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Wheels Down in the Wilderness

Four disabled children experience Idaho's backcountry for the first time


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Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip, but it usually fills up fast. - SONYA BUCHHOLZ
  • Sonya Buchholz
  • Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip, but it usually fills up fast.

Joan is patient but firm with Emily. When Emily starts talking too quickly and becomes impossible to understand, Joan says, "Slow down," and Emily does. Joan talks to Emily the way she'd talk to anyone else and even makes jokes about Emily dating a pilot someday for the perks.

Joan said she hasn't always been so patient.

"I come from an upbringing of very well-educated, driven people where it's all about academics," Joan said. "There's a lot of value in that, but Emily has taught me so much about what life is really all about. It's about living each moment, loving where you're at. Celebrating what you can do. She's really taught me how to enjoy myself in a way I probably didn't know how to do 20 years ago.

"At first, you think they're going to be an anchor," she continued. "Then you find out that they're not."

"Growing up with Emily, she's brought more back to me than I've given to her." –Joan Rigg

This trip is especially important for Emily because at home, Joan said, she's hooked on electronics.

"It's kind of like her friend. She can't surf YouTube enough, or watch enough movies. That's just what she does," Joan said. "So to see her out here, experiencing a really good time and interacting with people without electronics, that's a neat thing to see."

She took a picture of Emily playing cards with some of the other kids, because it was a big deal.

"Even to sit and watch her play Uno—that's just wonderful, that she can just sit around and interact," Joan said. "That's incredible."

Therapeutic on Its Own

The Wilderness Within Reach program has gone through several reinventions. When Boise pilot and appraiser Joe Corlett started the program 27 years ago, it was as a day trip. He would fly 20 people with physical and intellectual disabilities into a backcountry airstrip, where they would all have lunch.

The trouble was that they'd all do fine on the smooth morning flight when the air was cold, but after lunch when they flew out—and the air was warmer—the ride became a lot bumpier. The results were unpleasant, to say the least.

Joe Corlett started flying people with disabilities into Idaho's backcountry almost 30 years ago. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Joe Corlett started flying people with disabilities into Idaho's backcountry almost 30 years ago.

Then he decided to fly the group into the Johnson Creek airstrip, where they could camp overnight, but packing all the tents, camping gear, food and wheelchairs became a tremendous amount of work.

"Back in the early days, in my naivete, I was trying to get people to Chamberlain Basin as quickly as possible" Corlett said. "We had a whole gob of wheelchairs, so I put them in the private aircrafts and the people in the charter planes. The charter planes were going 170 miles per hour, and the Cessnas, they only went 100 miles per hour. So I got there and here are all my guests and they're all propped up against pine trees, scattered around the campsite waiting for their chairs."

Six or seven years ago, he contacted Sulphur Creek Ranch and asked if the owners would be willing to host the program. The participant list was whittled down to a more manageable five guests plus family members, and they could come to a place with delicious food, cabins, showers and electric blankets on every bed.

"All they need to bring is a toothbrush," Corlett said.

The three-day trip is far from structured recreational therapy. The families simply get to relax. They have a pond to swim and fish in, a hammock, card games, campfires and, of course, the horses.

Sonya Buchholz, the adaptive recreation specialist for Parks and Recreation, said this isn't the time for therapy.

"The nature of recreation in itself is therapeutic," she said on the last evening, looking into the coals of the campfire. "There's some programs where it really is focusing on discussing our feelings, analyzing them. I think there's a ton of value in that, but I also think there's value in just enjoying these experiences, not having to break it down. It's therapeutic on its own."

For Joe Salinas and his longtime girlfriend, Leslee Martinez, this is the only vacation they'll take this summer. Joe and Leslee have six kids. Two of them—Alex and Ehnayah, both 9 years old—have disabilities.

Ehnayah has spina bifida, which affects her bladder and bowels. Alex is in a wheelchair and has periventricular leukomalacia, meaning he has cysts on either side of his brain. The part of his brain that controls muscles is pretty much non-functional.

"It's challenging because we have two disabled kids in the home and they both have different needs," Joe said. "Ehnayah needs a catheter four times a day, and Alex, he just needs help with everything."

Leslee homeschools Alex and runs an in-home daycare, and Joe fights wildfires in the summer. They get by, but it's not easy. Without a scholarship, the family couldn't have afforded the trip at all.

"When I was a kid, we used to go to our cabin all summer long," Leslee said. "But I can't just throw the kids in the car and go to the cabin. I'm just so glad that Alex and Ehnayah got chosen to do this."

The first time Alex told his mom he wished he could run with the other kids, she didn't know what to say.