By Kara Aiello

I love to travel, I always have. Through travel I learn about new cultures and people, challenge fears and prejudices and I do so from the endurance and strength of my wheelchair. Although I have taken many trips that have excited me beyond the text of a book, there is one trip that I want to share that has been a dream of mine since my relatives in Minnesota took this trip back in the early part of the decade. In 2011, with the support of Wilderness Inquiry, an organization that specializes in trips across the globe and makes it possible for all people to travel, including those with disabilities, I flew out to Minneapolis, MN to visit my family and embark on a dog sled trip up north near the Canadian border.

The dog sled trip was to be a four-day trip with two days of travel through quaint towns and open Minnesota landscapes. The two days in-between would include dog sledding, hiking and challenging our grit and limbs to the Midwest cold, by sleeping outside in 10 degree weather and jumping into a frozen pond before running to the safety of a warm sauna.

I flew out to Minneapolis on a Wednesday afternoon and met my cousin, at the airport, who then took me to her home to prepare for the trip. I love staying with these guys as it makes travel all the easier. I don’t have to worry about dragging gear across country for I get everything I need from them. Their middle name after all is Òoutdoors.Ó I find that when I stay with them to prepare for a trip, it becomes a night of entertainment with a comic twist that the camera would end up documenting. One picture taken as we prepared to pack was me wearing an oversized beaver hat and gloves to match. There was no way I was going to wear this on the trip, but the picture is forever on Facebook for a good laugh.

On the day of the trip, my cousin dropped me off at the Wilderness inquiry headquarters where I met fellow participants and crew who would be our guides on this trip. There were families and singles and people with and without disabilities. Some of the disabilities were visible to the eye and some were not. Their experiences were developmental or mental health and taking this trip allowed them a place to challenge themselves in a way that other life experiences may not have offered them. So we took off on our seven hour trip that allowed us the time to get to know one another and take in the colors and quiet living of the Minnesota landscape. Once we arrived, we unpacked our gear and headed to our home where we would live for the next four days.

This trip to our new home was an adventure in itself. Those of us who used wheelchairs were assisted into a one man sled that was sturdy and comfortable. Our gear was placed in these sleds for transport as well. Our guides, who would become close friends, tied themselves to the sled and would become our human sled drivers and take us to home base. As we traveled, I felt a sense of excitement and awe at being able to do this. I love feeling the cold wind lap across my face and the smoothness of the ice and snow under the sled. We traveled across frozen lakes and when we came to a steep hill going upward, yes upward our human guides ran with all of their might and power up the hill, and man did we fly. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time. Once we got to the top, I could only imagine how fast they would take us going back down the hill. After all, this was a rush for them as well as for us.

Once inside, we were introduced to more staff, who would prepare our meals, and we were shown where we would sleep the next few days. It was a large cabin-like structure with a ballroom size mess hall, with army-style tables and a small fireplace with couches and chairs that made for a cozy evening after being out in the cold. We unpacked our gear, had dinner and then met with the team and two of the dogs who would be taking us on our adventure over the next few days. One of the dogs that came in was so friendly and sociable, she had to make sure she greeted each and every person that was in the room about four or five times. The other dog that came in was very shy and kept to herself. But I was excited to have my picture taken with her even if it was more stressful for her than for me.

Friday began the day of dog sledding and hiking. Although many opted for the hike, I was one of the few who begged to stay back so I could prepare for the dog sledding. One group went in the AM and I went in the PM with another group. It was both exciting and nerve wracking to hear about the AM group’s trip with the dogs. The hills were steep some said and there were nooks and crannies that could cause the sled to tip over especially if the dogs slowed down. Now just to give an image, I live with brittle bones from birth and here I was, ready to embark on this tripÉam I crazy? Yes, I am, but I was up for it.

When it was my turn to go, I was escorted outside and helped into my travel sled to escort me to where the dogs are. Once in the sled, my guide would take me down snowy steps with the help of others and I found this to be rather smooth, not rough at all. Then we embarked up steep, snowy, white hills that glimmered when the sun hit them just right and helped us to see for miles around. We got to where the dogs were and I transferred into my dog sled and was warmed with blankets and pillows to cushion any hard blows below the sled. One by one, each dog was attached to the sled, and once attached, the dogs came to life with excited howls and barking, and if not kept under control would have taken off without the rest of the dogs or the guides ready to lead. Once all were attached we were ready to embark on our 2 _ hour journey through the wilderness.

My sled started slowly as we began traveling through the woods with the pathway very narrow and steep. The dogs knew what to do and where to go as my guide directed the speed of our movement which was about 7 or 8 miles an hour. At times our travels were on flat snowy runways and across large snow covered lakes. At other times we would travel up and down mountainous inclines that felt more like a roller coaster ride. Nature was everywhere with birds chirping and the sun peering through the trees as we traveled. On one adventurous move, we had to literally jump over a snowy groove in order to get the sled over a mound of snow. I was amazed at how cushioned the jump was and once down we were on our way again. The trip included moments of comedy, too, as the dogs would tend to get over excited and get their ropes twisted around one another. When that happened, we would need to take a five minute break and get the dogs untangled. To end the adventure, we had to tackle a death defying hill that came up just past the cabin and would bring us back to home base. The hill was so steep that I felt I was looking down at a ski slope as we began to head down the hill. The guides had to hold on to the dogs hard as we headed down the hill full force. Let’s just say it was a terrifying rush and I’m glad we made it out alive.

In the evening, we settled in for dinner and recounted the day’s travels. We also prepared to embark on our next adventure which took us out into the elements to sleep overnight in 10 degree temperatures. In order to survive the night, we wore layers of clothing and had special mats and sleeping bags that kept the heat encased within our own sleeping bags that we took with us. We also were given candy bars to eat in the night should we become hungry. I never knew that we burned calories when our bodies were cold. We slept on an open frozen lake near the cabin and our eyes were treated to millions of stars in the night sky. I slept OK for my first adventure but not like I was used to, and I did not eat like I should have. The next morning I was starving and also came to see that some of our group became so cold they had to go back inside and sleep in the warmth of the cabin. I went back inside and devoured a full breakfast of eggs, bacon and anything else I could get my hands on. Yum.

Later that day, I was treated to a hike in the afternoon that was a surprise highlight of my trip. Although I am very independent when back home in my everyday world of accessibility, I had to allow myself to be OK with depending on others to assist me while traveling through the deep snow. However, in allowing myself to do this, I also opened myself up to a world that I would never be able to get to with my wheelchair unless I put skis on my wheels. I was escorted in my sled through open frozen lakes and snowy woods and taken to a part of the woods that felt like a winter wonderland. We entered a woodsy door that took us into nature at its most raw and beautiful. There was snow everywhere: on trees, logs and the ground. We did not know where the ground started and our skis ended. We came across a frozen waterfall and river that was partially flowing, and completely breathtaking. I felt exhilarated and free as we embraced the nature around us. It is a memory I will never forget.

Our next adventure was one I only somewhat participated in. A group of us went out to where a frozen pond was poking out through the ground and people took turns jumping into the eye opening, jaw dropping, icy cold water. Once out, people would warm up in a lukewarm sauna that was right next door to the pond. Although I did not dive in with everyone else, I relaxed in the sauna and tried to get warm when the door would open up to the outside and people would come in and spray me with the icy cold water.

On the last day of the trip, people participated in a last day hiking and then we packed our gear and said goodbye to our hosts at the cabin. Once outside we embarked down a steep snowy hill with a speed that felt like 90 miles an hour. We then crossed frozen lakes again which took us back to our cars. We drove home for seven hours and reminisced about our adventures, and once back to home base, said our goodbyes and promised we would meet once again for another Wilderness Inquiry trip in the future.