Inclusion can be both good and necessary. But sometimes people like to spend time with people like them.
This is the reason for the growing effort of Twin Cities Group Wilderness Inquiry (WI) to sponsor what it calls outdoor convergence trips — meaning, in today’s example, a final trip to border waters by a group of either deaf members. or impaired hearing.
While venturing on a lake off the Gunflint Trail, none of the five rowers, aged 21 to 64, heard a single wobble or slap of a beaver’s tail against the mirror-like surface of a pure lake.
But they both returned home, eager to take a second water excursion next year.
“We definitely want to do more deaf and hard of hearing trips. We feel this is just the beginning. We have a huge opportunity and we want to take advantage of it,” said Ryan Stombo, 21, a hearing-impaired WI trip leader.
Founded in the Twin Cities 44 years ago, today it has 22 full-time employees and 40 to 70 part-time tour leaders. The group sponsors overseas trips of varying lengths to destinations in Minnesota and beyond, including to foreign countries.
Its goal has always been to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, regardless of personal circumstances.
“Our goal is to break down the barriers, whether physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, financial, or anything else, that prevent people from accessing and enjoying the outdoors,” said Erica Rivers, CEO of WI.
Rivers joined WI last November after holding various leadership positions in the Department of Natural Resources, most recently as Director of the Parks and Trails Division.
WI also makes trips for families, groups, and individuals who simply want to get away and enjoy an outdoor adventure. However, these are not tasks where group leaders cook, set up tents, chop wood, and light campfires – while the paying guests sit and watch.
Instead, everyone is expected to participate, an arrangement that keeps costs low and, most importantly, encourages people to learn by doing.
“When you travel with WI, you ‘lean’ the journey,” Rivers said. “We’re all inclusive this way and all the others.”
Stumbo said it was liberating to share the BWCA adventure exclusively with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“For many who are deaf, it is easy to feel left out in a group where most people can hear,” said Stampo. “With hearing aids, I can hear somewhat. But on this journey, knowing that none of us hear, was like a breath of fresh air. Fresh air for me. I took out my hearing aids and never used them.”
Stumbo grew up in Iowa, but moved to Faribault, Minnesota, when he was 15 to attend the Minnesota State Academy of the Deaf (MSAD). He often speaks in American Sign Language, or ASL.
Stumbo and another WI employee, Riss Leitzke, who is deafblind, spoke to me via an interpreter who could hear my questions and pass them on to Stumbo and Leitzke using ASL.
The five kayakers entered Seagull Lake off Gunflint, set up camp there and took day trips to various destinations. Two campers were in one canoe and three in another canoe.
To help communicate while on the water, the group signaled to each other by slapping the sides of the canoes. Similar accommodations are being made all the time among deaf people, Litzky said.
“Body language is important, too,” Letsky said. “On the canoe trip, there were a lot of facial expressions that indicated excitement and enthusiasm.”
Some of the expressions were directed at mosquitoes, which was horrific – as several BWCA aficionados reported this summer.
However, the camaraderie or “similarity” of the group helped smooth out the pitfalls of the journey.
“We had two people who hadn’t been in a boat for 15 years,” Stombo said. “It all gets better with each day. Being able to see people grow through the journey, as they learn their abilities, is rewarding. It can have a huge impact on their confidence and self-esteem in other parts of their lives.”
“The first day of the trip was a little awkward, but in the end, everyone was very comfortable,” added Litzky.
The flight confirmed the existence of a market for WI’s convergence flights, Stampo said.
“Later this summer, we will also offer trips for people of color and also for LGBTQ-plus communities,” said Rivers, executive director of WI. “However, we don’t see these adventures of convergence as endings in themselves. Instead, they are a step toward integrating all people into the outdoors.”
The big picture, Rivers said, is that only a small portion of people with disabilities, minorities, 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 the combination of people facing barriers in the outdoors,” she said.