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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.” 


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

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. 

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. 

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

 

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