As 2023 comes to a close, we are excited to share this collection of stories and memories that reflect all that we accomplished together in the past year.
This year, we adventured with more than 34,000 people in locations all around the world. See below for the highlights that demonstrate the power of connection and the importance of community — all made possible by the incredible people and partners we paddle alongside.
Thank you for joining us this year, and for your continued commitment to and passion for Wilderness Inquiry’s mission.
An Accessible Camp for Kids
The Wilderness Inquiry mission is about connecting people of all ages, backgrounds, identities, and abilities to shared outdoor adventures. This August, we held our first Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing (DDBHH) Day Camp for youth, where participants engaged in hands-on learning about the environment, how STEM shows up in nature, and factors that shape their local ecosystems. For some, it was their first opportunity to connect with peers within the DDBHH community. MPR News joined us for one of the days and reported on the impact the camp had on participants, parents, and partners. This program is funded in part by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).
West Coast Connections
For nearly a decade, Wilderness Inquiry has worked alongside Alpha Resource Center in Santa Barbara, CA, to connect adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities to canoeing and camping experiences in the Santa Barbara area. A key community supporter for this work has been Toad&Co, which joins each year with volunteers, financial support, and promotion to magnify the impact of this inclusive program. Building community in the outdoors is at the heart of our mission, and our work with Alpha Resource Center and Toad&Co brings this to life. This year, 60 participants enjoyed a day of paddling against sunny blue skies and capped off the experience with an overnight camping adventure in a nearby park. After Wilderness Inquiry’s visit each year, Alpha participants ask, “When are we going canoeing and camping again?”
Military Families Outdoors
This fall, we joined Blue Star Families in Washington, D.C. to mark the beginning of a growing partnership that will connect thousands of service members and their families to a continuum of outdoor activities. Beginning in 2024, this new program will engage service members, veterans, and their families through inclusive outdoor experiences that support positive health, belonging, and well-being. “Wilderness Inquiry deeply believes in the healing and regenerative power of the outdoors. We are proud to work alongside Blue Star Families and our nation’s service members to build nature-based opportunities that connect families to one another and to the outdoors,” shares Erika Rivers, Wilderness Inquiry’s Executive Director.
Cooking with Chef Lachelle Cunningham
In July, Chef Lachelle Cunningham joined Wilderness Inquiry in the Apostle Islands on one of our Women’s Affinity trips to enjoy good food, yoga, and community in the outdoors. Chef Lachelle wrote about her on-trail experience with Wilderness Inquiry, including a successful kayak tip test and campfire cooking. In 2024, we’re excited for more camping, kayaking, connecting, and all things outdoor adventuring with Chef Lachelle.
DAV Explores the Olympics
This September, a group of veterans from Disabled American Veterans (DAV) – Department of Minnesota joined us to hike and explore in Olympic National Park. Reflecting on the trip, one participant shared, “A very memorable experience was hiking Storm King as a group. Everyone in the group gave it a try and everyone was encouraging each other. It was nice to challenge myself.”
Accessible Travel at Our Core
Wilderness Inquiry’s Executive Director Erika Rivers worked as a trip assistant for Laura Oftedahl, a trip participant living with limited vision, in New Zealand late last year. In an interview conducted this year, Laura shared her story and reflected on the importance of accessible travel, “I just can’t say enough about the opportunity to go to these kinds of places and to have accommodations. It’s the year 2023. It’s still pretty special and not common everywhere.” Laura and Erika’s partnership story was featured in Accessible Journeys Magazine in the Summer 2023 edition. Wilderness Inquiry leads accessible trips to destinations across the country and around the globe — always centering the experience of the people who adventure with us.
Learning in a Classroom Without Walls
Wilderness Inquiry’s 2023 Outdoor Credit Recovery season was one of the most successful yet, as we engaged new schools and more students and saw positive Social-Emotional Learning outcomes among youth (more on that below!). Through nature-based exploration and academic opportunities set in a classroom without walls, Outdoor Credit Recovery utilizes the outdoors to bring learning to life. With intersectional learning focused on STEM, history and culture, and language arts, students have the opportunity to earn credits toward their high school diploma, build community with their peers, and create leadership pathways in the outdoor recreation field. Outdoor Credit Recovery is funded in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
Positive Learning Outcomes for Youth
Wilderness Inquiry’s supported outdoor youth programs encourage young people to build positive relationships, connect to nature and community, and thrive outside. In 2023, participants in Wilderness Inquiry’s youth programs reported experiencing positive connections and increased Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) outcomes. Results demonstrated that through our youth programs, young people gained 21st-century skills and developed social and emotional capacities that correlate with long-term gains in high school completion, college and career readiness, and increased life-long thriving. “I don’t think I have ever met with another organization that had 80% and above on all 3 Outdoor SEL capacities (well-being in the outdoors, connection to the outdoors, support for the environment),” stated Mary Wallace of Hello Insight, our evaluation partner agency.
A Winter Boundary Waters Adventure
Last winter, a group of students from Park Center Senior High School embarked on a snow-filled adventure to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the first of three outdoor trips with Wilderness Inquiry. The up-north adventure provided Park Center students (aka Park Center Pirates!) the opportunity to get outdoors as part of their education experience and build connections to one another and nature. Reflecting on the winter adventure, Park Center teacher and group leader Chris Gudvangen shared a memorable recap of their time together that perfectly captured the anticipation, excitement, and community of the trip.
Expanding Partnerships in the Southwest
For the first time, our nationally-recognized Canoemobile program visited Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, to connect local students to paddling experiences on Cochiti Lake on the Rio Grande River. In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and Army Corps of Engineers, Canoemobile engaged students in canoeing, fishing, and water quality testing. At the forefront of outdoor equity, New Mexico is leading the way in supporting and creating transformative outdoor experiences that foster environmental stewardship. Wilderness Inquiry is proud to work alongside partners in New Mexico to bring nature-based experiences to youth, families, and communities that pave the way for life-long participation in outdoor recreation.
The Power of National Partnerships
This year, Wilderness Inquiry was recognized by the U.S. Forest Service with the Wilderness Partnership Champion Award during their 2023 National Wilderness Awards. Across the past three years, we have worked with the U.S. Forest Service to connect more than 13,000 youth to outdoor experiences ranging from canoeing on local waterways to immersive adventures in national forests. This award recognizes this significant partnership and the important work we are doing together to ensure that youth have the opportunity to explore the outdoors on public lands and waterways both close to home and nationally.
Paddling with Partners
Nothing builds collaborative connections quite like paddling together! This year, more than 100 new and longtime partners joined us for our annual Partner Paddle on the Mississippi River, including friends from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, REI, and many more. It was a beautiful morning to share the river, reflect on the work we do together, and celebrate the power of collaboration. We’re grateful to the many partners that we work alongside to facilitate opportunities for outdoor connection, learning, and adventure.
Across the Country with Canoemobile
In 2023, our Canoemobile program traveled coast-to-coast — connecting more than 30,000 youth and families in 75+ communities to canoeing, outdoor exploration, and environmental learning. Why is the work of Canoemobile so important? Because outdoor engagement is demonstrated to lead to positive learning and health outcomes. But access to the outdoors is not equitable for all. Canoemobile meets youth and families in their neighborhoods, schools, and local parks, and provides opportunities to explore nature close to home. This happens on the Mystic River in Boston, at Anacostia Park in our nation’s capital, at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Atlanta, and on waterways across the country. By creating shared spaces for outdoor engagement, teaching outdoor skills, and working with local partners, Canoemobile provides a foundation for youth and families to safely and positively experience the outdoors.
From Kenya to Minnesota
In August, we had the great opportunity to host 2023 Mandela Washington Fellow Brian Muchiri Waihenya from Kenya. Brian was in Minnesota on a professional exchange opportunity through the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. From paddling on the Mississippi River to camping in the Apostle Islands, Brian joined us for several impactful weeks that focused on building best practices for creating inclusive, accessible programs and activities. The month-long adventure was one of great learning, a shared commitment to equity and inclusion in the outdoors, and friendship. To learn more about Brian’s work to champion accessibility for people with disabilities in Kenya, follow Strong Spine Foundation.
Leading as Outdoor Leaders
Every day, Wilderness Inquiry’s mission is brought to life by our dedicated team of Outdoor Leaders. And every year, we consistently hear about the impactful relationships that staff and participants build with one another. In 2023, longtime Outdoor Leader Cory Maria Dack completed her 10th national Canoemobile tour! Across these 10 tours, Cory has paddled with and supported outdoor learning for more than 35,000 participants. Cory shares her deep passion for connection so that many others can experience the “why” of adventuring with Wilderness Inquiry. Incredible leaders like Cory bring our adventures to life for the thousands of participants who paddle, camp, learn, and explore with us each year.
Wilderness Inquiry Fellows
In 2023, five individuals joined us for the 10-week Wilderness Inquiry Fellowship program. Designed as an introductory career learning opportunity for people whose identities are underrepresented in the outdoor industry, the fellowship program provides hands-on experiences in the classroom and on the trail, career development skills, and outdoor recreation credentials that support future outdoor career opportunities. This year’s Fellows led 80+ trips to a variety of destinations, including the Apostle Islands, Boundary Waters, and Yellowstone, Glacier, and Voyageurs National Parks.
Thank You for an Incredible Year!
Wilderness Inquiry’s mission is made possible thanks to the generous support of so many — the individuals and families, community of volunteers, schools and partners, corporations and foundations, and government collaborators who invest to support the inclusive programs, partnerships, and people that bring our work to life. Check out our most recent Annual Report for a listing of all of our incredible funders, donors, and supporters.