In the Belly of the Beast
My first exposure to WI was in the summer of 2007, when my family went on the Yellowstone Family adventure. It was a charmed 7 days, and all of us bonded really well and made some amazing and hilarious memories.
Working for WI was really my first full-time job. The work weeks were long and busy and very physical, but it is where I truly learned to be independent and to be proactive in making decisions about how I wanted my life to go. It was an extremely rewarding experience to be able to help provide outdoor experiences for people of all abilities and backgrounds, and to work alongside so many passionate coworkers. It was one of the best summers of my life.
I look back on my internship with Wilderness Inquiry now through a new lense. In September of 2011 I broke my back in a hay-ride accident and sustained a spinal cord injury that resulted in paraplegia. I remember one of the first hopeful thoughts after my injury, “I can still go on trips with WI!” Then, last year, Lee from WI called and asked if I wanted to go on the Grand Canyon.
I cannot express the magnitude of the physical and emotional impact this trip had upon me. The Grand Canyon is an amazing, dynamic, powerful place, and to be in the churning belly of the beast every day was mind-blowing; the rhythms of the water, the sound of deep rapids echoing off the canyon walls, how you see the twisters of silt swirling still when you close your eyes at night. They (and by they, I mean pretty much everyone) helped me up cliffs and washes to see views that I expected I’d have to sit out for. It all was incredibly terrifying, miraculous and overpowering.
Through this experience I learned that adventure, and a full life, is still an option and an evolving passion for me. There is an idea that the outdoors is reserved for the able bodied, the experienced, the physically fit, the rugged. This was something I bought in to back in 2008. I was young and self-interested, trying to understand but really having no frame of reference for what the world would be like for a person with any sort of disability.
Now that I use a wheelchair to get around, I’ve come to realize how incredibly important the mission of Wilderness Inquiry truly is–and how many people support it! My Grand Canyon trip was made possible through the generosity of the Grand Canyon Fund, a very cool group that represents the commitment of Grand Canyon outfitters who want to share that wonderful place.
The outdoors is for the explorers, the curious, the adventurers. With WI, the outdoors is for anyone, anywhere, any time.
Leveling the Playing Field
Mark Smith discovered his passion for paddling during his first WI trip with his father to the Namekagon River in 1991, “I was hooked on wilderness camping, canoeing, and kayaking from that experience forward.”
Mark, a visually impaired thirty-seven year old, has paddled with WI all over North America: in the Boundary Waters, Yukon’s Big Salmon River, Montana’s Missouri River, Utah’s Lake Powell, Yellowstone Lake, and more than once, on the mighty Lake Superior in the Apostle Islands. His favorite WI trip was on the Porcupine River in Alaska, “I’ve always wanted to do a long-distance canoe trip and this was definitely it! We canoed over 750 miles through the Arctic Circle in Canada and Alaska.”
Above all, Mark values the camaraderie with his trip companions. Over the years, he has cultivated many lasting friendships with fellow participants and staff. “The wilderness experience evens the playing field,” says Mark, “when we’re out there, we’re all the same. We’re working as a team, learning about each other and ourselves — people open up more when they’re outdoors, too. We rely on each other.”
My friends envy me because I am always going on a new adventure. Next year, I am planning to go kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska or horseback riding in the Colorado Rockies. “Before finding WI, I didn’t think I could do trips like this. They have opened the world up to me. I’ve come to realize I don’t have to let my disability stand in my way.”
Finding Confidence to Face Life’s Challenges
For Annie, who was still having a tough time accepting the loss of her eyesight at age 41, an outdoor adventure was the last place she thought she’d find the skills and determination she’d need to move on with her life.
Annie was in the middle of Lake Superior with Wilderness Inquiry when she discovered the inner strength that began to propel her forward. Young can still remember the exact moment when she knew that she would be able to handle whatever cards life would deal her. With the encouragement of WI staff, Young was the first in her group to do the “tip test”—tipping a kayak into chilly Lake Superior and then righting it.
“I was very afraid and thinking ‘I can’t do this,’ when I felt a breeze touch my cheek. I felt the old Annie return to my body.”
Annie took the plunge and led the way for the rest of the group. Annie returned from the trip reenergized. She graduated from school, got a job, and rejoined the world as a more confident woman.
Independence After Spinal Cord Injury
With funding from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Wilderness Inquiry partnered with Colorado’s Craig Rehabilitation Hospital to provide a three-day kayaking adventure in the Apostle Islands for five individuals with spinal cord injuries and their family members. The trip provided a rare opportunity for these families to participate in a shared outdoor adventure that both pushed their limits and brought them closer together.
Dave, a veteran and former rugby player, found a new lease on life on this trip.
“Before this trip, I never entertained the prospect of camping on my own,” said Dave. “After this trip, I have realized that I am very capable to do so. I now know that the only limitations that I have, are those limits that I put on myself! I found a person I lost –myself. Now, once again, I strive every day to be the best person I can be!”
Dave gained the realization of independence while in the outdoors and has made the outdoors a reality in his daily life—in fact, he has already ventured out on his own camping trip. He credited the hard work and dedication of the Wilderness Inquiry staff for making this trip possible.
Carol, a Therapeutic Recreation Therapist, has worked with many of the trip participants in the past and is now able to see new possibilities for these individuals and others she works with at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital.
“It was eye opening for me to see what folks were capable of. In the kayaks, disability was not visible nor a barrier. We definitely also achieved the goal of getting people excited [about the outdoors] and new possibilities for independence in their lives.”
Overcoming Barriers in the Apostles
Not long after arriving at WI’s Little Sand Bay Base Camp in July, Greg Adelman and his family gathered with the rest of their group on the Apostle Islands Family Adventure for a “tip test” before paddling the chilly waters of Lake Superior. Not surprisingly, there were no volunteers to take the first plunge. WI guide Mo Mayo said, “Ok, Greg, you’re first!” In that moment, Greg thought: “Cool. For the first time in a very long time I am being treated just like everyone else.”
Twelve years ago, Greg was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Since then he has been getting accustomed to life with significant physical dependency and full-time use of a wheelchair. Over the last decade, family vacations have had to accommodate his needs and often did not include him at all.
After a little research, Greg found WI and was delighted to learn that our staff is familiar and comfortable with the abilities of a participant with MS. He and his wife, Brenda, decided to go for it. They chose a family trip to the Apostle Islands, an area close to home, but still new to them. Greg, Brenda, and their three children, Brittney, Jacob, and Grace, drove north for an experience that brought their family together in ways they never imagined.
A couple days into the trip, the group decided to paddle out to nearby Sand Island, which boasts one of the Apostle Island’s most famous lighthouses. Greg willingly went with the flow while the whole group pitched in and carried him up 50 steep steps toward the lighthouse. The stairs were just a warm up for the challenge ahead: a mile long hike on 2 x 12 planks. After asking Greg if he was still game, which he was, the group worked together to make the hike. “The planks were so narrow, my chair had to be tipped on one wheel for the entire mile,” said Greg. “But it was completely worth it to have this incredible experience with my family, especially my kids.”
Greg explains, “My WI experience created moments where my children were able to understand that I don’t have to be seen as different. The kids grew, too, making friends and spending evenings by the fire, just telling stories and sharing laughs.” Greg’s family is already gearing up for another WI trip—they just can’t decide where to go next.
“Canoemobile” Visits the Bronx
In 2012 Wilderness Inquiry and partners sent a crew east to introduce urban youth to the joy of paddling their local rivers and lakes. We called this the “Canoemobile” after the fabled “Bookmobiles” of an earlier era. The Canoemobile went to Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, New York City and Washington, DC. We discovered something along the way—kids are kids, wherever they live! It was super cool getting these young folks and their families out paddling on the Harlem, Ohio, Anacostia, and other rivers. They were excited, terrified, curious, charming, and enthusiastic—all at once! Many came on their own, some had mom, and quite a few had grandma and grandpa. Everyone enjoyed it immensely. Special thanks to all of our wonderful partners.
Somali Youth Make History!
“Fear has the dangerous potential of keeping us shackled to one place and away from progressing in life,” says Nadreen Bagoun, with Ka Joog.
This summer, Wilderness Inquiry formed a partnership with Ka Joog (meaning ‘stay away’ in Somali), a nonprofit organization founded by members of the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis.
Ka Joog focuses on providing meaningful after-school, weekend and summer activities to engage Somali youth in positive activities and build a strong support network for their futures in the US. In June, WI facilitated a camping and canoeing adventure at Lake Elmo for 40 Somali American youth, staff and volunteers from Ka Joog. For many of them, this was their first outdoor education experience ever.
“Between Somalia and the US there is little in common. Of that, camping is not a part. As a result, the activity of camping lies outside the comfort zone of many Somali Americans,” explains Nadreen Bagoun, a Ka Joog volunteer.
Mary Mallinger, a WI trail guide on the trip, knew that most of the participants had not been canoeing before but was unsure as to how nervous they felt about being on the water. “A lot of them had informed me that they couldn’t swim and that they were genuinely terrified to be in a boat. I noticed a few of them sending up a quick prayer. The canoeing trip could not have gone better; the water was calm, the wind was patient, and we even had a few canoe races once everyone felt comfortable in the boats.”
Mohamed Farah, Executive Director of Ka Joog, circled the group after the paddle to reflect on the day. He thanked everyone for participating and said that this was likely the very first time that 40 Somalis had ever canoed together. One of the participants stepped forward slightly and proudly exclaimed:
Today is the day we make…” and, as if on cue, all of the other participants immediately joined in and shouted: HISTORY!
The camping trip served as practice for a future where the ability to adjust to a different lifestyle is an indispensable skill,”
says Bagoun. WI is thrilled to collaborate with Ka Joog to positively develop the youth in our community.
Wilderness Lovers for Lifers
Research has shown that shared outdoor adventures strengthen the connections within families. We received this letter from a mother about her family’s Apostle Islands trip with WI and the impact that just a few days away from home had on her family:
I just wanted to tell you that not only did we have an amazing weekend, but also that some of the “tribe togetherness” mentality came home with my daughter. On Sunday evening, as everything was being loaded back into the house, my daughter asked if she could use the computer, then she added, “unless you need help with something.” This resulted in a moment of stunned silence from me, but I quickly followed with a task list for her.
My daughter is moderately helpful, but that kind of offer was rare. Since our trip, though, she is offering to help more and more. I also have to say that we have all enjoyed more lightness and togetherness today as well. These are qualities brought out by your crew and the adventure you took us on. You have created wilderness-lovers-for-lifers.
Thank you so much!
Do It Again!
One warm night, after a long day of paddling on Knife Lake, Bob and Greg decided to take a dip in the water. Greg wheeled Bob to a canoe, helped him get his life jacket on, and paddled out to one of the table-like rocks that barely break the surface of the lake.
Bob was born with cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, and communicates with a “talk-board”–a simple tablet with the alphabet and common words on it. Bob and Greg Lais, founder of WI, met on this trip to the Boundary Waters in 1979.
A Loon broke into a wild yodel as Greg struggled to get Bob onto the rock. The northern lights thrashed about the sky in phosphorescent green. They sat there in awe, savoring that special moment and thinking about the circumstances that brought them together on a rock in the middle of a lake at night, alone.
Then the mosquitoes found them. What started as an imperceptible whine grew to a maddening scream. Greg was soon overwhelmed with the task of swatting mosquitoes off both himself and Bob. The only escape was the water.
In desperation, Greg stood up, grabbed Bob, and threw him into the lake. He hit with a huge splash, and came up sputtering. Greg jumped in and the two of them clambered onto the side of the rock. Bob indicated he wanted his talk-board, so Greg reached over and got it. Greg recalls, “I’ll never forget watching his hand move toward the board, as I expected the talk-board equivalent of a severe tongue-lashing.” Instead, Bob spelled out: DO – IT – AGAIN!
They did do it — again and again and again. Since then, Bob has gone on more than 35 WI trips to wilderness areas throughout North America. Without a doubt, Bob has changed the attitudes of every one of the 350+ people who have gone with him into the wilderness.
Faith’s Arctic Adventure
When the call came early this summer from Richard Weber, renowned Arctic Explorer and lodge operator, to participate in a new summer leadership camp at his remote Arctic Watch Lodge, Faith, a recent St. Paul Public Schools graduate, was ready for the challenge.
This is just the kind of result we are hoping to see for youth who participate in our Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures (UWCA) program. Faith participated in the UWCA through the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program in the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS). Together with fellow SPPS AVID students, Faith participated in a series of outdoor activities including day trips on the Mississippi River, overnight camping trips at Baker Park Reserve, and a trip to Glacier National Park, provided annually with support from Mayor Coleman and Saint Paul Parks and Recreation.
All of these activities and some family camping trips have resulted in Faith developing a strong interest in the outdoors and in pursuing a post-secondary environmental science degree.
Faith and five other youth from the US and Canada spent 10 days on Somerset Island in the Arctic Circle, cataloging flora and fauna, hiking, rafting, and observing beluga whales alongside some of the top whale researchers in the world.
“I got to see how global warming is really impacting the people and landscape, even more obviously than in Minnesota. This is the second year in a row they’ve seen mosquitoes on the island! Actually witnessing these changes reinforced my goal to pursue an environmental science degree,” says Faith.
Faith credits her experiences in AVID and the UWCA for opening her mind to new opportunities and nurturing her passion for the environment. “I would be a different person without the opportunities I’ve had. I am open and ready to seize the next one that comes my way.”
Military Vets Paddle in Solidarity
WI has a long history of serving veterans and their families. Each year, we serve approximately 800 veterans through our programs, providing enjoyment, learning and healing that only a shared outdoor experience can.
John, a Vietnam War veteran, wrote to us about his recent Boundary Waters canoe trip, which was made possible by a grant from the Sierra Club Military Families Outdoors Program:
“I want to thank everyone who made the Veterans trip to the Boundary Waters possible for me and my six other younger and stronger Veterans. I am 64 years old, legally blind, and live with other service-connected disabilities. I was the only Vietnam Vet but got plenty of help from the guys from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
I want to thank WI and the Sierra Club for making this trip possible. There was some emotional healing being with the other Vets in the great outdoors. I cannot express how meaningful it was to complete this challenge and see the BWCA one more time.”
Unbreakable Bonds at the Heart of Each Adventure
Last February, I led a Boundary Waters winter adventure. While heading north on Highway 61, participants shared their excitement about the trip, especially dogsledding. From the back of the van one of the participants, Sam, announced that he would not be dogsledding and resumed drumming his pencil against the window.
This wasn’t Sam’s first ride in a WI van. When he was 13, Sam’s parents signed him up for WI’s Adventure Leadership Program (ALP), a program for youth of all abilities to learn outdoor skills and enhance social aptitude. Sam graduated from ALP in 2010. When asked what he’s learned, Sam says with a smile, “You won’t get better at anything by whining about it!” Sam is now 21 and a recent graduate of Transition Plus, a program for young adults with disabilities. He stays active in the WI community as a regular on WI trips, aspiring trail staff and dependable volunteer.
Our group crossed Bearskin Lake in a blizzard and gathered by the fireside to thaw out, discuss the trip itinerary and learn how to handle, harness and command sled dogs. When the mushers called for sign-ups, every participant jumped out of their chairs, except Sam. I sat next to him and invited him to reconsider. When I asked Sam why he didn’t want to dogsled he admitted to being nervous. I explained that trying something new is always a little scary, then, I listed all of the new activities he’s tried through WI and asked him if he would regret not trying this one. Sam thought for a moment, walked over to the sign-up and inked his name right next to mine. He flashed a genuine and memorable Samuel Joseph smile.
The next morning, we were greeted at the dog yard with yaps, howls and wagging tails. In no time at all, Sam and I were calling our new canine friends by name, suiting them up and welcoming them to our sled team. Sam bundled up, crawled into the sled and off we went! When we stopped on the lake, Sam got out of the sled and took the reins. I couldn’t believe it. My friend Sam who did not even want to dogsled… was mushing!
When I joined the WI team, I had a hunch that it would change my life. I profoundly underestimated, however, the depth by which this was even possible. This capacity expands tenfold with every relationship I build on a WI trip. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, and I hope you know that your support is at the core of these life-changing experiences.
Pushing Personal Boundaries
This past summer a typical Wilderness Inquiry group of 20 men and women, both with and without disabilities, participated on a kayaking trip in the Apostle Islands. Their stated purpose was to work together to push beyond the barriers of what is thought possible for individuals with disabilities and to change the way society views people with disabilities.
Naturally, they chose to do this through a WI adventure. Courtney, a participant on the trip, had an anoxic brain injury (a form of TBI) in late 2007. She has struggled with various side effects of the injury, from losing and regaining her vision to changing mobility and strength. Despite all this, she is fully committed to and has made considerable strides in her recovery to maintain her participation in the activities she loves: all things outdoors!
Courtney said of her trip:
“The cohesiveness of this group was incredible. In the past 5 years, I’ve never really had a group outdoor experience where I felt so at ease, with the level of help I was receiving. This entire trip was challenge by choice, which meant if I needed assistance, I received it, when I asked. And no one made me feel guilty, or like an imposition, if I wanted to try to get something for myself.”
Pathway to Outdoor Careers
The cliff section of Garden Wall at Glacier National Park is beautiful… and formidable. The three-foot-wide trail snakes along the side of a towering precipice with a sheer drop uncomfortably close underfoot. Shante paused in her tracks to take a deep breath and absorb whispered words of encouragement from a teacher, hesitating before cautiously moving ahead. The terrain was rough and each step, uncertain, as she grasped the Glacier Overlook offers a window looking east over a glacier and a trio of subalpine lakes. To reach the stellar overlook, Garden Wall Trail climbs a thousand feet in one mile. If that sounds intimidating, there is more tough news
the hike ended; when she livened up, she was impressed by her own valor, “I was terrified at first. I couldn’t focus on anything but moving forward along the path… I got over so many fears!”
Shante grew up in the city; her first camping experience ever occurred just months earlier at WI’s Apostle Islands Base Camp with her peers in the Saint Paul Public Schools AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. The trip was a stepping-stone between a half-day paddle on the Mississippi and the Glacier National Park expedition. Shante and her classmates learned how to pitch a tent, collect wood and build a fire, prepare meals and cook on a camp stove, and other basic outdoor skills they would later rely on in Glacier.
“The most important thing that I’ve learned from participating in WI’s UWCA program is my love of the outdoors and passion to protect the environment. I’ve learned how to respect the land.” This realization is driving Shante to pursue a degree in environmental science in hopes of landing a career in the outdoor industry.
Before entering college this fall, Shante returned to Glacier with WI…this time as a student leader, poised to encourage and inspire other young adults to conquer their Garden Walls.
A BWCA Adventure
I wasn’t worried about the canoeing, I’ve had plenty of experience. As a blind person, it was the hiking in the deep woods in Northern Minnesota that concerned me the most. But our WI guide ha me hold onto her backpack and warned me about upcoming roots, rocks and uneven ground. My fellow trailblazers brought me leaves and plants to feel and smell. We all stepped off the path to hug an estimated 300 year old White Pine tree. Our group was wonderful, helping me get accustomed to the lodge and guiding me through the buffet at dinner at night. Because I live in St. Louis and work in an office, I love getting out into the wilderness, listening to the wind in the trees at night, building a campfire. Our base, Wintergreen Sled Dog Lodge, founded by explorer Paul Shurke, is home to 65 tail-wagging inuit dogs that greeted us gleefully. Howling, barking, yipping, these warm, thickly furred dogs playfully licked and begged for attention. It was totally unexpected and delightful. The trip was chocked with welcome surprises, like my 84 year old roommate and her 92 year old friend, who paddled as hard as the 18 and 20 year olds on the trip. ~ Annette N.
First Time in a Canoe
Experiences in nature are so very rare for my students. These kids, aged nine to eleven, live in neighborhoods right near the Anacostia River, but their world is all concrete. They’ve never been on this great river; some of them don’t know how close it is to their homes. Paddling in those big canoes was a first for them.
Connecting Kids to Nature
As an African American on the Canoemobile crew, my race was a real advantage guiding urban youth on their rivers and introducing them to the wonders of nature, right in their cities. When students of color see me, they relax a little, they trust me, and they realize everyone and anyone can enjoy getting outdoors. Nature is not race specific. Urban rivers are living classrooms where kids can experience wildlife, ecology and beauty. They practice communication, teamwork and leadership skills. Here’s the thing, my biggest challenge is getting these kids into a canoe. They are afraid, they cry, they act too cool, they goof off. But by the end of the day they’re laughing and cheering. They don’t want to get out of the boats; they don’t want to leave; they want my job. Suddenly, they care about the river, pick up garbage as they head to the bus. Connecting kids to nature, to themselves, to each other, this is what we do. ~Ron G.
Growing Together in the BWCA
I am usually a die-hard wilderness girl, but this year my most memorable adventure took place in a lodge, not a tent in the wilderness. Emily, my cousin and traveling companion, has epilepsy. The prospect of camping alone was ill-advised. Staying in a lodge allowed us to relax and enjoy our time in the Northwoods. As a water resource specialist, I was delighted by White Iron Lake’s biodiversity as we canoed every day. The knowledgeable guides paddled into the most interesting natural areas. Unlike my sister, who does everything herself when she camps, Emily and I could engage with the interesting folks in our group, like Jan who is blind, and showed me that the term “disability” is relative. She was as engaged and active as anyone I know. She showed me new ways to perceive and appreciate our natural world.
Itasca as a Family
As a single mother with a 12-year-old son who has Down Syndrome, I could never manage a camping trip by myself. Thanks to Wilderness Inquiry, Peter and I enjoyed a remarkable weekend in Itasca State Park, a dream vacation, sharing an adventure as just another family. We hiked and kayaked, learned to camp and cook outside. I could relax a bit when I saw how engaged Peter was. Our guides were terrific – energetic, attentive and patient. If an issue began brewing, the guides were able to gently redirect my son’s energy so that he felt part of the group. We learned a great deal, about the others on this trip, about the wilderness, and about ourselves.
– Cristina M.