richland County at the start of World War II, will have an indoor and an outdoor classroom this year. Plans for a rustic campground, a picnic area and a veterans memorial are in the works for next summer.

The Hankinson American Legion post has secured more than $300,000 in grants and donations, with help from the Lake Agassiz Resource Conservation and Development program. Natural Resource Conservation Service engineering staff in Fargo developed designs for the wetland and shoreline restoration; the Wahpeton NRCS field office completed a wildlife habitat incentive program contract for tree plantings, shoreline restoration and prairie planting; and the NRCS soil survey office in Fargo provided an evaluation of soils at the site.

Boucher said grants and donations from local businesses have kept the project going without having to ask for money from the community.

“It’s been such a cooperative effort by so many groups and individuals that it’s just a great joy to be able to be part of it,” he said. “Come over next year, and you’ll see quite a difference again.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Hartley at (701) 235-7311