Access Unlimited

Dillon man helps those facing great obstacles enjoy the great outdoors of SW Montana
New angle on angling: Dillon's Jess Alberi and Steve Miller, co-founders of Access Unlimited, enjoy a day of fishing last summer in Beaverhead County, where the group organizes fishing trips for physically challenged folks who wouldn't otherwise get a chance to enjoy the area's great angling opportunities.
Rollin' down the river: Tim Burr fishes from his wheelchair on a specially equipped boat floating the Big Hole River with help from guide Donny Wackerman during a fishing trip last summer organized by Access Unlimited.

Tim Burr recalls the experience so vividly that it seems like it happened yesterday—and so fondly, that he wishes it would happen again tomorrow.

And so vitally, that it continues to enrich his daily life, six months later.

“I hadn’t gotten back on the river since I was injured, so just getting back in a boat and on the water was huge,” recalled Burr of the fly-fishing trip he took to Beaverhead County last summer with Access Unlimited—less than two years after a backcountry skiing accident in Colorado left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

“I had never really fly-fished. And they taught me how to do it and got me set up with a rod I could use,” continued Burr.

“And I ended up catching a fish my first day on the water. Yeah, it wasn’t a big fish,” added Burr of the trout he reeled in.

“But it was a pretty amazing moment, for sure. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Burr gained that experience thanks in large part to Access Unlimited, a southwest Montana-based nonprofit group conceived in 2014 by Jess Alberi and Steve Miller—while the pair of longtime friends fly-fished not so far from where Burr reeled in that trout two years later.

“Steve and I love to go fishing,” said Alberi, a Dillon resident and native who became paralyzed from the waist down in a 2008 accident on his way home from an elk hunting trip.

“And one day when we were out on the river, I was talking to Steve about Craig,” recalled Alberi of his conversation with Miller about Craig Hospital, a medical facility in Colorado specializing in the treatment of life-changing spinal cord and brain injuries he stayed in following his accident.

“Craig is a place that changes lives. It picks you up when you’re at rock bottom, when you’re just trying to figure out how to put on your socks again, how you’re going to support your family. You think your life’s over and Craig helps you put it back together,” said Alberi, who returns to Craig Hospital regularly for re-evaluations and to talk to young patients there in the early stages of trying to cope with life-altering injuries.

“So, I try to show the kids at Craig that there is hope after an injury like this,” explained Alberi, the dad of two young daughters who has since his accident worked as a sportswriter and hurdling coach, helped his wife run her thriving daycare business and is currently employed by Anderson & Platt Outfitters in Dillon.

“I was telling Steve how rewarding that was, making a difference in their lives, and how I’d love to do that kind of work,” continued Alberi.

“We got talking about what we could do here in Montana to get that same feeling, to have some of that same effect on people’s lives. And that’s where this idea for Access Unlimited came from.”

Fishing runs through it
A successful Bozeman businessman who founded SCS Wraps and SCS Unlimited, Miller joined Alberi and friend Adam Ringer to establish Access Unlimited.

“Access Unlimited is a movement with a pretty simple message and purpose—and that is to challenge limitation,” said Yinger in the “Why We Exist” video shot by GoPro for the Access Unlimited website, http://www.accessunltd.org/.

“It’s an organization to take disabled athletes and anyone that has a disability out fishing and show them a little bit of adventure,” added Miller.

To that end, Access Unlimited organized a trip last summer, with financial support from Craig Hospital and the High Fives Foundation. Established in 2009 by Roy Tuscany, a successful businessman who spent two years in a wheelchair following a 2006 skiing accident, High Fives sponsors more than 100 mountain action sports athletes so that they can continue to pursue their dreams after suffering life-altering injuries.

That Access Unlimited trip last July took five High Fives athletes who had spent time at Craig Hospital and still faced challenges from paralyzing injuries to Beaverhead County—to do some fishing.

“I feel so blessed to have grown up here. We live in such a great place here, and we sometimes take it for granted, all the things we do—hunting, fishing, heck, even just sitting under the stars and looking at the Milky Way. It’s that stuff we can help these people experience through Access Unlimited,” said Alberi, a Beaverhead County High School graduate.

“They get to come up here and see how beautiful it is and how great the people in this community are,” explained Alberi, who credits his return to fishing to Miller and to the people of Dillon— who along with his wife, Emily, and Craig Hospital, were also key to him re-establishing a productive life following his injury.

“I always dreamed of fly-fishing again, but it did not seem possible,” admitted Jasmin Bambur, a High Fives athlete in the habit of overcoming obstacles in spectacular fashion.

“But when the Access Unlimited guys talked to me, they said, ‘Hey, just come up to Montana,’” recalled Bambur, who lives and trains in Colorado as part of the U.S. Paralympics team.

“So, I did. And pretty soon I’m in a boat in Montana, catching fish, having the time of my life,” added Bambur, of last July’s Access Unlimited trip to Beaverhead County.

“When we first arrived, none of us knew how it was going to work,” recalled Bambur, who travels the world competing as an elite mono-skier and now serves as an ambassador for Access Unlimited.

“Just the know-how to get someone in a wheelchair in a boat seemed like a tough obstacle—or getting someone who doesn’t have finger function holding a fly fishing rod and catching fish,” said Burr, for whom Access Unlimited customized a fly rod.

“But Access Unlimited had thought everything through. They put us all in the right equipment with the right guides,” added Bambur, who took another trip to Montana through Access Unlimited in August.

That equipment included fly rods donated by Twin Bridges-based R.L. Winston, boats designed by Hyde Drift Boats and all-terrain wheelchairs from Action TrackChair.

“Basically, anything that is not paved is going to be a real pain to travel on in a wheelchair. But when you have a TrackChair, they’re like little tanks. You can just point and pretty much go where you want to,” explained Burr, who got to test drive a TrackChair during his time at Craig Hospital, and use one to go off pavement to fish from a river bank during his Access Unlimited trip to Montana last summer.

“It’s opening up a lot of things for me,” said Alberi of the Action TrackChair, which he used on a family trip last summer to revisit a special place from his childhood.

“I got to stand in one of those and work my way up a bank to fish the creek running through my parents place in Red Lodge that I hadn’t fished since my injury. But I did it this summer with this special chair. I went over there and pulled a brown trout out of the same hole I fished when I was a kid.”

Adapting and overcoming
“One of the first things you learn when you have an injury like this is you have to adapt,” said Matt Leonard, a participant in the July Access Unlimited trip who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2015 skiing accident.

“Each person is different. But the Access Unlimited guys had really thought it all through ahead of time. And once you were in the boat on the river, you didn’t have a care in the world. We would just go with the flow, if you will,” said Leonard, who works with Zenefits, a San Francisco company that produces cloud-based software for HR management.

“I had not gotten into the wilds at this level since my injury. A lot of my life before my injury was about getting outdoors, getting up in the mountains and fishing and skiing and swimming But after my injury, fly fishing was not something I was really thinking about. You are so focused on getting through one day at a time—your physical therapy and pain and dealing with obstacles,” continued Leonard.

“And the fishing was great. I think everybody caught something that first day on the Big Hole River, and we saw a moose and some bald eagles. The second day, less fish were biting,” recalled Leonard.

“That’s when we saw that it’s not just about the fishing,” revealed Alberi of the second day on the July trip, when the Access Unlimited group floated the Beaverhead River.

“Catching a fish is a bonus. It’s about being out on the water, where people can feel free, not constricted. When I sit in a boat, I look across at those other guys and I can’t tell who is physically challenged and who isn’t. It’s just a bunch of guys out there hanging out, having fun. You just see people forget about their issues and enjoy themselves.”

Burr said you’re also seeing people you want to see again.

“It was awesome being out in the woods for a few days with good people. The whole Access Unlimited crew—Jess and Steve Miller—and the High Fives crew and the other athletes were awesome company to have,” commented Burr, who was accompanied on the trip by his girlfriend, Deatra.

“By the end of the weekend, I would say I was good friends with everybody there,” concluded Burr.

“Being up there with those guys was a huge highlight,” agreed Leonard.

“Getting to spend time like that with people with similar injuries and challenges—we feed off each other. Seeing someone like Jasmin Bambur who has it all figured out, being with him and the other guys out on the river was really great.”

Burr said the experience has continued to inspire him ever since.

“I think everybody that is in a chair would agree—even the most optimistic and motivated people are helped by seeing their peers do something and being pushed to do something out of their comfort zones,” said Burr.

“My memories of being up in Montana with those people helps motivate me.

Sometimes, you come across obstacles you can’t figure out how to get over on your own. But they seem minute and much more manageable when I recall that last summer we were in Montana floating down a river, catching fish,” said Burr, who has been sharing his stories about his trip to Montana with friends with physical challenges on social media.

“Then we start talking about what we can do for other people in chairs to expand their opportunities.”

Alberi said Access Unlimited will offer as many fishing trips to as many people as it can this summer and beyond.

“I ask people if they know anyone who has been affected by a life-altering injury, please go on our website and look at it and apply to come on one of these trips,” said Alberi.

“We’re going to pick applicants off there and try to go on one trip a month,” explained Alberi, noting that people can also donate to Access Unlimited.

“We operate 100 percent on contributions,” continued Alberi, who said that besides financial donations, people can help Access Unlimited by allowing the group to access their properties for fishing and hunting trips.

“Fishing and hunting is my passion, and being able to help others do it who probably thought they wouldn’t ever be able to again is pretty amazing,” said Alberi of the volunteer work he does for Access Unlimited.

“It gives you a feeling deep inside your chest you can’t get any other way—except when you’re giving back.”

For more information about Access Unlimited, go to http://www.accessunltd.org/.