Written by guest blogger Alison Spencer.
After a day of paddling along the St. Croix River, we finally pulled into camp. Rain, which had started as a drizzle in the early morning had steadily evolved into a now torrential downpour, completely soaking my lifejacket, my clothes and anything else remotely exposed. All tied up and unloaded, I trudged up from the bank toward flat ground, knowing that, although relieved to be off the river, the work had only just begun. Tears streamed down my face as I contemplated setting up a tent in the deluge, a thought worse than any nightmare a 9-year old could have imagined. But with no other choice, my best friend Kathryn and I set about erecting our abode, assembling the poles, draping the tarp, and securing it to the ground. We then promptly got in and refused to leave, truly believing that misery loves company.
Sopping wet and chilled to the bone, we sat in the middle of our tent, willing the day to end. But just as I felt ready to embrace a complete breakdown I heard a surprisingly unexpected sound, that of laughter. I thought it a figment of my imagination until I heard another peel. Peeking through the screen door, I searched for the source, only to find it emanating from next door. Amidst my agony, my brother and dad, facing the same tent- task we’d just begrudgingly completed, were laughing, hard. The drenched tent, the lack of visibility, the gusts of wind which I’d found unbearable, they viewed as comical, embracing the wilderness and all of its elements. And so here we were: I, the older and more able bodied, complaining and my brother, born with Down Syndrome, couldn’t have been having more fun.
To me, that is what Wilderness Inquiry is all about. In providing everyone the opportunity to explore and immerse in the outdoors, regardless of who they are or what they can do, the organization allows for people to discover and foster a love for it. I saw first-hand, on the banks of the St. Croix, that those to whom the outdoors might be most inaccessible are the ones who, in fact, can and do enjoy it the most. At the heart of its mission rests the idea that we can all experience wilderness, in our backyards or abroad, and that we become better for it. My brother and I, members of the same immediate family, possessed exceptionally different skill sets and yet the outdoors could be appreciated by us both. Their trips create an unforgettable shared experience that connects people to each other and to nature, no matter your ability.
Wilderness Inquiry’s capacity to make the outdoors inclusive of all, combined with the joyous time my brother had in the rain, had us subsequently signing up for numerous trips. My friend Kathryn and I, along with Teddy and my father, returned to the St. Croix for a second trip down the river, during which the sun shone the entire time. My family spent time up at Camp Menogyn, on two separate occasions, dog sledding through the boundary waters. In twenty below zero temperatures, we slept in snow caves and dunked into a small hole cut into the ice. We snowshoed along the shores of the frozen lake and I got the opportunity to steer my own sled, while Teddy sat in the basket, a smile spread across his entire face. Our immediate, along with members of the extended family, also ventured to Yellowstone Lake, for a multi-day paddling expedition. As part of the “power pod,” we navigated its crystal blue waters, spotting wildlife and enjoying the Park’s stunning scenery.
In hindsight I recognize how each trip offered all five of us a new appreciation for the wilderness and certainly changed our family and every individual for the better. While to my 9-year old self, our few days on the St. Croix seemed unbearable, these early trips transformed me into the adventurous adult I am today, into someone who’d be unbothered by rain, snow, or even sleet while in the outdoors. It also left an intangible but profound mark on my brother, empowering him in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Facing and conquering the great outdoors helped him to believe in his own abilities and in himself.