Accessible Out-tripping?

Three years ago I went on a four-day canoe trip with my husband Trevor into the Algonquin back country. We did a loop that finished with Burnt Island Lake, Baby Joe Lake, Little Joe Lake, Joe Lake and Canoe Lake. It was a slice of heaven that involved seeing a double rainbow after sunset, doing yoga on beautiful rocks overlooking the water and watching the stars come out.

I’ve always loved being out in nature in the summer, and for a long time canoeing was one of the best (least energetic/leg-dependent) ways for me to be able to make that adventurous spirit happy.

With the advent of a wheelchair as my primary mode of movement, I wondered whether I would ever get back into the wilderness again.

I’m nothing if not stubborn, so when Trevor’s brother Edward told us he was planning on coming to Canada for a visit the first week of September, we decided to see what whether there was a way to do accessible out-tripping.

Edward and Trevor beside the canoe at the top of Canoe Lake.

We planned a simplified trip. Just two days, from Canoe Lake out to Burnt Island and back.

Heather in her wheelchair by the docks at Canoe Lake.

We took a 17′ kevlar canoe to maximize lightness to size, and loaded three packs and myself into the middle of the boat, leaving Edward in the bow and Trevor in the stern to paddle.

Heather and Trevor in the canoe, showing the configuration of our three packs.

Although there are technically four portages along this route, we knew the route well enough to know that with our higher water levels we would likely be able to run two of the four with me in the canoe, leaving just two portages – a 290m and a 190m to handle.

Trevor guiding the canoe – with Heather and packs inside – up a small waterfall.

Lots of things went well on this trip: the weather was brilliant on the first day – cool but sunny; the high water levels held and allowed us to run the rapids with me in the canoe and Trevor wading along beside; and the winds were low the entire trip, making for a wonderfully smooth paddling experience.

Trevor hauling the canoe – with Heather and packs inside – up a beaver dam he has just partially dismantled with his bare hands.

But there were a few things we are going to have to tweak if we want to make it a more regular occurrence:

1. We need a bigger support team. While a two:one ratio is essential, a larger team would help to spread the load. It was difficult in-camp to make sure that I had all of the support that I needed, and the portages we did required double trips for both Trevor and Edward, which was fine for a short portage, but not so great if we want to scale up our distances.

Heather eating lunch with the second load of gear while Trevor and Edward take the first load across the portage.

2. We need a better backpacking system. We had looked for an existing off-the-rack system for carrying me on Trevor’s back. We wanted something that would allow me to use the minimum amount of energy, for him to have his hands free, and for my weight to be as well-distributed as possible for him. While there are a few off-the-rack systems for a supported piggyback, they are designed for children up to 80 lbs in size, and sadly I am not that small (and would worry my doctor’s greatly if I tried to get my weight down to that line!) We settled this time on a rebozo – a long strip of cloth used by women in various parts of South America and Mexico to carry all sorts of things, including firewood and babies! Although it was strong enough to carry my weight, unfortunately we found that the cloth was too short, so we struggled to get a good connection between Trevor and I. We also found that because you simply tie it together, it lacked the versatility of being able to adjust it once I was up and on his back. Anybody have any great ideas???

Trevor and Heather trying out the rebozo carrying system for the first time. In this iteration it took about 30 seconds for Heather to lose complete sensation in both legs.

3. I need some tweaks to my trail diet. I know this isn’t the sort of topic we mostly talk about, but digestive issues are actually super common for people across the disabilities spectrum, so I’m going to ‘go there’. For me, since the issues I have with muscles extend to my GI track, keeping things working right can be tricky. And with as many food sensitivities as I’ve developed in the past three years, it was difficult to get the right mix of calories and types of foods to keep things working well. When the toilet options are a rock by the side of the trail or a vault toilet 50m away from the campsite and you need someone to help you get there and back, it would help if things worked in a timely and predictable fashion!

The view from our campsite of rocks, trees, lake and carefully overturned canoe.


4. I need a camp chair. Preferably one that doubles as a canoe seat and has full upper torso and neck support. Trying to rest against logs, rocks and packs only got me so far, and I ended up with an awful lot of kinks in my neck, back and shoulders. The $254 price tag on the Helinox Playa seemed like a lot of money when we looked at it before the trip, but it now seems like a pretty essential piece of kit!

Heather attempting to prop herself up in our makeshift camp kitchen while watching the pot boil. This setup definitely requires too much energy to allow for a longer trip.

So all in all we have some definite tweaks we will need to make between now and our next excursion. We both came home utterly exhausted, and it took a few days to properly recover. That being said, the opportunity to be back in the (semi-)wilderness was so incredible that this is work I will happily do over the winter. I’m already dreaming up ways to get back.

Our cozy ‘home away from home’. This Marmot tent sleeps four comfortably, and has been an incredibly reliable piece of gear over the years.

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