Ian Mackay was 26 years old when a bicycle accident left him with a life-changing spinal cord injury. Ten years and nearly 10,000 wheelchair miles later, Mackay is charging ahead with life as a quadriplegic, pursuing his love of the outdoors and using technology to assist along the way.
Mackay is the founder and executive director of Ian’s Ride, a non-profit organization in Washington state whose aim is to promote accessibility and trail connectivity. With a group of friends and supporters, Mackay is currently tackling his second ride across the state, a 475-mile journey from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to his home near Port Angeles, Wash.
An avid cyclist before an accident near the University of California Santa Cruz left him paralyzed, Mackay makes a point of getting outside and taking his power wheelchair for lengthy rides near his home on the Olympic Peninsula every day. In fact, Tuesday marked his 651st consecutive day of getting out for a ride.
He began his latest cross-state ride on Sunday (his first was in 2016) and plans to reach the end 13 days later, on Aug. 24. In a call with GeekWire, he described some of the technology he relies on to control his chair and engage with a community of followers on social media.
“Technology is really what’s making this whole thing possible,” Mackay said, detailing the devices, apps, operating system features, batteries and more that he employs. And when he’s not out for a ride, he has a full smart home, with a Home Pod and everything from lights, window blinds, fans, thermostats and much more controlled by voice.
“I was stuck inside for the first few years of my accident because I was very dependent on respiratory care,” said Mackay, whose backstory is chronicled on his website. “I was on a ventilator for the first year after my injury. I did regain the ability to breathe, but I never regained the ability to cough, so I always needed to be nearby a family member or a caregiver — someone who could use a machine to help me cough. I have a [tracheotomy] here in my neck, and they could clear it and I could breathe and I could be just fine. But it really restricted me from being able to explore outside and do anything on my own. So once I did get an iPhone it really opened up the door for me because it was a reliable form of calling for help. I put my life in its hands everyday when I’m out on the trail.”
Outfitted with an iPhone 7 Plus now, Mackay relies on voice recognition as well as Tecla, a device on the back of his chair that plugs into switches near his lips. Tecla converts analog switches into digital Bluetooth signals that his phone can pick up.
“All of the Western Washington quad guys, that’s what we use,” Mackay said, referring to a community that includes Todd Stabelfeldt, a developer who was previously profiled in GeekWire. “In our opinion it’s the best way — without the use of your hands — to communicate with your phone. I use ‘Hey, Siri’ a lot, but I use this Tecla to do the more nuts-and-bolts stuff on the phone. Let’s say I need to do a gesture, a pinch or something that you would do with a picture to zoom in. I would do that with just a couple clicks of my lips.”
Mackay credits Switch Control, an accessibility feature in Apple’s operating system, with allowing him to use the phone the way he does.
He also relies on sip-n-puff technology to control the movements of his chair. Basically it’s a straw in his mouth — if he blows into it he can go, if he sips it will stop. A light sip or a light puff controls left or right.
The same controls can be used to interact with the phone, but Mackay has too much he wants to see and do.
“For me it’s important to be out there rolling along and still be able to answer my phone or make calls, so I didn’t want to stop the chair to interact with my phone, so I just have direct switches right near my straw. It kind of allows me to text and drive,” he said laughing. “Luckily I’m only going 7 mph, so I haven’t had any cops give me hell yet.”
With a goal of riding about 40 miles per day, Mackay has been joined by three close friends from his college days — Josh Sutcliffe, Jimmy Quenelle and Josh Blaustein — who are riding alongside on bicycles. They’re responsible for making sure drivers are aware of Mackay and his fellow riders on Washington roadways.
Support vehicles are also along for the ride, and Stabelfeldt — who rode 11 miles on day one — is among other friends pitching in, helping to raise awareness for Ian’s Ride and the cause.
“We’re trying to make a big splash with me going all the way across the state and it ends up being a ton of interaction,” he said. “While I’m on the road I’m clicking away and using my voice, trying to be louder than the semis driving by me as I’m going.”
The route was planned out on a navigation tool called Ride With GPS, which is popular among cyclists for designing a route and providing turn-by-turn directions along the way. A map of Mackay’s route and details about daily legs of the ride, including elevation gains, are provided here.
“Over the past few months we’ve been talking to all sorts of cycling clubs, trying to get the best route for a power wheelchair to make it across Washington,” he said. “I designed the route a month ago and I’m able to guide the team along with just that, which is cool.”
But he admits that while planning, he was not enthusiastic about potential high temperatures in Eastern Washington in August. While he said they’ve gotten lucky with temperatures thus far, he’s concerned about wildfires in Washington and British Columbia and the smoke they are generating.
“Right now I think our biggest concern is the smoke, especially with me being respiratorily compromised,” Mackay said. “That smoke can start to really get to my lungs. But I think we’re going to be able to do it. Luckily I’m not huffin’ and puffin’ like the guys are, trying to climb up hills. I’m just cruising along.”
And that cruising covers more distance thanks to a battery upgrade, in which he replaced his standard car or boat-style lead-acid battery with a lithium ion battery strapped to the back of the chair. Mackay said it’s preferable because it provides full current all the way up until it’s dead, unlike the lead-acid, which slows down continuously until it’s out of juice.
“What’s cool about that is I’m getting full speed on this extra battery for 20-some miles — that’s excellent when you’re going up hills,” he said. “My crew might not think so, because they have to keep up.”
He also uses Strava, a social media platform for runners and cyclists where he has recorded all 651 of his rides. And, as an avid birder, he’s on the lookout across Washington for unique species.
“I’m a biology student as far as my background and I use an app called iBird Pro,” Mackay said. “I can use that to call up a bird song to see if I’m right on what I’m hearing or just to see pictures of a certain bird. It’s kind of an example of how I’m using technology to embrace nature more. I saw a great horned owl yesterday, that was wonderful. We saw probably a dozen osprey on day one, and we saw a pileated woodpecker yesterday, which was cool. So far we’ve had a good birding experience.”
And beyond birds, there’s beer. A craft brew connoisseur, Mackay is enjoying finding breweries along the way and he’s into an app called Untappd.
“I’m kind of anal about beer rating, I like to rate beers and comment on every beer I drink,” Mackay said. “So we use this app on my phone and every brewery we go to and every beer we sample we make sure and rate and leave comments on so that we can get feedback back to the brewers and continually improve their stuff.”
Beer drinking, bird watching, seeing the sights across the Pacific Northwest with friends and posting on social media … it sounds like a modern-day summer adventure.
“I certainly am using technology to live my life to the fullest,” Mackay said. “It’s the only way I can sort of pursue bike touring in my own way. I can’t interact with the physical world in a way that I once could, and so I use a phone and a digital world to help me.”