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With recreation programs, it's use it or lose it.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Melissa Hart

A quintessential Oregon adventure beckons from the pages of Eugene's Recreation Guide.

Aboard the Portland Spirit, participants will float up the Willamette River in May, enjoying lunch and live music. Cost of the round trip from Eugene to Portland, plus cruise, meal and band: $70. Spots on the 30- person trip still available: 24.

Why all the empty seats? Surely our region's older residents, for whom these trips are designed, retain their sense of adventure. Still, the city's snowshoeing excursions and waterfall hikes and coastal explorations don't always fill up - a fact that, in the midst of budget cuts, threatens to put these opportunities on the chopping block.

"If we find that people aren't taking advantage of our programs," says Josh Lutje, activity coordinator for Eugene's Recreation Services, "They could get cut."

Lutje believes everyone, regardless of age or ability, deserves to experience Oregon's outdoors. He says some of the city's excursions don't fill because people don't know about them. Residents used to receive a Recreation Guide in their mailbox, but a move to a paperless system put it online, where some seniors may not look.

To build interest in the trips - which include visits to lakes and flower festivals and, possibly, hot-air ballooning - Lutje and a co-worker visit retirement homes and senior centers with slide show presentations. "Folks tell us, 'The price is incredible. You do these amazing trips.

"We had no idea.'"

As well, most have no idea that people as young as 16 may sign up for many of these adventures. On a whim in January, I registered for a dog sledding excursion near Bend. I'd driven past the ad on Amazon Recreation Center's marquee for weeks, but procrastinated until the day before the trip.

"Is there space?" I asked.

Out of 12 spots available, two seats were left.

Perhaps people worry about vacating their more secure position of armchair traveler.

"It can be frightening to go outside," says Lynn Hung of Ya-Po-Ah Terrace. She moved from Roseburg years ago, after being bitten by a brown recluse spider. The bite left her temporarily paralyzed; even now, she has difficulty maneuvering one leg. Despite her fear, she's gone on several trips with the city.

Hung worried she wouldn't be able to climb into a dog sled, but Lutje promised assistance. On a cold bright morning, she stepped into the sled beside a friend and beamed as the dogs sped from the parking lot toward a pristine, tree-lined trail.

"We're in the business of doing exciting, great things," Lutje tells potential participants, "and finding a way for you to do it, too."

Lutie found a way for Fern Henderson, 97, to climb into a two-person sled. She settled her coat about her as 60-plus dogs yipped and barked in expectation.

Her companion sat down and the musher tucked in wool blankets and clucked to his team of 10 canines. They took off, transforming Henderson from a retirement home resident to an intrepid explorer coursing through snowy fields at the base of Mount Bachelor.

If a nonagenarian can navigate such an excursion, others can as well. Lutje notes how the city's trips improve participants' mental health.

"On dog sledding day, Eugene's weather was nasty. But as soon as we got out of town, it got sunny. The whole demeanor of the group brightened."

Still, vacant seats persist. It's a shame, really - somebody's missing out on a darned good time.

Perhaps they're reluctant to spend. Seventy dollars is a lot for someone on a fixed income. But anyone can apply for a scholarship, and as Lutje points out, our tax dollars subsidize these trips - for now.

After our dog-sledding adventure, participants gathered in Bachelor's lodge for hamburgers and cocoa. They spoke of the city's upcoming snowshoe trip to Sahalie Falls, but mostly, the talk ran to what we'd all just experienced.

"There's a word for it." Henderson looked at her companions - a single woman relishing a bowl of macaroni and cheese, two friends sharing a basket of French fries, a couple gazing at each other with obvious adoration deepened by shared experience. "That word," she said, "is 'sublime.'"

With such camaraderie, such logistical and financial support, it's a wonder any Recreation Services van has an empty seat. Why not help get the word out?

Call Eugene's Recreation Services and request a print catalog for a friend. It's online at www.eugene-or.gov/rec or call 541-682-5333. Check the Facebook page for trip updates and share them. Call people, as Lutje does, and talk up the city's offerings.

"We're desperately trying to fill trips to make ourselves relevant," he says. "It's good for people to know what services are out there - and what services could possibly go away."

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir, "Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood" (Seal, 2009) and teaches at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.
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Title Annotation:Guest Viewpoint
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 7, 2013
Words:818
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