Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Thompson is a West Virginia native who has spent the majority of his life in the outdoor adventure world. From becoming a certified Wilderness EMT and a technical rescue expert to ski patrolling out west and commercially guiding some of America’s most treacherous whitewater runs, Eric is a consummate outdoorsman with a panache and passion for adventure. During the cleanup effort following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Eric’s vehicle slid out on a snowy road and flipped over an embankment, crushing his torso and severing his spinal cord. In the blink of an eye, Eric became a paraplegic. But he didn’t let his injury slow him down and decided that he would focus on what he could do to stay active and continue enjoying his life to the fullest.
Fast-forward a decade, and Eric is as active as ever. He can regularly be found cruising around Tucker County on his handbike and following the seasonal flow of those same classic whitewater runs, paddling class V rapids in his custom Handi-Craft raft. He leveraged his diverse skillset and founded Access On The Go, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access—both indoors and out—for people with disabilities.
Most recently, Eric and his whitewater paddling skills were featured on America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston, a national series on PBS that explores diversity in the great outdoors. I caught up with Eric over the phone while he was down in Fayetteville after a high-water day on the Upper Gauley to talk about his inspiring life story, his nonprofit, and how we can work together to improve access for everyone, regardless of ability.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your backstory?
I grew up in a small house my parents built completely with hand tools in Advent, which is just outside of Charleston, West Virginia. I think they finally got running water and electricity when I was born. We moved to Tucker County when I was four years old and lived there until the beginning of high school. I lived in Hawaii for a little bit, then graduated from high school in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin and ended up living in Portland, Oregon before moving back to Tucker County.
When did you get into the outdoor industry?
I had a horrible corporate office job doing financial services for a Fortune 500 company and then decided to get into outdoor facilitation, doing the best low-paying jobs in the world. I worked as a raft guide up in Alaska. I got my Wilderness EMT certification through [the National Outdoor Leadership School], and ski patrolled at the Ski Bowl on Mount Hood in the winter. In the summer, I’d go wherever the best whitewater was. I guided on Clear Creek in Colorado, the Matanuska River in Alaska, and on the White Salmon in Washington. Every fall, I’d come back to West Virginia to guide on the Upper Gauley during Gauley season.
Tell me about your accident.
It was in 2012 when I was home after Gauley season helping my mom out with her property. That’s when Superstorm Sandy hit and 30 percent of the trees in Tucker County unexpectedly came down overnight. The White Grass Ski Touring Center needed assistance clearing trails even though the ski area wasn’t open for the season yet. The day the roads reopened, I went to White Grass and hopped on the chainsaw crew to help with trail recovery. Right after that I had my vehicle accident.
The first person on the scene said it looked like I had gone too wide in a corner where the pavement had eroded. Because it was still snowy from the storm, the rear of the car likely spun around and I went backwards into a ravine, flipped over, and landed on the roof. The driver-side door pillar that supports the roof crushed me across the middle of my chest. I don’t have any recollection of this, but apparently when emergency response showed up, I identified myself as an EMT and told them not to move me until they were ready for a compromised-back extraction, so I guess I was certain enough about what was going on. I was life-flighted, underwent spinal surgery, and spent a month in the hospital before being discharged to Cortland Acres in Thomas, where I started a spinal rehab program.
Did it take some time to process it all?
As a rescuer, I’ve been on the sides of mountains, helping somebody that’s having their worst day ever. You do what you can to help them, so it’s been ingrained in me to not dwell on how much something sucks, but to think practically about what you can do to make a situation better immediately. When I woke up from surgery, they sat me up and told me that I was paralyzed. My first thought was That sucks, and the second half of that same thought was Now what am I going to do about it? Right off the bat, I was learning about wheelchairs, adaptive outdoor equipment, and what it means to have a complete spinal cord injury. I was still in the ICU when I started looking at belay devices for adaptive rock and ice climbing. I didn’t know how things were going to play out, but I knew that I was going to get back out into the outdoors and live as fulfilling a life as possible with my new reality.
What was the genesis of Access On The Go?
About six months after my injury, I flew out to Oregon to pick up my van and possessions. My friend and fellow ski patroller at Mount Hood had raised money to help modify my van, so I was able to pack up my stuff and road trip back home to West Virginia. After driving across the country, I realized that the worst place I saw for accessibility was right here in West Virginia, even though West Virginia has the highest share of disabled residents in the country. At the time, 22 of 26 store entrances in Thomas had steps. I couldn’t get into businesses; I couldn’t cross the street safely. Before, I didn’t understand how the general lack of access infrastructure within the community negatively impacts quality of life for people with disabilities. After my injury, I realized the whole world of accessibility issues that I was now facing.
No one was doing anything about it, so I decided to be that person—not just for myself, but for everyone else. That’s when I started Tucker Co. On The Go, which quickly became WV On The Go, which now functions as Access On The Go, because we’ll help anybody who wants to improve accessibility, regardless of geography. I operate Access On The Go on a completely volunteer basis with the help of some volunteers. We’ve probably helped 50 percent of those businesses in Thomas make voluntary improvements. Even small improvements can make a community much more livable for people who have difficulty going up steps.
What can be done to improve accessibility in outdoor recreation?
We’re working to make sure that people of different abilities can do all the things able-bodied people love to do. Communities can support accessible recreation by making basic amenities like food and lodging more accessible. I’ve put handrails and ramps in to create accessible public bathrooms. Our wheelchair mobility challenge and stroller-friendly trails project encourage trail builders to think about making bike trails more accessible. It’s often the manmade features, like switchbacks, bridges, and trailheads, that become obstacles. We’re not advocating for paving the wilderness or making every mountain bike trail four-feet-wide, but just acknowledging that there would be fewer issues if trails were maintained at ground-level like they are at handlebar-level. But one of the biggest shortcomings I’ve seen has been with public river access. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of movement in public lands to remove access barriers.
Tell me about your journey back into whitewater.
Within a few months of injury, I got back into my kayak on a flatwater pool on the Cheat River. I have no abdominal control, so I couldn’t even stay upright. Everything that makes a kayak great no longer works when you can’t control your core. I had to figure out a way to have a chair with back support to hold me up. But for a high-back seat to be effective in whitewater, you have to secure yourself to that seat in a way that’s not going to cause entrapment, because if it flips, you would get caught underneath. I brainstormed with hundreds of whitewater professionals around the world and prototyped different boats, realizing that I needed something I could flip on my own.
During the 2016 Gauley Season, my friend Cassie Micheli was hanging out with Darren Vancil and the Creature Craft crew. She invited me to join them at Kanawha Falls to see how far we could push the boats under the falls. Darren was immediately on board to let me test an adaptive outfitting system on his craft. I needed to see if I could roll it back upright, which I could even without modifications. After years of prototyping boats, I had already developed a modified system, so we put it right into the Creature Craft and it was a perfect match. I ran a bunch of holes sideways to see how stable it was. The design was robust, even when going into something completely wrong. In 2017, I toured the country with Clay Carroll and Team Creature Craft, running rivers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado. I hit all the commercial outfitters and adaptive programs to show them what’s possible if they get some of this equipment in their fleets. They would be prepared for somebody in a wheelchair who wants to do adaptive paddling. Since then, we’ve made some adaptive modifications that have also improved the overall design of the boat for able-bodied people.
What other activities do you do?
I’ve aid and ice climbed with Paradox Sports out of Boulder, Colorado; they wrote the book on adaptive climbing, which just takes a modified harness. But winter sports, rafting, and biking are my passions. I’ve done some adaptive skiing, but not to the extent that I’d like to. Getting back into downhill is one of my priorities. I’m partnering with Challenge Athletes of West Virginia to help them develop a biking program to get people out on Forest Service roads and state parks. Off-road handcycling is a great way to access more difficult terrain in West Virginia.
What do you want people to know about accessibility?
People with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States. We want to go out and do the same stuff everybody else does. As a group we have a lot of annual spending power, so we represent a huge market. Advocating and working directly with local businesses really turns the conversation around. Instead of accessibility being seen as an obligation, the [Americans with Disabilities Act] becomes an opportunity for businesses to get government funding to improve their facilities. Most people don’t know the IRS gives up to $20,000 per year in tax incentives for necessary improvements like ramps, parking spaces, and step removal. Anyone who is interested in making their community more accessible or who wants to make necessary improvements in their business can contact us for free resources.
What advice do you have for others in a similar situation?
Just because you get injured doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the things you love; you just might have to do them in a different way. It’s never impossible. If there’s something you can’t do, look around and see who else is trying it. If no one else is trying, then build it yourself. That’s what happened with me and whitewater; there wasn’t anything that worked for somebody in my situation to do advanced whitewater, so I figured it out. I collaborated with my friends across different industries to create a revolutionary advancement in adaptive whitewater for people without core control.
What do you love about West Virginia?
It’s got such a wonderful community of people and it’s such a beautiful area. This is my home state, so realizing the lack of accessible infrastructure here motivated me to make positive changes not only for myself, but also to improve the quality of life for all residents by developing more sustainable, livable communities. I want to bring about that positive change and see West Virginia move forward. My long-term goal is to grow West Virginia from a place people with disabilities are avoiding into a destination with world-class adaptive outdoor programs so people with disabilities can access all the beautiful things we love about this state.