An inviting lawn fitted with towering trees looking out onto Echo Lake near Bigfork is filled with families from many different walks of life. Some are all adults while some have small children and everything in between — and all are participating in DREAM Adaptive Recreation’s Water Sports Week.
The organization’s annual week-long program makes it possible for everyone, regardless of ability, to recreate on the water and enjoy much of what makes Montana summers special. Although DREAM runs summer activities and coaching on a consistent basis, Water Sports Week is a time especially for families to gather and feel the camaraderie with old friends and new friends alike.
“I think what’s really neat about this [program]… is this one lends itself to more of the family atmosphere,” DREAM Adaptive Executive Director Julie Tickle expressed. “We call it a ‘choose your own adventure’ day or week because there are so many different activities and so much space to welcome families — that’s one of my favorite things is to help families be able to recreate together.”
The Whitefish-based nonprofit was formed in 1985 with the goal of making outdoor recreation in the Flathead Valley more accessible to people with disabilities. Early on, DREAM acquired adaptive snow skiing equipment and offered alpine skiing opportunities for persons with disabilities on Big Mountain — which continues to be one of their most popular programs.
In 2009, DREAM expanded by adding summer adaptive recreation opportunities such as mountain biking and various water sports. The popular Water Sports Week, which gives participants unique opportunities to try many motorized water sports as well as paddling, is in its 14th year.
THE PROGRAM is hosted by the Thompson Family who donate their backyard on the edge of Echo Lake. The setting is simply idyllic, with surrounding mountains and the peaceful lake below.
“It’s like a little oasis… everyone looks forward to it every year. We’re really thankful to the Thompson Family,” Tickle said.
DREAM has all of its staff, many volunteers and various donations that all come together to make it possible.
“It’s pretty magical and I think the location sets the stage for that magic,” Tickle says. “Everyone’s in really high spirits.”
During the week’s activities, DREAM offers opportunities for many families to try sports they might not have ever had the opportunity to otherwise. DREAM provides adaptive equipment like adaptive water skiing, wakeboarding, tubing and pontoon boat rides to give participants an experience that has them smiling from ear to ear. Adaptive sporting equipment is extremely expensive and most families cannot afford it on their own.
For Maggie Camp and her son Spencer Yebra, the DREAM Water Sports Week is the highlight of their summer. Spencer was an active kid and daredevil snowboarder growing up when an auto accident caused him to suffer a traumatic brain injury at age 16. The accident left him with disabilities that make it challenging to do the activities he loves.
The family worked with an adaptive program in Missoula until the pandemic shut it down and then found DREAM Adaptive. Camp says the organization makes a huge difference for her son and it gives him a chance to experience the feeling of doing those activities again.
“This just makes his day, interacting with everybody…” Camp said after Spencer took a run on the adaptive water ski. “He was the kid on the snowboard that was unstoppable… now he can kind of get some of that back. And he just loves it.”
“It’s a great organization and I think it really fills a huge hole in some of these people’s lives. I’m very appreciative of it,” she added.
THE DEMAND for outdoor recreation keeps growing every year and Tickle says the Water Sports Week fills quickly — unfortunately they do not have the staff or equipment to keep up with the demand but are working on expanding to be able to serve more families.
“We had a waitlist, sadly, for most of our programs this summer — they filled up really quick,” she said. “So we are working hard on fundraising so we can hire more staff and get more equipment. It’s definitely not a problem that we like to have, we like to say yes!”
Every year DREAM’s Water Sports Program is sponsored in part by a grant from Weyerhaeuser. This year, Launch Watersports in Kalispell stepped up to sponsor the program as well by providing a new Malibu boat and driver free of charge for the week. According to General Manager Sean Lujan, Launch Watersports is under new ownership as of a couple years ago and they were looking to add more community involvement to their company.
Lujan has a background in working with individuals with disabilities and when he found out DREAM was paying to rent boats for the program, he thought that was something Launch could take care of so that money could be utilized for other aspects of the program.
“It’s absolutely amazing… the stoke is high and everybody is having a great time,” Lujan said last week in between boat rides. “DREAM Adaptive has this program dialed in and that’s why I’m just so glad that we were able to be a small part of it and to be able to participate with them.”
Launch plans to stay involved with the nonprofit and hopes to help with a fall fundraiser and other opportunities in the future.
The year-round programming has been key for DREAM and its many participants. Tickle says having the ability to recreate outside is essential for anyone’s physical and mental health and those with disabilities are no different. That’s why programs like the Water Sports Week at Echo Lake are so important for DREAM to continue to provide.
“People with disabilities are people just like everyone else…” she said. “Our mission is to connect the dots for folks and break down some barriers, make it seem like it’s not that big of a deal — that they can go out and recreate and get all of the many benefits from doing it.”