“I’d go to the Moon for Wilderness Inquiry.” Those are the words Catherine “Baba” Finch once said when asked if she would be willing to drive 75 miles to attend an early fundraiser for Wilderness Inquiry. It was our first gala ever, called “Hoots, Boots, and Hollers,” and she made the drive with her husband, Shorty. This is but one of the many memories that came flooding back when Baba’s son texted that she had passed away the morning of November 14th, 2020, surrounded by loving family.
It is impossible to overstate the impact Baba and her family had upon Wilderness Inquiry. In 1987, I first met Baba and her daughter, Martha, who had experienced a significant brain injury while training for the Boston marathon. That injury left this wonderful young woman in a wheelchair, focused on regaining normalcy in her life and living as best she could.
Martha went on her first (WI) trip to Northwest Ontario. Ann Bancroft had recently joined our trail staff, and she went along as a trip assistant to Martha. It was a great experience, and Martha was hooked. WI trips made her feel “normal” she said, because we treated her like a normal person, not like a patient or someone with a disability.
Martha went on many trips, Shorty joined the WI board, and Baba got involved with the Minnesota Head Injury Association with her friend Ellie Hands. Wilderness Inquiry was less than 10-years-old then, and let’s just say it was what you would call “grassroots.” Shorty was the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, yet he and Baba were always the most down to earth, direct, willing to do anything people. They lent their considerable community stature to help our young non-profit establish itself.
At WI’s 10th Anniversary event the Finch family paid for the catered Thai food. Everyone loved it, and of course Baba and Shorty were the last to go through the line. Unfortunately, by the time they got to it, the Thai food was all gone, so they were served tortilla chips with cheese whiz. They gave us grief, but also laughed it off. As always, they were classy and kind, and fun.
Sadly, we lost both Martha and Shorty a few years after that event. Baba endured more than any mother should, but she soldiered on in her upbeat and straightforward manner. She started a fund, The Harold B. and Martha A. Finch Endowment, in their honor and raised money to help more people with disabilities share Wilderness Inquiry experiences.
The most enduring quality for me are the friendships. – Martha Finch
Several years later Wilderness Inquiry started a capital campaign to buy a new headquarters in Dinkytown. Baba was always loyal to the WI trail staff who treated Martha so well, and she knew Martha would have loved to be a WI staff member. At that time, we had no permanent staff housing for trail staff, so Baba sponsored the purchase of a duplex in Dinkytown that became affectionately known as “Martha’s Place” in honor of Martha. This was a game changer for Wilderness Inquiry, as trail staff and interns now had a real place to stay between trips. Since then, hundreds of trail staff have stayed in that house and learned about Martha and the role that her family had in building Wilderness Inquiry.
A few years after we dedicated “Martha’s Place,” Baba wanted to do a canoe trip on the Namekagon River with her children and grandchildren. We did the trip and had the best time getting to see this wonderful family in action. They fished, baked cakes, and carried on lively banter over the campfire. No shrinking violets in that bunch. Baba presided over it all with her gentle smile and her firm but understated presence. It was great to share that joyful moment.
Two years ago Wilderness Inquiry celebrated it’s 40th Anniversary, and the Finch Family once again came up with a generous gift to help purchase a fleet of 24’ Voyageur Canoes. We named one of those boats after the Finch Family, and we hope they won’t be surprised if we name another after Baba.
Our deepest condolences to Baba’s surviving children, Mark, Sarah, Jim and David, and all of her family. We are so blessed to have had her, Shorty and Martha in our lives. The entire Wilderness Inquiry Community is grateful for what Baba and the Finch family have done to “Bring People Together in the Wilderness.”
Written by Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry Founder, on behalf of the Wilderness Inquiry Board of Directors and Staff. We offer our heartfelt sympathy for Baba’s passing and our deepest thanks for her generous spirit and engagement that touched so many lives.