Wilderness Inquiry’s Executive Director Erika Rivers and trip participant Laura Oftedahl first met by phone, approximately one month before traveling more than 8,000 miles and exploring another country together: New Zealand. Their first conversation ranged from eating preferences, to favorite hikes, to Laura’s time in the Paralympics. Little did they know the impact that this trip would have on both of them.
Wilderness Inquiry was founded 45 years ago on the fundamental tenet that everyone belongs in the outdoors. Over the years, trip after trip, people of all ages, abilities, identities, and backgrounds have connected with each other on our adventures as they explore the beauty and wonder of nature together.
New Zealand wasn’t Erika’s first Wilderness Inquiry trip, but it was her first trip in the role of a “trip assistant.” Trip assistants help participants experience the activities and community life that come along with Wilderness Inquiry adventures. Sometimes trip assistants provide additional strength or balance in a group, while at other times they assist a person with a disability or help with other functions like driving a vehicle. Laura had been on two trips with Wilderness Inquiry – to the Apostle Islands and the Florida Everglades – before her adventure to New Zealand with Erika. Since Laura lives with limited vision, Erika researched how to best assist someone living with complete or partial blindness before their trip together – such as how to position oneself in relation to the participant when describing the terrain ahead of them. On the trip, Erika assisted Laura by orienting her to her surroundings, helping navigating the terrain, and narrating the scenery.
The group of nine travelers spent 10 days touring the south island of New Zealand with two local tour guides. Over the course of their trip, they formed a sense of community with one another. “This is my third trip with Wilderness Inquiry, and it always amazes me how compatible the group of people ends up being. Every trip that I’ve been on, I remember the people were cool, and that made the trip even better,” Laura said.
On one of their favorite days, the group split in two, and Erika, Laura, and one other participant went with one of the tour guides to kayak in a beautiful lagoon. “It was magical to be paddling around that lagoon and having that quiet space to connect with the natural world and the people we were with,” Erika said.
The tour guides made it even more special by making sure to highlight information about the historical and cultural significance of every location they visited – honoring the islands’ Maori foundation, cultural roots, and indigenous knowledge systems.
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.”
Erika and Laura figured out the best way to navigate the terrain of New Zealand together. Laura used walking sticks to help feel the ground in front of her, and Erika often walked just in front of Laura to help describe the upcoming ground. What surprised Erika was how much this communication and detailed narration enhanced her own experience of the landscape around her.
“Being her trip assistant made New Zealand all the more meaningful for me, and it was largely because I was her eyes. I found myself really looking at things and experiencing the natural world in a new way so I could describe it to Laura. New Zealand is like eye candy everywhere you look, and trying to convey that to somebody who can’t see what you’re seeing really challenges you to take it all in at a whole different level of depth,” Erika said.
So having Erika, I really don’t feel like I missed anything. And if I were to go on just a regular kind of trip with an organization that doesn’t know much about disability, I would probably feel like I’m sitting on the sidelines sometimes.”
Through this experience, they got to know each other and became good friends. “I often hear from other participants that ‘Wilderness Inquiry changes lives.’ After this trip, I can honestly and authentically agree that we do; it’s not a cliche or a platitude. The thing that was really life-changing for me about this trip was the relationship I developed with Laura,” Erika said.
Wilderness Inquiry’s trips stand out from other outfitters’ because of the focus on community-building and inclusion. Trip participants have the opportunity to experience travel in ways that they might not have thought possible before.
Looking for your next adventure? Wilderness Inquiry can help you travel with a purpose – to destinations near and far.
Explore more at www.wildernessinquiry.org/tripfinder.
All photos taken by Pat Rivers.