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Wilderness Wonders

Reprinted from SNS March 2017

Wilderness Inquiry provides travel programs all over the world for those with disabilities

Annie Hickman on water was like a fish out of it.

About a decade ago, she was kayaking for the first time and worried about how she’d do. But there was more to her discomfort. At the time, Hickman was just starting to deal with a lack of mobility from a worsening degenerative neuromuscular condition. 

She was learning to get around in new ways on land, which was strange enough. And now, she was getting in a boat that didn’t feel that stable and paddling into frigid Lake Superior, in the remote Apostle Islands off Wisconsin.

“I was completely terrified,” says Hickman, now 43. “I had just started having to use a foot brace and a forearm crutch to get around. I didn’t even know how to get in and out of a kayak.” 

She also was skeptical of this group she’d joined for the trip, a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Wilderness Inquiry. Someone who knew about her increasing lack of mobility had given Hickman some information on the group, which takes people on adventure trips, and suggested she check it out — because, as part of its mission, Wilderness Inquiry seeks to include people with disabilities on its trips. 

Hickman gave the brochure a look but was battling a lack of confidence that was entirely new to her after years of an active lifestyle that had included soccer, long-distance bicycling and Irish dancing. 

“I figured my life was over,” Hickman says. 

Far from it. 

“I found that I really loved kayaking,” she says. 

Two people get their set ready during a Wilderness Inquires trip.

Taking Trips

Wilderness Inquiry, which started in the 1970s, says it has taken more than 175,000 people on wilderness trips around the world. That has included thousands of people with disabilities, such as quadriplegia, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injuries.

The organization was started by three friends in Minnesota who had been taking kids on outdoor adventures as part of a school program in the mid-1970s. At the time, there was also a debate about whether motorized boats should be allowed on the Boundary Waters, between Ontario and Minnesota, near the Canadian border. As part of that debate, former U.S. Sen. Wendell Anderson (Minnesota) suggested that if motorboats weren’t allowed, “the handicapped, elderly and women” wouldn’t be able to use the waterways. 

One of Wilderness Inquiry’s founders, Greg Lais, says when the group heard that, they thought he was probably wrong. After taking kids out on the water, they figured they could take anyone. 

So, they invited two people in wheelchairs and two people who were deaf to join them on their next trip. 

“We didn’t really have any awareness, per se, of people with disabilities,” Lais recalls. “We were just college kids.”

But the four new adventurers did fine. 

“We came back saying, ‘What did we discover here?’” Lais says. “Our own lives were transformed, really.” 

Since then, organizing trips that have included people with disabilities has become a major part of the organization’s mission. 

Wilderness Inquiry has also expanded far beyond the Boundary Waters. Recently, Lais was headed with clients to Uganda. There have also been trips to Alaska, Belize, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Kenya — paddling, hiking, horseback riding and doing other activities just about anywhere there’s outdoor adventure beckoning. 

“We’ve taken people with disabilities on all those,” Lais says. 

Boost Of Confidence

And that includes Hickman. Hickman also loved the boost in confidence from completing what was no simple trip. 

“I was like ‘OK, I can do stuff,’ ” Hickman says. “And that was mind-blowing and pivotal to dealing with the progression of the condition ... It made me realize there’s still an option for me to do things like this, and safely.”

When she came back from the five-day paddling adventure in the Apostles, Hickman was already thinking about what it meant in terms of dealing with her worsening condition. And about more trips. 

“It probably kept me from sliding into a pretty big depression,” says Hickman, who has two degenerative disorders, dystonia and Chiari malformation.

After the first Apostles trip, she went on another. She also went canoeing with the group on the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Hickman has since gone with Wilderness Inquiry more than once on more challenging seven-day kayak trips to the farthest Apostle Islands, even as her neuromuscular system has continued to degenerate and she began having to use a wheelchair.

And to think when she was first told about the group, she didn’t believe what their catalog was saying. 

“They obviously convinced me,” she says. “They really actually mean it when they say they would take anybody anywhere. It’s what they do.”

Finding A Comfort Zone

Over the years, Wilderness Inquiry has learned how to help people with disabilities find their comfort zones and can provide specialized equipment, including off-road wheelchairs. 

“They want it to work for you,” says Nora Boyle, another client who also went on a Wilderness Inquiry kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands.

Boyle, who sustained a spinal-cord injury in a 1994 car accident and uses a wheelchair, also went on hikes on her trip. She says she was mostly able to maneuver herself in her wheelchair, though in places where the trail surface was uneven or blocked by a tree limb, her husband, Jesse,  or others on the hike simply pushed or lifted her past the obstacle, then Boyle resumed moving the chair herself.

“It was a nice team effort,” Boyle says. 

Able-bodied hikers also sometimes needed a little help.

“We all became kind of a group,” Boyle says. “We didn’t know any of these people on the trip at first, but by the end we were all really helping each other out.”  

Lais says the trips can be eye-openers for able-bodied clients. 

“We’ve found adventure travel is a way to really get to know people, to get beyond stereotypes,” he says. 

Hickman, who teaches students with special needs, says she appreciated that the guides weren’t patronizing.

“They don’t make you feel like you’re being patted on the head,” she says.

Lais agrees that’s important – that guides try to meet anyone’s particular needs to make the trip a success.

“We aren’t just about serving people with disabilities,” he says. “It’s about including people with disabilities.”

Lais says the average cost for trips in the United States is around $100 a day not including transportation, though on some trips the organization will arrange paid transportation. The four-day Apostle Islands trip, for example, is $465. Children may participate for half price. 

Some trips, especially international ones, are more expensive. The recent Uganda trip was about $4,000, partly because of expensive permits to see lowland gorillas. 

Boyle says she thinks anyone with an interest could succeed on the adventures, considering she did.

“Because I don’t think I’m that much of an outdoorsy person — I’m normally more of a hotel person,” Boyle says. 

Hickman says guides can help make the trips easier, but she now prefers more of a challenge. After her longest trip to the far outer Apostle Islands, she felt a strong sense of accomplishment. 

“It was just phenomenal, a huge rush to know we accomplished it,” she says. “And got back — which is kind of key.” 

“There’s a lot of people who have had their lives changed here,” says Lais. 

To find out more about how you can book a trip,  visit


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