Wilderness Inquiry (WI) has a rich history involving many people as well as the convergence of multiple social issues. Since the mid 70’s WI has been in the forefront of providing equitable access to the outdoors for people from all walks of life. This passion was born from a deep concern for the environment and a desire to share it with people who did not traditionally get outdoors.
In 1974, Bill Simpson, Tom Rasmussen and Greg Lais took a group of 14-year-old students on a winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Bill and Tom had just completed a NOLS course with Paul Petzoldt, and they were eager to get students outdoors. That first trip was based out of a property Bill, Tom, Greg and 14 others collectively owned, known as the Farm Lake Tipi. Despite temperatures as cold as 40 degrees below zero they had a fantastic time. Bill and Tom started doing trips on a semi-regular bases with the Stillwater, MN, school district. Greg, then a student at St. John’s University helped them out on a variety of adventures.
Greg was inspired by Bill and these early trips and wrote up a proposal for “January Term” at St. John’s. He proposed that he and 4 other students live in the Wilderness for the month of January, 1975, learning survival and philosophy along the way. You can read his original proposal here. They had quite an adventure!
After a period of time the group started calling itself “Wilderness Inquiry,” to show that these experiences were oriented toward both wilderness and education. After those early experiences (before the days of fleece and Gore-Tex), Greg realized that with the right attitude and know-how, just about anyone could enjoy the outdoors. In 1977, a controversy over management of the Boundary Waters was in full fury. Then U.S. Senator Wendell Anderson was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying that, “the handicapped, elderly and women” would never be able to enjoy the Wilderness without the use of motors. Greg’s sister, Mary, who worked with the Minnesota State Council on Disability, called Greg to suggest that they give it a try.
Universal Access To Outdoor Adventures
In an effort to demonstrate that anyone can enjoy the wilderness on its own terms, Greg and college pal Paul Schurke organized a trip to the Boundary Waters in 1977 that included two people who used wheelchairs and two people who are deaf. That trip opened new possibilities and changed the lives of everyone involved, including Greg and Paul. As Greg recalls:
I’ll never forget watching Margot Imdieke crawl across a portage trail dragging her wheelchair to prove to herself that she could do it. It blew me away, and put my issues and worries in perspective. I learned then to keep an open mind and never say never!
Building Wilderness Inquiry
After graduating from St. John’s in 1978, Greg’s father, Don Lais, helped Greg and Paul incorporate their endeavor as a nonprofit organization called Wilderness Inquiry II. The “II” was added to distinguish the program from Bill Simpson’s program with Stillwater High School, which was named Wilderness Inquiry but never formally incorporated. The next few years saw a proliferation of Wilderness Inquiry programs as Bill’s friends and students started:
- Wilderness Inquiry I—Serving special education students
- Wilderness Inquiry II—Integrating people with disabilities
- Wilderness Inquiry III, working with Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Wilderness Inquiry IV, working with adjudicated youth from the Washington County Courts
- Wilderness Inquiry V, working with adults with developmental disabilities
Collectively, these programs were known as the Wilderness Inquiry Association, and they worked together, shared gear and vehicles, and evolved an inclusive philosophy that all people could enjoy and benefit from shared wilderness experiences.
In 1981, then Board Chair Rita Plourde encouraged Greg and Paul to start doing winter trips. Rita introduced WI to her friend Will Steger. After a couple of years of mushing in the BWCA, Paul moved to Ely, MN. In 1986, Paul went to the North Pole with Will and Ann Bancroft on the famous Steger Arctic Expedition. Paul and his wife, Susan (a former Wilderness Inquiry trail staff member), started Wintergreen in Ely shortly after returning from the North Pole.
In the meantime, Greg continued to build and expand Wilderness Inquiry. Starting with forays into the vast wilderness of NW Ontario (1981), branching out to the Yukon’s Big Salmon River (1984) and Alaska’s Porcupine River (1986), new trips throughout the world were added to the list of destinations. By 1988, the other Wilderness Inquiry programs had moved under the Wilderness Inquiry II umbrella, so the “II” was dropped from the name and the organization became known simply as Wilderness Inquiry, or WI.
Over time, WI built up its reputation for inclusive outdoor adventures, as well as its board of directors, its staff, and its fleet of canoes, vans, and trailers. In the early days we moved from a garage in SE Minneapolis, to shared office space with other non-profits such as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Grey Panthers. Eventually, we landed in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota, in an office space called UTEC. We purchased our existing office and warehouse headquarters in 1999, and our base camp at Little Sand Bay near the Apostle Islands in 2007. Since the beginning, Wilderness Inquiry has served well over 385,000 people on canoe, kayak, rafting, hiking, dogsled, ski, horsepack, and safari adventures throughout North America and the world.
Many things have changed since Greg, Bill and Paul did their first trips in the Boundary Waters together, but the spirit, care, and sense of adventure continues throughout Wilderness Inquiry programs to this day–whether in Alaska, East Africa, or the Bronx.