Anderson: BWCA is unforgettable, even when the only sound is silence

Inclusion can be good and necessary. But sometimes people like to spend time with people like themselves.

Such is the reasoning behind a burgeoning effort by the Twin Cities group Wilderness Inquiry (WI) to sponsor what it calls affinity trips into the outdoors — meaning, in today’s example, a recent excursion into the boundary waters by a group whose members are either deaf or hard of hearing.

During the adventure on a lake off the Gunflint Trail, none of the five paddlers, ages 21 to 64, heard a loon’s lonesome tremolo or the slap of a beaver’s tail against the mirror-like surface of a pristine lake.

But each returned home eager to make a second boundary waters voyage next year.

“We definitely want to do more deaf and hard-of-hearing trips,” said Ryan Stumbo, 21, a WI trip leader who is hard of hearing. “We feel this is just the beginning. We have a big opportunity in front of us, and we want to take advantage of it.”

Founded in the Twin Cities 44 years ago, WI today has 22 full-time employees and another 40 to 70 part-time trip leaders. The group sponsors outdoors trips of varying lengths to destinations in Minnesota and beyond, including to foreign countries.

Its goal always has been to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, personal circumstances notwithstanding.

“Our goal is to break down barriers, whether physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, financial or whatever, that keep people from accessing and enjoying the outdoors,” said WI executive director Erika Rivers.

Rivers joined WI last November after holding various Department of Natural Resources leadership positions, most recently director of the Parks and Trails Division.

WI also sets up trips for families, groups and individuals who simply want to get away and enjoy an outdoor adventure. These are not quests, however, in which group leaders cook, set up tents, chop wood and start campfires — while the paying guests sit back and watch.

Instead, everyone is expected to pitch in, an arrangement that keeps costs down while, more importantly, encouraging people to learn by doing.

“When you travel with WI, you ‘lean in’ with the trip,” Rivers said. “We’re inclusive in that way and all others.”

To share a BWCA adventure exclusively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing was liberating, Stumbo said.

“For many deaf people it’s easy to feel left out in a group where most people can hear,” Stumbo said. “Using hearing aids, I can hear somewhat. But on this trip, knowing that none of us could hear, it was like a breath of fresh air for me. I pulled out my hearing aids and didn’t use them at all.”

Stumbo grew up in Iowa, but moved to Faribault, Minn., when he was 15 to attend the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD). He often converses in American Sign Language, or ASL.

Stumbo and another WI staffer, Riss Leitzke, who is deafblind spoke to me via an interpreter who could hear my questions and relay them to Stumbo and Leitzke using ASL.

The five paddlers entered Seagull Lake off the Gunflint, established camp there and took day trips to various destinations. Two campers were in one canoe and three in another.

To help communicate while on the water, the group signaled one another by slapping the sides of the canoes. Similar accommodations, Leitzke said, are made all the time among deaf people.

“Body language is important, too,” Leitzke said. “On the canoe trip there was a lot of pointing and excited facial expressions.”

Some of the expressions were directed at mosquitoes, which — as many BWCA paddlers have reported this summer — were horrendous.

Yet the group’s camaraderie or “sameness” helped smooth the trip’s bumps.

“We had two people who hadn’t been in a canoe for 15 years,” Stumbo said. “All of that got better with each day. Being able to see people grow throughout a trip, as they learn their capabilities, is rewarding. It can have a big impact on their confidence and self-esteem in other parts of their lives.”

“The first day of the trip was a bit awkward,” Leitzke added. “But by the end, everyone was very comfortable.”

The trip, said Stumbo, confirmed that a market exists for WI’s affinity trips.

“Later this summer we will also offer trips for people of color and also for the LGBTQ-plus communities,” said Rivers, WI’s executive director. “Still, we don’t see these affinity adventures as ends unto themselves. Instead, they’re a step toward inclusion of all people in the outdoors.”

The big picture, Rivers said, is that only a fraction of disabled, minority and similar groups use the outdoors regularly, even though hundreds of studies attest to the mental- and physical-health benefits of nature-based activities.

“It all comes down to bringing people together who are experiencing barriers to the outdoors,” she said.

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