On Saturday, about 270 people from business, some school kids and politicians paddled 10 huge canoes on the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to St. Paul. They raised about $75,000 for an “urban wilderness” program that last year introduced several thousand low-income city kids and their families to waterways and environmental education from the Mississippi to New York’s Harlem River.
It’s just one of the programs run by a nonprofit business called Wilderness Inquiry.
It was founded 35 years ago by a few folks to prove that Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area could be navigated by all, including people with physical disabilities. Back in 1976-77, some politicians, sportsmen and others were fighting efforts to close the BWCA to motorized boats. The reasoning, in part, was that without motors, women, disabled people and the elderly couldn’t enjoy time on Minnesota-Canadian border waters.
Greg Lais, a college kid from St. Paul who’d spent time on northern Minnesota waters, and others decided they could prove the critics wrong.“We put together a 22-portage, 100-mile trip in the BWCA in August 1977,” Lais said. “We showed it could be done.”
The crew included two people in wheelchairs, two deaf people and several experienced male and female canoeists.
The landmark federal BWCA law passed in 1978 after years of debate. And the trip also was the career “aha” moment for Lais, who launched Wilderness Inquiry that year.
It now oversees hundreds of trips annually, from one-day excursions on local lakes to sojourns to Africa and Costa Rica. About half of last year’s $2.5 million in revenue was contributed by individuals, companies and contracting school districts and agencies to cover at least some of the cost for those who otherwise could not afford to participate.
Wilderness Inquiry has validated the model that a challenging, positive outdoor experience among diverse people increases understanding and transforms some lives.“We all want to be more independent,” said Lais, 57. “It is the interdependence that makes us more powerful.” For example:
• Kyle Rucker was a homeless St. Paul teenager, taking care of a little sister after they fled a family shredded by crack cocaine, when a high-school counselor referred him and about a dozen other disadvantaged students from St. Paul Arlington High School to Wilderness Inquiry.
“I was not into the outdoors,” said Rucker, a University of Minnesota graduate who eventually led trips during college summers. “It was something for us from Arlington to get out of the city and connect with each other out in the wilderness. I didn’t realize Greg was in charge at first. He was another guy in sandals and shorts. But Greg and others at Wilderness Inquiry spent a lot of time talking to me.
“Wilderness gave me momentum. A lot of my work ethic came from there. It’s not a punch-in, punch-out job. You lead trips, you ‘van’ with all these different participants. Greg had a résumé of success and mistakes. He helped me learn from that. He helped me start my own nonprofit business, Project Footsteps.”
• Jim Frey, injured in a car accident as a teenager 40 years ago, was a wheelchair-bound Honeywell businessman in 1982 when he heard Lais pitch a Boundary Waters trip.
“I was a Boy Scout and loved the woods, but I had a spinal-cord injury when I was 17 in a car accident and I thought my camping days were over,” Frey recalled. “Greg came to Honeywell to pitch the program. I had a lot of trepidation. ‘How can I portage?’ It seemed daunting.
“I had to accept help,” Frey said. “I’ve portaged on Greg’s and other backs. Even though I couldn’t get over the trail on my own … at the end of the day I would help with dinner or the tents while others rested. I got through some of my barriers. That was life-changing … I stepped outside my comfort zone and changed my ‘lens’ … so that I had a different way of seeing myself.”
• Hunt Greene is an outdoor enthusiast and a founder of investment bank Greene Holcomb Fisher. He’s taken WI trips for 25-plus years and is a longtime board member.
“This is a grass-roots organization in which the median donation from hundreds of contributors is about $100, not thousands of dollars,” Greene said. “And it’s anything but a ceremonial board. We have people who write checks and go on trips. We have donors and various programs that benefit all kinds of people. I really enjoy working for a nonprofit that has this kind of mission.”
Lais is a casual but mission-driven leader who laughs at his foibles. He has learned to diversify his revenue sources, including trips to warmer climates in the winter to smooth out revenue and mitigate the need to pare offseason staff. He solicits other nonprofits for trip candidates. He listens to his board and advisers. His business acumen has improved over the years. “Greg combines a good numbers approach with good people skills,” Greene said. “He is a major model in the nonprofit world.”
Lais was paid $128,388 for working 65-hour weeks, according to WI’s most recent tax return. He overseas a $2.5 million-revenue outfit that employs about 80 full-and-part-time employees. Its renovated warehouse is jammed with canoes, hiking and camping equipment, but WI also is a sophisticated, computer-mapped logistics operation that ensures the right vans, customers and equipment arrive at the right locations, whether an hour or 20 hours away.
“We talk about volume and margins … just like any business,” Lais said. “But we are mission-driven. We focus on people who have physical barriers or little access, financially or otherwise.”