Erika Rivers and Laura Oftedahl met just once by phone before traveling 8,000 miles and exploring New Zealand together. Their first conversation ranged from food preferences, to favorite hikes, to Laura’s time in the Paralympics. Little did they know the impact that this trip would have on both of them.
Erika Rivers is the Executive Director of Wilderness Inquiry, an outdoor nonprofit based in St. Paul, Minnesota, offering inclusive trips from the Boundary Waters to Yellowstone to Chile. The organization was founded 45 years ago on the fundamental belief that everyone belongs in the outdoors. Over the years, people of all ages, abilities, identities and backgrounds have connected with each other on Wilderness Inquiry adventures as they explored the beauty of nature together.
Erika played the role of trip assistant in New Zealand. Trip assistants help participants experience the activities and community life that come with Wilderness Inquiry adventures. Laura had been on two trips with Wilderness Inquiry – to the Apostle Islands and Florida Everglades – before going to New Zealand with Erika. Since Laura lives with limited vision, Erika assisted by orienting her to her surroundings, navigating the terrain and narrating the scenery.
The group of nine travelers spent 10 days touring the south island of New Zealand with local tour guides. Over the course of their trip, they formed a sense of community with one another. Laura said, “This is my third trip with Wilderness Inquiry, and it always amazes me how compatible the group of people ends up being. Every trip that I’ve been on, I remember the people were cool, and that made the trip even better.”
Erika and Laura figured out the best way to navigate the New Zealand terrain together. Laura used walking sticks to help feel the ground in front of her, and Erika often hiked just in front of Laura to help describe the upcoming ground. What surprised Erika was how much this communication and detailed narration enhanced her own experience. Erika said, “Being her trip assistant made New Zealand all the more meaningful for me, and it was largely because I was her eyes. I found myself really looking at things and experiencing the natural world in a new way so I could describe it to Laura.” Erika added, “New Zealand is like eye candy everywhere you look, and trying to convey that to somebody who can’t see what you’re seeing really challenges you to take it all in at a whole different level.”
Through this experience, they became good friends. “Having Erika, I really don’t feel like I missed anything. And if I were to go on just a regular kind of trip with an organization that doesn’t know much about disabilities, I would probably feel like I’m sitting on the sidelines sometimes,” Laura said.
Wilderness Inquiry’s trips stand out from others because of their focus on community-building and inclusion. Looking for your next adventure? Wilderness Inquiry can help you travel with a purpose. Explore more at www.wildernessinquiry.org/tripfinder.