CHESTERTON — Almost 11 years to the day after he lost both his legs in an industrial accident, Jim Dolph hit the hiking trail once again.
“It was great. I never thought I’d be able to go through the woods on a trail again,” Dolph said as he completed the Glenwood Dunes Trail in Indiana Dunes National Park on July 28. “I didn’t think it was possible.”
In July 2008, he sustained massive injuries at the former Bethlehem Steel mill in Burns Harbor – where he had worked for 36 years – when a rail car he was switching to a different track rolled over, severing both his legs. His left leg was severed 5 inches below the knee and his right leg 7 1/2 inches above the knee.
He was airlifted to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and then spent months at a rehabilitation facility in South Bend before receiving prosthetic limbs.
Before his accident, Dolph, a Chesterton native who lives in New Durham Township south of Michigan City, was an avid hiker with an estimated 1,800 miles of the Appalachian Trail under his belt. He had also played football for Valparaiso University and been involved in coaching Little League and Pop Warner football.
At the time of the accident, his goal was to walk the entire length of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. He said he had just 300 miles to go to complete his quest, and told his family he wasn’t going to let his injuries stop him from completing the trek.
He was invited to the National Park hike by co-worker Pat Fisher, president of the Harbor Country Hikers, who had planned an outing emphasizing hiking with a physically disabled partner, and the difficulty of maneuvering trails most consider easy.
During what he called “a fantastic experience,” Dolph was astride a Freedom Trax, an all-terrain motorized wheelchair attachment that is steered by a joystick.
National Park Ranger Kim Swift, chief of environmental education, led the way and explained the use of the vehicle, which is available to check out on the Paul Douglas Trail in Miller Woods and is housed at the Douglas Center at 100 N. Lake St. in Gary.
By the end of the hike, Dolph said he was thinking of adding a Freedom Trax to his Christmas list, saying it was more comfortable going uphill than downhill – the same sensation as when he was learning to walk with his artificial legs.
Dolph recounted some of his adventures in hiking, a sport he began as a Boy Scout while camping at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. Keeping with his personal tradition, he made sure he wrote down the names of those joining him for his return to hiking.
“I like to keep a record of who you meet because you meet so many interesting people on the trail,” Dolph said.
Harbor Country Hikers events are open to everyone, and children are welcome if accompanied by an adult. Membership ($20 for individuals or $30 for families) is encouraged, but not required. For more information or to request a membership form, visit harborcountryhikers.com.
Information on the Freedom Trax at Indiana Dunes National Park is available by calling (219) 395-1824.