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Bill's Gift

A few weeks ago The Marine on St. Croix Gazette published a story about Bill Simpson titled “local man’s life work sharing wilderness.”

Bill Simpson has changed the lives of thousands of people, teaching them that they could do things they thought they couldn’t, and helping them see beyond their own self-imposed limitations. He has done this as an award winning cross-country ski coach, as a special education teacher, and as a wilderness guide and enthusiast.

Of all the people whose lives Bill helped to shape, I have to think he changed mine the most. Without Bill, there would be no Wilderness Inquiry. As I think about it, he laid the foundation to our approach for inclusion. It’s a story worth telling.

When I was 16, I was turned down for a job as a counselor at a camp I had attended. I was devastated, and believed my dream of a career in the outdoors was over. A week or two later, Mike Lynch, one of my high school friends, asked if I wanted to join a property cooperative up on Farm Lake east of Ely, MN. I became a part of what was known as the “Farm Lake Tipi.”

A 28-year-old teacher named Bill Simpson joined the “cooperative” shortly after I did. Bill planned to use the Farm Lake property as a base for trips he wanted to conduct with students. Bill and fellow teacher Tom Rasmussen had recently completed a National Outdoor Leadership course with Paul Petzoldt, and had come back to Minnesota with Petzoldt sleeping bags and gear.

Bill needed help to do this fledgling wilderness program, and I was fortunate enough to have simply been there and been available. So, at age 17, I began assisting Bill, Tom and others on trips to the Boundary Waters. These trips were tremendous growth experiences for me. Bill taught me the ways of the Wilderness, but more importantly he taught me how just about anyone could participate, and I mean really participate.

These lessons, I now realize, became the foundation of how to be inclusive with everyone. One trip in particular stands out—a winter camping trip to the BWCA with 13-14 year old girls. It was bitter cold—40 below zero, and most people thought it would be dangerous or impossible to do the trip. Bill had us wear army surplus “bunny boots” made out of felt, and we dug and made our own snow shelters, called “Quinzees.” He had us dress in layers, and wear wool and down (no fleece back then). Amazingly, it all worked. Everyone had a great time, no one was ever really cold, and no one even had a hint of frost bite or frost nip.

I remember thinking that if we could do that in the winter with 14 year old girls with no experience, what could other people do in the wilderness? Maybe the notion that you had to be super fit, half-crazy, and outfitted with high tech gear to enjoy the wilderness was a myth. Maybe we just needed to think about it a little differently.

About this time the controversy over motorized use in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) erupted, and people started saying that without motors, the “handicapped, elderly and women” could never enjoy the Wilderness. I was a junior at St. John’s University and wanted to help out, as my earlier experiences with Bill had convinced me that anyone could enjoy the Wilderness.

My sister, Mary, was involved in the early days of the disability rights movement. She knew of my earlier trips with Bill, and she suggested we do a trip to the BWCA involving people with disabilities. That’s when I asked college pal Paul Schurke to help me do a trip to the BWCA that included people with disabilities. Paul was a budding journalist involved with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) at the time. We did a trip that changed both of our lives in August, 1977, and Paul wrote about it in the MPIRG Gazette, our first press.

It was after that experience that we incorporated and formed the non-profit organization that is Wilderness Inquiry today. But, the notion that anyone could enjoy the wilderness started with Bill Simpson. His passion for “Sharing the Adventure” with people from all walks of life change me as a teenager, and it has continued in both of us--and thousands of others—to this day.

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