In August, Wilderness Inquiry welcomed Brian Muchiri Waihenya from Kenya, who traveled to Minnesota on a professional exchange opportunity through the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
During his time in Minnesota, Brian learned about the internal workings of nonprofits and shared insights from his disability advocacy work in Kenya and the foundation he started, Strong Spine. Brian also joined several Wilderness Inquiry programs and trips including a day paddle on the Mississippi River with Canoemobile and an extended adventure in the Apostle Islands at our Little Sand Bay Base Camp, where he met with leaders from the National Park Service and Friends of the Apostle Islands.
Wilderness Inquiry’s time with Brian was a great opportunity to connect on our shared best practices for building inclusive, accessible programs and activities that promote outdoor equity in the United States and internationally.
Hear more about Brian’s experiences in his own words below.
An Inquiry Into the Wilderness: Exploring My Outdoor Stretch Zone
Brian Muchiri Waihenya
At 2:30 p.m. on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the engine of the Wilderness Inquiry van revved high and mighty as we took the picturesque winding road toward Cornucopia, our first stop on the five hour journey back to Minneapolis. I was seated up front next to our driver Maleah. My feet were stretched out, seat reclined just a little and my eyes stuck in the horizon. “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver was playing on the radio; after a riveting four day camping trip, it was time to say goodbye to the Apostle Islands. I had spent four days in the great outdoors and leaving it was proving to be harder than I could ever have imagined.
“We don’t kayak or canoe where I am from,” I expressed to our guide Kelsy when she told me about the kayak tipping test on the first day. I sternly opted out because where I am from, you don’t engage in water that exceeds a bathtub. Water that goes above your knees is unnecessary and precarious.
My actual home is 13,000 kilometers away across the Atlantic Ocean. I was born and raised in a village called Mang’u in Kenya. Fun fact, our local police station has won multiple awards for being one the cleanest in our country. That’s just about the most interesting thing that has happened there. But that is why I love it, because it’s small and quiet. I have always been a small town guy, but there was always a yearning inside of me to see more than the scope of my eyes; I wanted to go on adventures and this year, it all came together nicely.
Every evening during my trip at the Apostle Islands, we would make a fire and sit around it. Fourteen strangers quickly became a community and then a well oiled machine that would work seamlessly to get kayaks in and out of the water. On the first night, I had my first s’more, which was too sweet for my African taste buds. On the same night, I told the team at our camp how I had never left my village in 10 years. I explained that this was in part because I had been involved in an accident back in 2014 that had left me paralyzed from my armpits down.
I had always told myself that the outdoors were a dream too big for me, a mountain too high. I never thought that I would ever find myself seated in a Libra kayak, gliding through the wetlands at Bark Bay. I definitely never saw myself going through the waves of the menacing Lake Superior at Bayfield, in search of shipwrecks with rich history.
Wilderness Inquiry gave me an opportunity to do what I believed to be impossible. Within those four days I became a new man because all of a sudden, I had acquired all this self confidence that I, too, can conquer the outdoors. Little Sand Bay Base Camp was cold in the evenings and even colder in the morning. Because of my injury, I was always trying to keep warm but nothing seemed to work. Our guides were very helpful and involved. They brought me extra layers of clothing and also suggested that I get an extra sleeping bag. Having people who are constantly thinking about your health and wellbeing is truly a blessing, and I feel like this is Wilderness Inquiry’s best strength.
Making the outdoors accessible for everyone whilst still maintaining utmost safety and comfort is not an easy thing to do. I learnt through my interaction with the guides and other participants, that communication is the most effective way of getting over the anxiety of venturing into the outdoors as a first timer. There was an open line of communication and feedback where I felt comfortable asking questions and seeking clarification. Most times I didn’t need to ask anything because everything would be explained so well.
Seeing the sea caves in Meyers Beach was probably the highlight for all of us as a group. Lake Superior was calm and smooth. Mother Nature allowed us to kayak through the caves without incident. Being there, in the vastness of the open water, felt spiritual and significant. It was like we had been hand picked by nature to be there. You certainly learn to appreciate the wilderness a little more and want to preserve it so that it stays pure and beautiful for the generations to come.