As the boat slips into the water, the transition begins. It's different away from town. Cleaner air, bigger trees, bluer sky. Excited kids and dogs settle into the rhythm of the waves, noses to the wind. Conversations become quieter, everyone anticipating the howls of wolves, millions of stars, and silence.
Many people feel compelled to go into wild places, but access is often perceived as beyond the reach of those with disabilities. Deb Schwantes and Kevin Kling reflected on the value of wildness and navigating challenges in wild spaces-for all.
Deb says her family is passionate about camping in wild spaces. "We have always enjoyed activities in the outdoors and so being able to do outdoor activities with all our kids has been really important to us. Being in the wilderness nourishes our souls."
Distinguishing her family from most encountered in the backcountry is that one daughter, Janasia, has significant disabilities. "In daily life, Janasia uses a power wheelchair and an electronic communication board. When she was younger, traveling with mechanical rather than electronic equipment was possible. As she grew, her trips into the wilderness, requiring portaging, became more difficult."
In recent years, most of the family's trips have begun at an accessible island campsite in the Chippewa Flowage of northern Wisconsin. According to Deb, "[the campsites] are all remote and pretty primitive, and you get a really great camping experience." Her family transports camping gear and Janasia's power wheelchair to the campsite by pontoon boat. Once there, much of what they do has not changed: staging day paddles, by canoe and kayak, into their surroundings.
Deb credits the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR) with enabling them to camp in remote natural settings. "Having a reservable campsite with accessible amenities close to home," she said, "eliminates a lot of stress. When you have certain disabilities, you can't just go to any campsite. For us being able to reserve the accessible site may be the most important thing, knowing it will be available when we arrive. But each person with disabilities has different needs." For some, the accessible amenities are absolutely necessary.
Accessible campsites in the Chippewa and Turtle Flambeau Flowages have packed gravel pathways, flat tent sites, wheelchair accessible picnic tables and fire rings, and pit toilets with handrails. One also has a dock enabling wheelchair transfers between a boat and the shore. These amenities blend with the natural setting. Casual observers barely notice modifications that make camping possible for people with disabilities who need them.
Deb considers accessible campsites to be one of the area's best-kept secrets. She added, "I feel that people don't know enough about the accessible campsites that the WIDNR maintains. They are reservable and free for use by people with disabilities."
When he was seven, Kevin Kling and his family took their first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in an old aluminum canoe. Before long, Kevin and his dad were taking weeklong trips there every year. He still camps in the BWCA with friends annually.
Kevin said, "One of the most valuable things [about camping in the BWCA] is that it is a way to be challenged. We learn our strengths by experiencing the challenge. It gives you a profound sense of how you fit into nature and how the challenge of nature is more part of us than separate from us. Each year we add something extra to our mission, whether it is [looking for] petroglyphs or the oldest rocks in the world, that go back to when the [earth's landmass] used to be one piece of land. This deep time experience, when connecting to other parts of the world, is when you feel like a speck and immortal at the same time."
Kevin was born with one smaller and weaker arm, so canoeing always had its challenges. It got more complicated when Kevin lost all use of his strong arm in an accident. By his own admission, Kevin is not a duffer. "If I can't help, I don't even want to go," he said. "It is important that I help carry my weight. I can't even begin to describe how upset I was that I wasn't going to be able to help paddle [when I lost use of my strong arm]."
Finding equipment that allowed him to propel his own boat was essential. "The first thing I got was the peddle kayak," he said, "brilliantly designed and wonderful. But it was heavy and cumbersome carrying it over portages. Even so, everyone was wonderful because they wanted me to have the full experience of the Boundary Waters." Later, he found a lightweight adaptive canoe paddle enabling him to help power a canoe.
Kevin said, "If you have a disability, adapting is just part of life; it is part of everything. Finding the tool that works with one's disability makes it easier to participate fully in the experience. Equipment is out there; the big challenge is finding it. When you find something that really works well for you it is like Christmas."
According to Kevin, "A lot of times we don't get the challenges we need in life. Especially, people with disabilities need to get beyond our comfort zones. To be able to get out and experience working through challenges feeds your creativity and sense of self. To experience some things, you have to meet the challenge; that is where we develop all kinds of different skills.
"That is the important thing about the BWCA. Anyone I know who has a disability would rather find a way to let nature be nature and find our way into it. Adapting to the challenge creates some of the most remarkable things I have ever seen."
For people with disabilities who want to camp in wild settings, Deb suggests: "Start with access to familiar supports, such as electricity, but where you can test other options to reach your goals. Also, reach out to social media groups where you can ask questions of people who have experience camping with specific disabilities." With careful experimentation, Deb's family manages their evolving needs, allowing the whole family to reap the benefits found in wild environments.
Kevin suggests: "Consider how you can enter worlds of nature with the abilities you bring. Where do you really want to go? Then figure out how to get there. What challenges do you really want to face? Then figure out how you can do that. [If you need help], consider going with programs designed for mixed ability groups, like Wilderness Inquiry, because everybody learns from everyone else on the trip. No matter who you go with, everybody has different abilities. You will learn the skills you bring and what you need help with."
Creative design and possibility-thinking enable people of all abilities to meet the challenges of nature. Those who go into wild places willingly leave the pavement behind to receive the gifts found there.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Open the Outdoors
Hobie peddle power kayaks
One-Arm Freedom canoe paddle