New York Times: Disabled Blaze New Trails in the Wilds

By Julianne Corty

  • Oct. 21, 1979

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Day One

We drive in the van, 11 of us, through the lake and pine country of Northern Minnesota. Greg strums “You Are My Sunshine” on his guitar, and I make a faltering attempt to accompany him on the autoharp. Behind us the canoes wobble and jerk on their trailer, which also carries nine fatly. packed duffle bags. We wear workshirts and baggy cotton pants, and our hair is already straggly and matted, giving us the appearance of a group whose journey into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is several days old rather than just beginning.

The population becomes sparser, the water more omnipresent as we approach Gull Lake, an hour north of Grand Marais and one of the major entry points into the eastern portion of the area. We will cover only a portion of the onemillion‐acre canoe wilderness, which lies on the United States side of the Minnesota‐Canadian border in Superior National Forest. Much of our seven‐day 90‐mile circular trip will retrace major routes used by French voyageurs in their fur‐trading missions beginning in the 1600's.

The routes are now traversed by more modern voyageurs. But even the word “modern” does not describe our group well. This is no ordinary canoe trip, no ordinary group of campers.

Next to me sits Don Kalusche, a spare 50-year-old with the face of an apple doll. He has been deaf since birth and either cannot talk or has never learned. His communication comes in the form of grunts, hand descriptions and a face that speaks of many moods.

Bonnie Schave sits upright and looks out the window, though she cannot see more than the passing hint of light, and that only if the sun hits her directly. Orphaned at an early age, Bonnie has left the security of her grandmother's home in Wisconsin and is completing her senior year at the University of Minnesota. She has quit her part time factory job in order to make this trip.

Bob Gregory's head nods in front of me as he naps through our songs. I have been told to keep my eye on Bob, that he is a remarkable man at 27 and full of surprises. I don't know that yet. I only know that he has cerebral palsy so severe that he can move only by wheelchair and communicate only by pointing to words and letters on his “talking board.”

Next to him is John Schwinghammer, also struck by cerebral palsy at his birth 38 years ago when his breathing started too late. The oxygen starvation has left John's left side spastic and nearly useless. He, too, spends most of his time in a wheelchair.

Al Pridgeon is a handsome, quiet man of 55. Six years ago he was diagnosed as having a rare organic brain disorder called Alzheimer's disease, formerly known as pre‐senile dementia. His wife has told us that Al must often be reminded how to do things. At a bathroom stop a few minutes ago we learned that Al is already confused, does not know what he is doing with this group of people and does not even recognize us minutes after stepping out of the van.

An observer would look in the window and identify these five passengers as the “handicapped” members of the , group. That observer would also see this writer and five other apparently able adults, or “straights,” as the dis- abled world sometimes dubs us. Julie Rau is a 21-year-old student at St. Cloud State studying to be a recreational therapist specializing in physical disabilities. Becky Lunneborg is a senior at a private Catholic high school in Minneapolis who has come along becuse of a budding interest in canoeing.

Leading this group on its seven‐day wilderness odyssey are Greg Lais, 22, and Paul Schurke, 24. Imbued with the service commitment that enlivened campus life at their alma mater, St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., a school founded by Benedictine monks, and filled with loving concern for the canoe area, Paul and Greg started Wilderness Inquiry II two years ago as an offshoot of a broader nonprofit canoe‐camping program.

The intent of the program is to introduce able‐bodied and disabled persons to each other and to the wilderness. Those involved with this and with similar programs contend that the outdoor setting stimulates an understanding between people who otherwise might not meet and also pushes participants into a new awareness about themselves, their abilities and their physical world. But, to us at the moment, that is just so much brochure talk that we are unprepared either to believe or doubt.

Also in the van is Matt Achor, a 28year‐old graduate student in education. I come with my reporter's notebook, slightly awkward in my intent both to observe and participate. I do not exactly know what to expect from this unlikely voyage. Friends made faces upon my departure and asked if it might not be a depressing undertaking. But already I am moved by the quiet cooperation of my companions and their high spirits and easy laughter.

Day Two

I sit on a rock at the edge of an island in Lake Saganaga where we have spent our first night. Though we paddled only for two hours yesterday after the sixhour car trip from Minneapolis, we were exhausted. In the next five days we will canoe six to eight hours a day with one day of rest. We will make several short portages between lakes, though the conditions are always a surprise, depending on weather and water level.

We will pack and haul and paddle. We will carry, lead, support and urge each other on. Paul and Greg have promised us a “regular” canoe trip, not modified in the least for us, over a route they have not even tried yet.

I know all this intellectually. But last night in weary delirium, I wondered. emotionally if it was possible. I wondered not only if they were up to it, but whether I was up to it myself. I realize it has been 15 years since I had a canoe paddle in my hands. Yesterday, I felt no connection with my hardy voyageur ancestors.

It is 8:20 A.M. and the others are beginning to stir in their tents. Don comes down suddenly, fishing reel in hand, pointing and shouting. After two days of anticipation and wild gesturing at the mere shadow of a fish slithering through the water, his hour has finally come. Getting his line ready with patient dexterity, a cigarette bobbing in the corner of his mouth, he has the look of a salty old sailor tying his line for the umpteenth time.

I hear Paul helping Al get his world straight again in the morning light. He seems to grow increasingly disoriented at night when the contours of our faces dance around him like masks floating over the campfire. Who are we? What are we doing here? Al's temper flared in a moment of high confusion last night, and today I see a squint of appre- hension on Paul's face — is Al too much an unknown quantity for this kind of trip? Only once before have they had to take a camper home and then they were lucky only one day out.

Don taps me on the shoulder and motions for me to watch as he casts his first line. As the red lure flies across the metallic sky, Don shouts a long “Aaaaagggggaaaa!” with unmitigated gusto.

Day Three

I cannot imagine a more beautiful campsite than this one on Swamp Lake (of all the inappropriate names), reached last night after six hours of paddling. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area has a texture all its own, different from the more lush lakelands to the south. Like a Japanese painting, there is simple beauty in its starkness and harmony in its stillness. Outlined by pine and birch, the stony shores plunge abruptly into the deep clear lakes. Paul and Greg keep filling us in with information about the volcanic and glacial action that pushed, pulled and scraped the earth's crust into its current cast. And even now the process of change continues; hidden forces are at work on this landscape which appears so permanent but really is quite delicate and transitory. It is around this delicate nature that a controversy sizzles, causing political war among neighbors in Northern Minnesota. The tourist and business interests fight to keep the boundary waters open to motor boats, logging and mining. The environmen- talists and others insist on full protection of this only remaining canoe wilderness in the country. In 1978 a Federal law was passed, a compromise, leaving an uneasy cease‐fire in its wake.

Greg talks of the irony of one promotor boat argument — that shutting out motors shuts out the handicapped as well. It is nonsense, he says, gesturing to our entourage as living proof.

Before we leave the campsite we exercise our “no‐impact” training. Although bottles and cans are banned from the wilderness area, there are other products from civilization we must dispose of properly or gather to take out with us. We go into teamwork now, scouring the site for our waste. ‘ Bob, who Is propped against a tree without his wheelchair, is the only one who is unable to join in.

We are learning each other's abilities and limitations quickly, but even those seem to be in constant flux. Yesterday Bonnie thought she would not be able to paddle another hour in the bow. Today, she surpassed herself by paddling three more hours. Although the monot- ony is doubtless greater for her, the hours unrelieved by new vistas, she says she enjoys the work and the chance to rest her hearing, which must be so alert in the city. At first, we tended to work around Don instead of with him, greatly underestimating his potential. Now we are finding him as indispensable as Friday was to Robin- son Crusoe. He is everywhere at once, cheerfully helping. We are repeatedly impressed with his memorization of the details of putting up tents or the intricacies of packing. I am also ex- panding my abilities daily, carrying packs I could barely drag just three days ago. There is a challenge here for each of us.

Canoeing is hard work for everyone. But able‐bodied people taking this kind of trip must be prepared for more than that. Bob and John, for instance, need help dressing and in other daily tasks, including eating and just getting around. Because of the daily change in campsites Bonnie has no chance to get used to the lay of the land and must be led everywhere. Al needs assistance in keeping his pack in order and constant reminders about where he is and what to do. We all help each other, and look for tasks for everyone, but the brunt of the work falls on those most able to handle it.

Greg and Paul have never turned away an applicant because of the degree of disability; they have taken persons almost completely paralyzed. “It's always a challenge for us that way,” says Greg. “We never know what to expect.”

They do know what to expect in the way of food, however. Each day's menu is planned before the trip begins and usually includes a breakfast of pancakes or French toast, a lighter portable lunch of crackers, cheese, dried fruit and trail mix (nuts and seeds), and a varied dinner. We hear we are to have quiche one night and a deep dish pizza another, but we find this hard to believe.

Day Four

I am carrying John's wheelchair ana the metal handlebars dig into my neck. I try unsuccessfully to readjust it on my back, since I am knee‐deep in mud, drenched with and surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes. My glasses slide down my face into the mud for the fourth time and I wonder if I can go on. The alternative is to roll into the mud like a fungus off a log and sink into the quicksand. The idea is tempting.

We are making our second portage, . and in the pit of my stomach I am sick and afraid. While the trail is only onequarter mile long, it is a 20‐minute struggle through mud and slime, and one we must make several times to get the packs, canoes, Bob, John. John! How will we ever get him through this? While Bob is small enough to be carried, the Hammer (as we tagged him) weighs over 200 pounds.

I am trembling from exhaustion and almost in tears when I come across Bob sitting captive in his beached canoe, his tiny hands like worried birds beating off the mosquitoes around his face. I spread a layer of Cutter's repellent over his neck and face and plunge on. I am angry now. The anger gives me strength.

Nearly two hours later we are gathered at the opposite end of the portage, sucking on dried apricots. We are thirsty, but shun the murky swamp water that surrounds us. Paul and Greg have taken a canoe scouting. They are as puzzled by the condition of the portage as we are. In all their travels, they have never had a portage so difficult. We wonder how we will get help to John, still stuck on a rock on the other side.

Paul is smiling when he approaches

Julianne Corty

Group leaders, Paul Schurke, with shoes unlaced, and behind him, Greg Lais, relax with campers from the canoe. “Guess what, folks? We've taken the wrong portage. This one hasn't been used for about 50 years.” Like shell‐shocked soldiers discovering we have just fought the wrong war, we paddle around the bend where we are to pick up Greg and John who have come down the “right” portage. We sit in silence and stare at the neat, clear trail that emerges from the woods and on that trail a group of 15 laughing campers, their white tennis shoes shimmering in the sun like new bars of soap.

The human spirit is either quite remarkable or quite forgetful. Only hours after this trying experience we are already laughing about it, seeing the ridiculous. Greg says that if he had not found the other path, he had considered the only possible way of getting Big John through the portage: slung into a

‘John's wheelchair digs into my neck. I am knee‐deep in mud and wonder if I can go on.’ hammock and carried like King Tut on our shoulders. We hoot at the image.

Most of all we are giddy with pride. We made it. We pulled together, Al leading Bonnie, Don leading the two of them when Al began wandering off, Bob resorting to patience that gave the rest of us courage, Julie, Becky and I hauling loads that left our legs quivering. We have all gone beyond our fixed ideas of ourselves and march on victorious.

The rest of the day is like a quick ascent into heaven. We paddle along the Knife River, our spirits rising along with the cliffs, which take on an Alpine appearance. We come to a small falls and crouch in it, letting it soothe us like a natural Jacuzzi. We lift Bob in and he kicks and yelps unabashedly. I almost expect him to leap out of the water healed.

Day Five

Waking from a nap, both Greg and I discover our lower lips have ballooned from horsefly stings. It is the only snag in an otherwise perfect day on Lake Ogishkemuncie, where we are resting. We have been diving, swimming and playing in the warm water like happy seals. We put a life jacket on John and float him around the island on a safety rope so he can join us on a beach beneath a jagged incline. We joke about our “catch” for the Smithsonian. He laughs and poses for pictures with his broad, toothy smile.

A feeling of cohesiveness, of family, is taking hold. Today a stranger approached Don on a portage and began making friendly conversation. Den looked at him then emitted one of his primal cries: “Aaagggaa!” The .stranger struggled to control his surprise and walked off hurriedly. We laughed and began making Donsounds. I realized my affections and identification were with Don; he is one of my tribe. I begin to see that group ties are not made of sameness, necessarily, but of familiarity and shared experience.

Becky, Julie and I talked last night about how our feelings about “the handicapped” are changing. We all admitted to feeling slightly apprehensive and awkward at first and communicated more from an “us” versus “them” framework. We are starting to realize that we are not necessarily “better off” if that implies “happier,” although certainly we all have our ups and downs.

Greg carries Bob to the lake and the contrast by juxtaposition is unavoidable. A strong healthy elk of a man, a wounded yearling on his back. But beyond that is the truth about Bob's life, which is that he is useful and bright and alive. Is the essence of his life much different from Greg's?

Our physical abilities are gifts, Greg comments later — gifts so fragile they cannot be expected to last forever. And they do not last. That is why the disabled chuckle when they call us “T.A.B.'s”; it means “temporarily able‐bodied.”

Day Six

Paddlers, like little kids in the back seat, have a favorite question: When will we get there? Paul likes to respond, “We are there.” After a few days you get it. Zen in the wilderness. Paddling becomes meditationa1. Dip and swing. Dip and swing. An occasional canoe glides past in the distance, but mostly it is us, the lake we drink from and move through and the silence of timelessness. Bob spells out on his board: “How could anyone want to destroy this beauty with motor boats?” We all nod. We have all become converts now; the preservation of the area is our new theology.

Things happen here. There is no struggle to find oneself, but one feels found. Don's nervous twitch disappears. Becky's depression slips away in the night. A participant on another trip went home and dismissed his attendant, feeling new confidence. A man with multiple sclerosis who had given up all hope before the trip, returned to buy a house and get married. No one will believe these things, I tell Paul. “I can't help it, it's true,” he says, shrugging.

Day Seven

The people in the Blue Water Cafe in Grand Marais stare openly at us. We are, I suppose, a motley crew. But surely the people of this gateway town to the canoe area are used to new beards and the wilderness‐dazed eyes. Oh, yes, it is the wheelchair, the cane, the talking board, the Don‐sounds. In just a week, we have absorbed these things into our camping reality along with the wet towels, the wool socks, the fishing poles and the mosquito bites. But, here, they stand out.

In a few hours, we will break apart the communal packs and go individually into the evening. The knowledge that the trip is almost over sits with us at the table like an unwelcome guest. Already a few of us are wet‐eyed when Greg names Bob the recipient of the wilderness camper award — a paddle handle with our names carved in it. Bob, who has been dragged in and out of canoes like one of the backpacks and has had his privacy demolished by our interdependent living conditions, insisted today that we were mistaken. Today is Monday, not Saturday, he said on his talking board, and the trip is just beginning. A campaign worker for former United States Representative Don Fraser who fought to protect the area, Bob has yearned for a long time to see this country that so stirred him from afar. After all the strain and discomfort of the trip, he still wants more. “I wish we could stay for a month,” he says on his board.

But it is Saturday, according to the calendar on the wall here in civilization. Looking around the table at these faces I have come to know so intimately, I realize that we have been voyageurs not only through the boundary waters, but through the hearts of ourselves and of each other. It has been a voyage that has opened many new routes, and left others for future exploration. It has been a voyage that will continue long after the paddles are put away and the lingering silence of the wilderness is filled again with the noises of our lives.